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John Kerry Admits Defeat: Why US Retreat on Ukraine Crisis Is a Good Thing

The U.S. seems to admit it overplayed its hand over Ukraine. Facing reality is actually the best possible policy

This article originally appeared in The Salon

It is just as well Secretary of State John Kerry’s momentous meetings with Russian leaders last week took place in Sochi, the Black Sea resort where President Putin keeps a holiday home. When you have to acknowledge that two years’ worth of pointless hostility in the bilateral relationship has proven none other than pointless, it is best to do so in a far-away place.

Arriving in the morning and leaving in the afternoon, Kerry spent three hours with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s very competent foreign minister, and then four with Putin. After struggling with the math, these look to me like the most significant seven hours the former senator will spend as this nation’s face abroad.
<figcaption>Kerry sought Thursday to ease Gulf Arab concerns about an emerging nuclear deal with Iran and explore ways to calm instability in Yemen and other troubled nations in the Middle East | Photo: AP, Evan Vucci, Pool</figcaption>
Kerry sought Thursday to ease Gulf Arab concerns about an emerging nuclear deal with Iran and explore ways to calm instability in Yemen and other troubled nations in the Middle East | Photo: AP, Evan Vucci, Pool

Who cannot be surprised that the Obama administration, having turned the Ukraine question into the most dangerous showdown since the Cold War’s worst, now declares cordiality, cooperation and common goals the heart of the matter?

The question is not quite as simple as one may think.

On the one hand, the policy cliques’ long swoon into demonization has been scandalously juvenile, and there has been no sign until now of sense to come. Grown men and women advancing the Putin-is-Hitler bit with straight faces. Getting the Poles, paranoids for understandable reasons on all questions to with Russia, to stage ostentatious displays of teenagers in after-school military exercises. American soldiers in those silly berets they affect drilling Ukrainian Beetle Baileys in “war-making functions,” as the officer in charge put it.

When the last of these theatrics got under way in mid-April, it was time for paying-attention people to sit up. As noted in this space, it seemed to indicate that we Americans were prepared to go to war with another nuclear power to rip Ukraine from its past and replant it in the neoliberals’ hothouse of client states—doomed to weakness precisely because corrupt leaders were enticed with baubles to sever their people from history.

On the other hand, it took no genius to see what would eventually come. This column predicted long back—within weeks of the American-cultivated coup that deposed President Yanukovych in February of last year—that the Obama administration would one day be forced to retreat before it all came to resolution.

It was hard then to see how anyone could anticipate any other outcome, and so it has remained. You cannot turn basic miscalculation, indifference to history and diplomatic insensitivity into a winning hand. You turn it into an overplayed hand. And that is what sent Kerry to Sochi last week.

Surprise and no surprise, then.

What does the Sochi visit make Kerry? Is he Neville Chamberlain just back from Munich? The appeasement paranoids are not in evidence yet, which is curious. But the question is interesting nonetheless.

“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” Hillary Clinton said of Putin’s Ukraine policy a month after the Yanukovych coup. Given the corner Clinton has painted herself into, can you wait to hear how she fields questions about Kerry’s new démarche? To hear her explain how she would, if elected, address Putin? I have trouble keeping my seat.

Emphatically, let us forget Clinton’s problems and dismiss any argument that Kerry is an appeaser before one is even made. There is no question of appeasement—a loaded word implying a false equivalence. Kerry is caving to realities, a very different thing.

As I have argued, the best thing American diplomats can do now is admit the failure of our long-expired strategies abroad. Implicitly, at least, Kerry has just done so in one of the most important theaters of American foreign policy. This is a sensible, productive thing to do. When you hit a wall, you can either sit there indefinitely or turn around.

What are these realities Kerry has caved to? I count five, two more than the State Department listed when it outlined Kerry’s agenda in Sochi:

* My sources in Moscow tell me that 80 percent of the exchange concerned the pending deal governing Iran’s nuclear program. Look back: Kerry and Obama have one significant foreign policy success to their credit—the opening to Cuba the exception—and a string of messy failures and successes (the restored dictatorship in Egypt, for instance) that would have been better had they failed.

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