Notes From the Margins…

Timothy Garton Ash’s Awfully Big War

  • February 02, 2015
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There are some liberals who give liberalism a bad name and Timothy Garton Ash is one of them.

They build up their careers as thoughtful and nuanced independent commentators, arguing that ‘facts are subversive’, yet when it comes to war and the use of military power they know what side they’re on, and they know that they need the US to  ‘reshape the world.’

Last October Garton Ash was criticizing Obama’s foreign policy for being too weak, and pondering whether Hilary Clinton would have been a better choice for president, because she wouldn’t have presented Assad with a ‘red line’ and then not bombed him when he supposedly crossed it.

Garton Ash blamed Obama for not supporting ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria, and therefore causing the rise of ISIS, even though many of these ‘moderates’ had already gone over to ISIS regardless of what Obama did or didn’t do.

So at that point Garton Ash was a Clintonite interventionist, even though he thought that Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ was a good idea.     Why is it a good idea for the US to start pouring ships and soldiers into the Pacific?   Would it also be a ‘good idea’ for China or Russia to do the same thing and ‘pivot’ toward the Black Sea, Africa or the Pacific?

Garton Ash doesn’t ask these kinds of questions.   He knows manifest destiny when he sees it, and he knows who to call when you want your interventionism done.

Yesterday he demonstrated these gifts with a truly fanatical piece in which he compared Putin to Slobodan Milosovic, claiming that the former was ‘as bad, but bigger’ in his attempt to ‘carve out a puppet para-state’ in eastern Ukraine.

Rousing himself to a pitch of humanitarian anguish Garton Ash warned that Europe was ‘letting another Bosnia happen in its own front yard’ and should do something about it.

What should it do?   Ratchet up sanctions against Russia, get the BBC to counter ‘Russian propaganda’ and above all arm Ukraine, because tough guy Ash knows that there are times in history when ‘ sometimes it takes guns to stop the guns.’

Fortunately for him, cometh the hour, cometh the man, in the shape of John McCain, a man who has never seen a US rival that he didn’t want to bomb.

But never mind that,   because in Garton Ash-land everything that has happened in east Ukraine is entirely the result of a Russian power grab, nothing to do actions taken by NATO, Europe, the Ukraine government, or the rebels themselves, whose relationship with Russia is not nearly the seamless master/servant puppet relationship that he and his fellow interventionists make it out to be.

As always,   Garton Ash is only advocating this course of action because he really, really wants to stop innocent civilians being killed, and he takes it for granted that all of them are being killed by Russia.     Of course he wants a diplomatic solution, but hard-headed realist that he is, he recognizes that first we need to fight to the last Ukrainian in order to ‘stop the mayhem’ and bring that solution closer, because:

To do this Ukraine needs modern defensive weapons to counter Russia”s modern offensive ones. Spurred on by John McCain, the US Congress has passed a Ukraine Freedom Support Act which allocates funds for the supply of military equipment to Ukraine. It is now up to President Obama to determine the timing and composition of those supplies.

Like so many liberals who have walked this path before him, Ash expects the US to do the job, because ‘ The US has the best kit, it is probably in the best position to control its use, and is less vulnerable to bilateral economic or energy-supply pressures.’

Garton Ash’s recommendations have coincided nicely with the revelation that the US is in fact ‘mulling’ over whether to send ‘defensive’ weapons to Ukraine, and a report by senior Pentagon officials has said that such assistance may be necessary ‘to bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive.’

This is the company that the great humanitarian is keeping.

If Ash seriously believes that pouring more weapons into Ukraine will help the Ukrainians achieve strategic parity, let alone ‘stop the mayhem’,  he is definitely living on another planet.

Let’s consider a few reasons why his proposals are a bad idea:

  • The Ukraine war has no military solution.   Russia knows that, which is one reason why it hasn’t swatted away the Ukrainian armed forces already.   It it did that, it would become an occupying power and would be bled white.     Nor is it even clear that Putin wants to annex eastern Ukraine, despite all the Sudetenland comparisons that have been flying around.    It is not even clear whether the Russian-speaking population is universally in favour of union with Russia, even though they might be if the war goes on and the Nazis of the Azov Battalion continue to run amok.
  • This is a conflict that requires conflict resolution, cooperation and compromises.     It must be resolved politically and that demands action by ALL the protagonists; Russia, the separatists, the Ukraine government, the EU, the US, NATO and the separatists, because all of them in different ways are responsible for the unfolding disaster.
  • That solution may involve separation, unless the Ukraine government can give the Russian-speaking inhabitants of east Ukraine a very good reason to remain part of their country – which doesn’t mean force.   If that happens then the ‘international community’ will have to accept it, just as they accepted the secession of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and ultimately Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia – or is secession only to be supported when it’s politically convenient?
  • No Russian leader will accept another NATO-dominated state on its borders.   It doesn’t matter whether they are Putin or somebody else.     A country that has been as mauled as Russia has been in two world wars is not going to allow this to happen without doing everything it can to stop it.
  •  It’s no good NATO simply insisting, as its Deputy General Secretary Alexander Vershbow did once again in Oslo today, that it doesn’t represent a security threat to Russia.   When the US allows Russia to carry out military maneuvers in Canada and perhaps install nuclear weapons there, then maybe those reassurances might have some credibility.     Until then, not.   And as for Vershbow’s accusation that Russia has ‘torn up the international rule book’, well NATO simply has no platform to deliver homilies on that score.
  •  Garton Ash’s proposals will not reduce the bloodshed – they will intensify and increase it, and that means increasing the suffering of the civilian population of east Ukraine and probably further afield as well.
  • Escalation is likely to induce Putin to raise the stakes too.     It is likely to build up a really dangerous and uncontrollable dynamic that may well lead not just to a new Cold War, but a hot one.

That would be total madness, but it’s the game that Garton Ash, McCain & co want the world to play, and we need to ignore their nonsense about  appeasement and say very loudly to our government that we won’t play it.



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  1. Richard Carter

    2nd Feb 2015 - 7:38 pm

    Good piece: I’m sick of reading this excitable New Cold War crap from the likes of Garton Ash. I suppose that they’re disappointed that Parliament drew back from bombing Syria and have gleefully seized on the Russian Bear to have a go at. Putin is certainly a nasty, corrupt little man with a very small penis that he over-compensates for, but people like G A seem completely unable to recognise the pure defensiveness of the Russian position or the recklessly foolish adventurism of NATO, always on the lookout for someone to attack.

  2. B. Wright

    2nd Feb 2015 - 9:24 pm

    Personally, I can’t read The Guardian any more, after all its lies about Fukushima and George Monbiot telling us how wonderful nuclear power is. Let alone the apologists for war such as Garton Ash. Surely no one is going to support the idea of yet more war, well, no one in Britain, anyway? Haven’t people had enough of it all? Lies, lies and more lies about Ukraine – you are absolutely right. We should not be supporting a CIA-backed coup that put neo-Nazis in power in Kiev, who use the same kind of terminology of extermination of inferior races that their ideological predecessors did. Here is a video that perfectly describes the insanity of war: Paradise Stolen: Don’t Show Your Children
    ( Very soon, all this insanity is going to be swept away forever. That day is almost upon us. Thank God. Let’s turn our energies to praying for it to come soon.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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