Krugman should be more skeptical about the new Cold War

Paul Krugman has been an important voice for sanity for many years, and so there was some disappointment with his Monday column on war among those who would like to see less insanity in U.S. foreign policy. Krugman is also one of the few columnists (or economists for that matter) who has, on several occasions, publicly acknowledged when he has made mistakes, and corrected them (in good Keynesian tradition, "when confronted with new evidence"). So I write with all sincerity in hoping that he will realize his mistake in this case.

In explaining the civil war in Ukraine, Krugman assumes that all the blame belongs to Russia, and in particular its president, Vladimir Putin.

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"It's only a guess, but it seems likely that Vladimir Putin thought that he could overthrow Ukraine's government, or at least seize a large chunk of its territory, on the cheap — a bit of deniable aid to the rebels, and it would fall into his lap."

First, it was the United States that supported the overthrow of Ukraine's democratically elected government in February, when Russia was more amenable to a negotiated solution that would have included early elections. When the Europeans showed some reticence about pushing the country into civil war, Washington's neoconservative assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland, had a three-word response: "F--- the EU." The U.S. has spent billions over many years trying to get a government in Ukraine that would be part of its political-military alliance against what is now the Russian Federation, and she wasn't going to let this opportunity slip away. If Washington had not been so aggressive and indifferent to the start of a civil war, this one could most likely have been avoided.

Washington followed up the coup with elections as soon as possible, even if it meant disenfranchising millions of voters because of the political and armed conflict (this is standard operating procedure after a coup: see the June 2009 U.S.-supported coup in Honduras, followed by "elections" the following November, that almost no other country in the hemisphere recognized as legitimate). Since then, the U.S. has promoted a military solution to the conflict, combined with increasing economic sanctions against Russia. The military strategy, which includes the bombing and shelling of rebel-held cities and consequent killing of hundreds of civilians, could possibly succeed in crushing the rebellion. But how is this justifiable, rather than trying to negotiate a political solution? Krugman acknowledges that "we have to worry about escalation in Ukraine." But how is that to be avoided without any attempt at a political solution? Isn't it a problem that Washington thinks it can settle this conflict — like so many others — with violence and threats?

Krugman is objective about the Iraq War, and was the only person to write in the pages of The New York Times that part of the Bush-Cheney strategy for the build-up to the war was to win the 2002 U.S. congressional elections. So it is strange that in this case he sees only the official story. There is a large body of expert opinion across the political spectrum that has argued against one side trying to impose its will on the other in this situation. Even Henry Kissinger warned in March: "Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or break up. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system."

Russia's annexation of Crimea was against international law, and indefensible. But U.S. policy has helped push Russia to the wall, after NATO added 12 Eastern European countries from 1999 to 2009, and now threatens to add Ukraine. It goes without saying that Washington would never tolerate anything remotely similar in the Western Hemisphere.

There is another way in which Washington exacerbates this particular conflict that Krugman should be familiar with. The U.S./EU alliance has an International Monetary Fund (IMF) economic plan for Ukraine that promises further economic hardship, with the economy already in a deep recession and a projected decline in GDP of 6 to 7 percent this year. IMF austerity calls for a budget tightening of 3 percent of GDP over the next two years, among other measures (some that are necessary at some point, like cutting energy subsidies) that will shrink the economy. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble referred to Greece as a "model" for Ukraine, and it could ironically turn out to be that way. The eastern part of the country, already racked by the war, is likely to be hardest hit by the economic policy changes. This will not make a political solution any easier, should Washington and its allies ever decide that they are interested in one.

In this column, Krugman warns of the risks that authoritarian governments like China might resort to war in the future if their economies worsen. But while China has no foreign military bases, the United States is an empire, currently involved in a number of conflicts, with hundreds of military bases across the globe.

Krugman's column, entitled "Why We Fight Wars," therefore misses the main reason that U.S. leaders send their troops to war: to preserve and expand their own global power. In his book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman explains how the right has played on fears of foreign enemies (real and imagined) in order to gain political power in the U.S. But it is not just the right that has dragged us into unnecessary wars; many liberals have also played the role of enablers by accepting the right's false premises and stories.

But that is an issue for a longer discussion. The point here is that Krugman should reconsider his view of the "New Cold War," as Russia scholar Stephen Cohen has called it, for the same reasons that he vehemently opposed the Iraq War: This venture is reckless, based on false pretexts and immoral.

Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.