Ukraine and Afghanistan: A Tale of Four Presidents

Somewhere in academia – maybe at Georgetown; maybe at the Sorbonne – a professor is taking notes for her next class of aspiring diplomats. Case studies are the mainstay of business and law schools; this week’s events in Afghanistan and Ukraine offer great sharply contrasating case studies for those aspiring to careers guiding their nations to peaceful resolution of thorny problems.

Consider Ukraine:

– The western media and the White House press releases predict disaster; Putin’s Russia seizes the Crimea and masses thousands of troops on the border; Moscow- inspired thugs seize government buildings and hold fraudulent elections in eastern Ukraine, presaging a civil war; Gazprom demands billions in back payments for natural gas supplied to Ukraine; the European Union and the United States threaten escalating sanctions; President Obama gives a speech.

– Then presto. Putin says that he favored the elections that the central government was holding throughout the country; the chocolate industry billionaire wins in a landslide; Poroshenko says that he respects the legitimate interests of the Russians and more “states rights” for the Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine; Putin says that he wants an agreement that Ukraine will not become part of NATO; Poroshenko’s chocolate factory in Russia reopens after being shuttered for “quality concerns”; Putin publicly eats Poroshenko’s chocolates; an agreement is reached to split the difference on Ukraine’s natural gas debt; Ukraine’s military finally stands up to the rag-tag secessionist agitators; Putin moves on to solidifying a long term natural gas agreement with China; Obama gives a speech.

– There will undoubtedly be further issues between Russia and Ukraine. In seizing Crimea, the Russians greatly reduced Ukraine’s claim to coastal gas and oil rights in the Black Sea; there will still be nationalist legislators in Kiev who want to look westward; there will be UN resolutions and patriotic speeches about the importance of international law. The reality, though, is that each country had a leader who understood the realities of power and could prioritize their national interests, quickly reach important decisions, and exercise enough control at home to satisfy the other. The shape of southeastern Europe was temporarily in flux; it is now back in shape.

Consider Afghanistan:

– The day before Memorial Day president Obama makes an unannounced trip to Bagram Air Base to meet with US military personnel who are preparing for a politically-motivated departure by the end of the year. By choice or oversight the White House does not let the Afghan president know that he is coming until the day before he arrives; President Karzai refuses to meet with Obama at Bagram. Maybe he would have hosted Obama in Kabul, but we’ll never know. Obama gives a speech.

– Karzai has long had a testy relationship with Obama. Maybe he resents being treated like a colonial figurehead; maybe Obama refused to pay the bribe that Karzai wanted to leave office on good terms. After 13 years and thousands of American dead, Obama talks of how important it is to have a status of forces agreement to let a few American troops stay behind and not throw away the hard-earned gains – as he did in Iraq after Bush’s “Bad War”. Fortunately, the two top candidates to succeed Karzai favor an American presence. Obama gives a speech.

–  In the “can you top this?” category, the White House releases the names of the people that President Obama is meeting with – including the CIA station chief whose cover is blown, and who will probably need to be reassigned. The last time that a CIA station chief was outed, Valerie Plame in the Bush 41 years, the vice president’s chief of staff went to jail. This time it, not so much. An innocent mistake by a public relations staff which made every effort to “unring the bell”. Over at Langley there are a few folks who think after Benghazi that the White House is a bit short on appreciation of their role and the risks that they take, but they are just cowboys, and hired hands at that.

So, for the final exam question: “Rank the four leaders in terms of which are doing the best job of maximizing the interests of their country, given the resources that they have to work with. (This being academia, give extra consideration to Nobel Peace Prize credentials.)”


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