How Many Enemies Does America Want?

Congress just made Russia into an enemy for no vital reason of the United States

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This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared at Forbes

Congress long ago learned that public scrutiny makes it harder to pass bad bills. So on Thursday in the midst of negotiations to avoid another government shut-down both houses of Congress rammed through new sanctions against Russia, the misnamed “Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.”

Indeed, the House version, H.R. 5859, was introduced earlier the same day and approved by a sparse crowd late at night. The Senate legislation, S. 2828, passed on a voice vote.

The measures sanction Russian weapons exports and oil production imports, and financial institutions which facilitate the such transactions; target Gazprom if it “is withholding significant” gas supplies from specified states; provide money to “strengthen democratic institutions and political and civil society organizations” in Russia; bar the lifting of sanctions so long as Moscow supports groups undermining “the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine”; boost financial transfers to Kiev; order U.S. officials to work with Ukraine to solve such problems as electricity and fuel shortages; authorize weapons transfers to Kiev; and increase funds for government Russian-language broadcasting services.

Congress appears determined to turn an adversary into a forthright enemy and encourage retaliation against more significant American interests. Observed my Cato Institute colleague Emma Ashford:

“The provisions in this bill will make it all the more difficult to find a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine crisis, or to find a way to salvage any form of productive U.S.-Russia relationship.

No wonder Congress didn’t want to debate it openly.”

President Barack Obama expressed some concerns about the bill, but is expected to sign it.

Unfortunately, the legislation offers a belligerent foretaste of what to expect from the incoming Republican Senate. The legislation’s chief sponsor was Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), slated to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

His earlier proposal, “The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2014,” was even more confrontational, providing for greater sanctions on Russia, more military aid for Ukraine, and intelligence sharing with Kiev; conferring “major non-NATO ally status” on Georgia and Moldova as well as Ukraine; expanding “training, assistance and defense cooperation” with Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia, as well as Kiev; mandating non-recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea; and subsidizing energy development in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. As chairman he is likely to encourage equally misguided military meddling elsewhere.

Of course, President Putin is an unpleasant autocrat who doesn’t much like America. But Russia is not the Soviet Union. Like the old Russian Empire, Moscow today wants respect and border security. Washington has no reason to deny the first or challenge the second.

Yet from expansion of NATO to dismemberment of Serbia to treatment of Georgia and Ukraine as allies the U.S. and Europe have increased Moscow’s insecurity.

Now Congress seems determined to turn Russia into what Mitt Romney mistakenly thought Russia already was—America’s number one enemy.

Putin could do much to take on that role by, for instance, arming Syria and Iran with advanced anti-aircraft missiles, defending Tehran’s right to reprocess nuclear fuel, and hindering U.S. logistical support for Afghanistan.

Worse, he could continue to move closer to China. There is plenty of tension between Russia and the People’s Republic of China, but one factor could unite them: U.S. threats. Legislators appear to have forgotten that one of the most fundamental objectives of U.S. foreign policy, going back to Richard Nixon’s opening to Beijing, was to keep the two apart. Now America is acting the part of the Soviet Union while Putin is playing Nixon.

The worst of the legislation’s many dumb provisions may be restricting the ability of the Obama administration to negotiate. A diplomatic solution might be unsatisfying, but Ukraine is in a bad neighborhood and, like Finland during the Cold War, suffers from constraints not faced by other nations. The situation isn’t fair, but Congress can’t change geopolitical reality.

The only good news from Congress is that its anti-Russian legislation did not include any of the many fevered proposals for the U.S. to court war by introducing troops to Ukraine, daring Moscow to attack. If pressed, Russia might well take up the challenge, forcing Washington to back down or escalate. The first would be humiliating, the second catastrophic.

Republican legislators, in particular, like to talk tough. But they lack the slightest shame or self-awareness. Their bill of particulars against Moscow included a long litany of offenses routinely committed by the U.S.: invading other nations, providing weapons to insurgents, imposing sanctions on other governments, selling weapons to belligerents, propagating propaganda.

While avowed critics of social engineering at home, they believe the U.S. government can remake foreign societies abroad. It’s a dangerous delusion. In pursuit of their fantasies they are prepared to waste scarce financial resources, entangle the U.S. in foreign quarrels, and risk war with nuclear-armed powers.

The most likely outcome of their latest handiwork is a permanent frozen conflict between the U.S. and Russia, a new Cold War without the ideological component. Moscow will work more closely with other countries hostile to America, most importantly China, creating a coalition capable of hindering if not blocking U.S. initiatives.

Washington’s allies in Europe will be in economic pain and looking for a way out, ready to break with the U.S. Ukraine will become a permanent financial dependent, another member of America’s foreign aid dole. Heck’uva job, Messrs. President, Speaker, and Majority Leader!

The U.S. desperately needs foreign policy leadership. That is, leaders willing to set priorities and able to distinguish between vital and minor interests.

Leaders willing to eschew cheap attempts to win votes and focus on advancing Americans’ welfare. Leaders willing to acknowledge their failings and America’s limitations.

Leaders who obviously don’t exist in the White House or Congress today.

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