History isn’t just made by impersonal forces and “great men” or “great women.” Sometimes relatively obscure men and women acting in key bureaucratic posts make a real difference.
Thus, the international crisis in Syria traces back in part to the decision of President Barack Obama’s first ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, to reject peaceful rapprochement with the Damascus regime in favor of “radically redesign[ing] his mission” to promote anti-government protests that triggered the civil war in 2011.
In much the same way, Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland did her best to foment the Feb. 22, 2014 putsch against the democratically elected Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych, “while convincing the ever-gullible U.S. mainstream media that the coup wasn’t really a coup but a victory for ‘democracy,’” as journalist Robert Parry wrote last July.
Nuland, a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and wife of neoconservative luminary Robert Kagan, helped achieve in Ukraine the kind of “regime change” that her husband had long promoted in the Middle East through the Project for a New American Century.
Nuland now has a new counterpart in the Department of Defense who bears close watching for signs of whether the Obama administration will keep escalating military confrontation with Russia over Eastern Europe, or look for opportunities to find common ground and ease tensions.
On Dec. 14, Dr. Michael Carpenter started work at the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, with added responsibilities for the Western Balkans and Conventional Arms Control. He replaced Evelyn Farkas, who stepped down in October.
Farkas was a firebrand who accused Russia of “shredding international law and conventions that have held firm for decades.” In a call to arms straight out of the early Cold War, she wrote recently, “Russia’s challenge is so fundamental to the international system, to democracy and free market capitalism that we cannot allow the Kremlin’s policy to succeed in Syria or elsewhere.”
In a remarkable display of “projection” — ascribing to others one’s own motives and actions — she declared that “Russia has invaded neighboring countries, occupied their territory, and funded NGOs and political parties not only in its periphery but also in NATO countries.” Its goal, she asserted, was nothing less than “breaking NATO, the European Union and transatlantic unity.”
Farkas declared that the United States must continue its military buildup to deter Russia; provide “lethal assistance” to countries on Russia’s periphery, including Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; and step up economic sanctions “to pressure Russia . . . so that U.S. national security interests and objectives prevail.”
With people like that helping to shape official policy over the past three years, it’s no wonder U.S.-Russia relations have hit such a low point. Might her replacement, Michael Carpenter, take a less confrontational approach?
Carpenter moved to the Pentagon from the office of Vice President Joe Biden, where he was special adviser for Europe and Eurasia. Previously he ran the Russia desk at the National Security Council and spent several years in the Foreign Service.
Carpenter has kept a low public profile, with few publications or speeches to his name. One of his few quasi-public appearances was this April at a symposium on “Baltic Defense & Security After Ukraine: New Challenges, New Threats,” sponsored by The Jamestown Foundation.
His prepared remarks were off the record, but they were greeted warmly — “you’ve hit it right on the head” — by discussant Kurt Volker, former NATO ambassador under President George W. Bush and foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain. McCain has demanded that the United States arm Ukraine to fight Russia and he helped inflame the Ukraine crisis by meeting with the anti-Semitic leader of the country’s right-wing nationalist party for photo-ops in 2013.
During a short Q&A session at the symposium, captured on video, Carpenter declared that “Russia has completely shredded the NATO-Russian Founding Act,” a choice of words strikingly reminiscent of Farkas’s denunciation of Russia for “shredding international law.” He accused Russia of “pursuing a neo-imperial revanchist policy” in Eastern Europe, inflammatory words that Sen. McCain lifted for an op-ed column in the Washington Post a couple of months later. Carpenter also indicated that he would personally favor permanent NATO bases in the Baltic states if such an escalation would not fragment the alliance.
The fact that Carpenter chose to make one of his few appearances at the The Jamestown Foundation is itself highly telling. According to IPS Right Web, which tracks conservative think tanks, the foundation’s president, Glen Howard, “is the former executive director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, a largely neoconservative-led campaign aimed at undermining Russia by bolstering U.S. support for militant nationalist and Islamist movements in the North Caucasus.” Howard has also been a consultant to the Pentagon and to “major oil companies operating in Central Asia and the Middle East.”
The foundation was formed in 1984 by “a leading Cold Warrior close to the Reagan administration,” with the blessing of CIA Director William Casey, to provide extra funding for Soviet bloc defectors to supplement meager stipends offered by the CIA. Its board members today include former CIA Director Michael Hayden, and previous board members included Dick Cheney and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, a prominent neoconservative activist.
All this matters hugely for several reasons. Increased confrontation with Russia, particularly along its highly sensitive Western border, will continue to poison relationships with Moscow that are crucial for achieving U.S. interests ranging from Afghanistan to Iran to Syria. Ratcheting up a new Cold War will divert tens or hundreds of billions of dollars into military spending at the expense of domestic priorities.
Most important, the action-reaction cycle between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe is dramatically increasing chances for an unwanted, unneeded and disastrous war involving the world’s great nuclear powers. Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network, noted in a recent commentary for the Arms Control Association:
“Despite protestations by both sides that the exercises are aimed at no particular adversary, it is clear that each side is exercising with the most likely war plans of the other in mind. The Russian military is preparing for a confrontation with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a confrontation with Russia. This does not mean either side has the political intent to start a war, but it does mean that both believe a war is no longer unthinkable. . . .
“Too few appear to recognize that the current cocktail of incidents, mistrust, changed military posture, and nuclear signaling is creating the conditions in which a single event or combination of events could result in a NATO-Russian war, even if neither side intends it.”
In such a way, the actions of relatively minor figures in history – if their provocations are not reined in – can lead the world to cataclysm.