Escalation of Sanctions a Step Toward War


The cylinder turns, which is the fatal bullet? Or, are all the chambers loaded? America, particularly under Obama, has pressed for global counterrevolution on a grand scale, perhaps more than Bush father and son and even Clinton, the quartet together exhibiting a presidential disease of hegemonic unilateralism, still Obama in the forefront. His national-security team, drenched—when needed—in liberal rhetoric, views the Outside World with suspicion, ideologically hardened by a previous half-century of strident anticommunism and, though Russia and China have adopted clear capitalistic structural features, treats all opposition to US political-economic-military policy as in its origins red-tainted. For us or against us, no middle ground allowed! The preset, kneejerk response to all challenges to US real and prospective areas of domination, trade, financial, even cultural, signifies, beyond xenophobia and ethnocentrism, a deep-seated psychopathology of authoritarian rigidness invoked at every turn where Exceptionalism and corresponding acts of war, intervention, regime change, or forcible market penetration, are opposed or questioned.

America provides the military as surrogate for the Freudian couch in resolving—that is, living with—its aggressive instincts, draped in the thin veneer of liberal humanitarianism. We stand at the barricades in support of all freedom-loving peoples, now, the Israelis and Ukrainians, against terroristic desperadoes, who lack appreciation for Western values and institutions. The demonization of Putin comes naturally to such a mindset, while Li can be confronted in the more pragmatic terms of a Pacific-first strategy and Trans-Pacific Partnership, partly because Russia got there first in the morbid configuration of hate. Not all, in either case, is psychological. American global hegemony has, at least since the Great Depression, been about the advancement of US capitalistic interests, if need be, at the expense of other capitalist nations (initially, dismantlement of the British Empire, so that trade could be placed, post-Imperial Preference System, on a “fairer” basis, while the military preparations and home-front hysteria, to be directed against Russia and China, was useful for ensuring absolutist conformity at home and resistance to Third World autonomy and development abroad.

There was always something opportunistic in the American hostility toward Russia, an Enemy still useful in promoting American-inspired globalization, a system of world capitalism under US supervision and leadership, Russia and China kept at arms’ length rather than fully embraced to ensure the resolute will and war-budget in the US while serving as warning to indigenous radicalism in Latin America and other spheres of influence hitherto taken for granted. The foundations of Behemoth America were becoming shaken, ever since the end of World War Two, but today, with the rise of precisely those powers the US has placed in its crosshairs, the recognition of impending decline (from a perch of unilateral supremacy) is calling, under Obama, for more strident militarism, even if, as here, cloaked in sanctions. Sanctions, however, should not be confused with the peaceful application of pressures. They are presently another name for war, and given the prevailing US-EU mindset and leadership, a clear step in that direction.


Ukraine is Berlin all over again, a disputed locus for legitimating East-West tensions on terms more momentous perhaps than the late 1940s, because today the West believes it could actually dismember Russia through a US-sponsored unified front, dismemberment for reasons probably not even known to its advocates, beyond the usual mix of oil and natural resources. The Post-Cold War World is nothing of the kind, as though the darkened specter of Thanatos, which I noted in earlier articles, trumps ideology and economics as instead a residual bottom line of anomic feeling toward humankind. Children in Gaza are murdered while the world yawns, Israelis cheer, and Americans turn away. There is little in the life-plan of America (if we can speak thusly of the direction a society takes) that warns against the dangers of confrontation leading to horrendous consequences. Let the end come, seems the shibboleth of the times (or, as a child, I remember, “better dead than red,” perhaps less sincerely believed than today’s version, ennui replacing supposed communism per se). Here then is Obama, thinking eyeball-to-eyeball with Putin, who has proven himself far more reasonable and less fanatical in his actions, and, perceiving correctly the risks involved in the build-up of a US-Western sanctions regime, plays down the conflict by not retaliating in kind.

MH 17 is the best thing that could have happened to US foreign policy at this juncture, providing an out to Britain, France, and it appears now, Germany, in affording a rationale for accepting America’s lead in the imposition of stronger sanctions against Russia—not nearly as tough as Obama wants, but enough to keep the alliance from breaking up because of his demands. This was a real problem for the US when Obama’s threatened unilateralism if the EU failed to act resulted in open disaffection, especially that of Germany. The resistance encountered by the Kiev military in eastern Ukraine, possibly as much as, or more than, the plane crash itself (the cause of which has still not been determined, with rebel forces guarding the site awaiting investigators who themselves have been delayed by Ukrainian government troops fighting in, and making a war zone of, the area of the crash), has brought the EU into line behind America, the props knocked out from underneath its earlier unwillingness to comply. Still, between the lines, we see a reluctance, particularly in Germany, to comply.

Jack Ewing and Peter Baker’s article in the New York Times, “U.S. and Europe Set to Toughen Russia Sanctions,” (July 28), quotes Antony Blinken (a name we’re less familiar with, Obama’s water carrier on sanctions), deputy national security adviser, who keeps the US-EU distinction on the toughness of the sanctions in reserve: “We expect the European Union to take significant additional steps this week, including in key sectors of the Russian economy. In turn, and in full coordination with Europe, the United States will implement additional measures itself.” In search of cooperation, Obama cannot renounce unilateral powers to act. Blinken continues: “Our purpose here again is not to punish Russia but to make clear that it must cease its support for the separatists and stop destabilizing Ukraine.” As though the US did not support the government and directly contribute to destabilizing Ukraine in the first place through promoting the coup and bending every effort to give it legitimacy in world opinion!

The propaganda mill grinds on, Russia via Ukraine poised to envelop the West, the playing on fears in the manner of the falling-domino theory, none of which is expressed outright (which exposed and/or verbalized would reveal its scare-technique), but at a step or two removed, advantaged by the climate of fear engendered through emphasis on counterterrorism. Meanwhile, like Banquo’s ghost looming in the mist, the presumed threat of China, joined in the American political imagination with Russia, lies on the immediate geopolitical horizon—a blow against one, surely it is believed, helps to destroy the other. Not surprisingly, a totalistic framework (and ideological vision to match) of world power and dominance, characterizing the US from at least the late 19th century Open Door through Wilsonian internationalism, then into post-World War 2 containment stretching outward from the context of the Cold War to take in the retardation of Third World modernization, to the present, the most strident assertion of hegemony perhaps yet, because that reference point of efficacious unilateralism is in process of collapse, explains how almost helter-skelter America is involved everywhere at once. Simply, the Empire is crumbling, and the present-incumbent Emperor wears no clothes, exposing a petty tyrant credited with sophistication as meanwhile displaying the everyday garden-variety dumbness, insensitivity, and lack of imagination we associate with ersatz world-beaters, hiding behind America’s massive military structure, surrounded by an intelligence community, from CIA to NSA, to ensure international dirty-tricks and the prodigious surveillance of the American people, whatever it takes to keep the US on top and himself looking “cool” and princely.

Hence, escalating sanctions in the Ukrainian situation is part of America’s negative engagement with the world—our way or the highway, only now blocking the road at every turn, so that it takes little to see how the current foreign policy preoccupation forms an integrated picture in Washington: Ukraine/Gaza, a dialectical interplay feeding into the larger confrontation with Russia and China, is all about American “prestige,” now, as before, code for global hegemony wherein, give an inch and you lose the ballgame. This US mental set, hardly confined to Obama (which is why he basks so in the favor of the military and intelligence communities), of stepping up to the plate, not content with less than home runs, therefore becomes visible on all fronts. The ball park though is shrinking, Putin, Li, and a whole bunch of players coming on the scene, finally making clear to grandstand and bleachers alike, especially the bleachers, that the System had been rigged for some time: Ukraine, Gaza, wherever resistance to the US-defined Western nucleus—now, not coincidentally asked to participate in the sanctions regime—appears, must be vanquished. Dead children, vast stretches of rubble, population displacement, all to prove a point—who said the falling-domino theory is obsolete? America, like Israel, its shadow, sees Armageddon in every act of defiance to its own and its friends-and-allies’ dominion, and accordingly to be PUT DOWN.

My New York Times Comment on the Ewing-Baker article, same date, follows:

Sorry, nascent Cold Warriors in Washington and Europe, but these sanctions are ill-conceived and will backfire. What the West is doing is, of course, driving Russia closer to China, the latter more than happy–and quite able–to supplant Europe on economic matters.

But economics aside, the point is that Russia will not go away. It is real and, with Putin, able to direct its policies and behavior in ways that are not abrupt and extreme. FM Lavrov’s statement of refusing to go tit-for-tat is a welcome sign of rationality, that which Obama so evidently lacks.

The US is playing with fire (literally). There would never have been a Ukraine crisis had not America helped stage the coup that, as much as we try to cover this up, has a preponderance of fascist elements in governing circles. Obama coddles Right Sector and Sveboda, and exerts pressure on the EU to go along. The US appears to welcome international tension as a way of maximizing its political-economic-military global influence. At what price to world peace?
At what risk of nuclear annihilation? All of this as the world is habituated to look the other way whenever major conflicts are present. Not mentioned in the article, the purpose of siding with Ukraine is to bring NATO forces to the Russian border–a sure way of escalating tensions, perhaps to the breaking point. Obama and his national security advisers give new meaning to the game of Russian roulette.


Then on the 29th, the EU, “with both new resolve and longstanding trepidation,” as Alan Cowell and James Kanter put it in their NYT article, “European Officials Weigh Tougher Sanctions on Russia,” has buckled under to American demands. The reporters know whereof they speak when they underscore the seriousness of the move: “Imposition of the sanctions would mark an expansion and escalation of a confrontation with Russia that is arguably the most serious of the post-Cold War era and a test of the European Union’s ability to act decisively in a foreign policy crisis.” Only in the last part of the sentence, the “test,” do they reveal matter-of-fact acceptance of the need for such action, i.e., a post-Cold War era that is not post-anything but very much still alive. Don’t bother to ask, “Which side are you on?”, because there is only one side in the battle between good and evil, back to a Manichaean square one: Push back Russia, contain and isolate China, defend Israel at all costs—lest the world come tumbling down, and with it (please do not think me facetious) American capitalism. The integral relation between Gaza and Ukraine in America, and not only among members of the Jewish community, is bedrock-belief, as well I’ve seen, when adopting a critical orientation to either taps a vituperative stream extending to include my position on both. Anticommunism/counterterrorism is alive and well, though having little to do with either, serving rather to buttress a world order based on domination (and for the nonprivileged, consequent impoverishment).

From sanctions to military engagement is hardly a bizarre scenario, particularly when the first is meant to lead, should the terms be favorable, to the second. These terms, however, refer to ever-expanding alliance-building, military stockpiling, the course Obama now busily pursues, a fool’s-dream to begin with, yet captive to a near-irrevocable decision always to go for broke, whom- and whatever stands in the way. Gaza is a Russia-China-Third World, rolled in one, menace—ditto, Ukraine dissidents—subject to withering punishment and as the warning shot across the bow directed to the Circle of Evil imagined to be enclosing it. For America, there will never be enough enemies to confront and dislodge. But in the case of Russia, in and of itself, (the same goes for China), we see nuclear conflagration as a distinct—to fall back on national-security lingo, OPTION, as in “all options are on the table”.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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