For those who despair of politicians’ lies, corruption, cowardice and egotism, Milton Friedman had some remarkably useful and sunny advice. Don’t worry about finding wise and noble representatives, just make the reprobates that a democracy inevitably throws up do the right thing.
“It’s nice to elect the right people, but it isn’t the way you solve things. The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right things,” as the great man put it himself (above).
Sadly, Friedman’s logic can also result in the situation where the wrong man is made to the right thing, but at the wrong time.
Now is such a time.
In the wake of the destruction of the Air Malaysia flight over eastern Ukraine a very dangerous situation is developing.
Almost certainly Russian separatists shot down flight MH17. We know that partly because the phone calls and social media that have been released have the ring of veracity about them. There is the initial boasting about having downed another Ukrainian plane (they’ve shot down several recently). Then there’s the realisation that they’ve destroyed a civilian airliner followed by shock, anger and attempts to avoid responsibility.
Putin has predictably blamed the Ukrainians, which is vanishingly unlikely considering that only the separatists have used ground to air missiles so far or have any need to use them.
So there you have it; it couldn’t be clearer: a terrible war crime committed by the Russian backed separatists.
Now all sorts of pressure will be applied to the weakest most vacillating president in history till he’s made to do the right thing. As Senator McCain put it back on Thursday there will be “hell to pay [for Russia] and there should be”.
And it is right that Putin’s expansionist designs should be effectively countered. But effective state craft requires the same sort of consistency as good parenting. And just as good parenting doesn't mean years of indolent indulgence followed by beating junior black and blue, so years of appeasing Putin cannot be turned round by an emotional response to the downing of MH17. Russia's would be czar needs a heads up that there is to be a new status quo.
Doing the right thing right now as in a sudden reversal of the Reset Button policy will be disastrous for two reasons. Two reasons that could amount to a perfect storm of political calamity.
1) Sudden resolution after weakness is dangerous.
The Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t arise from daring Soviet brinkmanship. On the contrary, Soviet foreign policy was always strongly characterized by excessive caution. Khrushchev only decided to station missiles in Cuba, because he’d met an unprepared and unserious Kennedy in Vienna in June 1961 and had come to the conclusion that he was a “lightweight playboy” who wouldn’t seriously oppose Soviet expansion.
That impression of American weakness nearly resulted in nuclear annihilation.
Putin has come to a similar (and far more justified) opinion about Obama to that Khrushchev formed about Kennedy. Fear and respect of America are long gone and Putin’s recent attitude since Obama’s pathetic squirming over Syria could best be summed up as mocking contempt.
Obama’s weakness has encouraged Putin’s opportunistic expansionism. But sudden resolution will only lead to even greater bellicosity from the Russian leader. Nationalism and furthering the cause of Mother Russia is Putin’s very raison d’etre. He can’t back down and survive.
As with Saddam Hussein sudden resolution on the part of Obama and the EU will leave Putin no alternative but to fight the “Mother of all Battles”.
2) Not entirely Putin’s fault.
What the hell was the Air Malaysia flight doing in a war zone. Not just a war zone, but one in which planes have been shot down very recently and at least one a large cargo plane at high altitude. It was well known that the rebels had sophisticated ground to air missiles and several countries and civil aviation bodies had advised against flying over eastern Ukraine.
This tragedy happened because few in the west seem able to deal with the hard reality that there is a civil war going on in Ukraine. This is doubly surprising considering the guilt that many senior western politicians have in causing the conflict in the first place.
The downing of MH17 is terrible, but that’s what happens in war zones. The Americans themselves shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988. The Iranians had been attacking western ships and appeared to be maneuvering to attack the USS Vincennes. The Americans fired a missile at an apparently threatening aircraft and 290 innocent civilians died.
That’s why no civilian aircraft should have been within a hundred miles of eastern Ukraine.
Those who authorized the flight of MH17 over a war zone should also be held to account.
I’m no fan of numerology, but it is time to consider an event from a hundred years ago and the terrible result.
On 28th June, 1914 Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip. It should have been just one more squalid Balkan murder. Few people in the west thought twice about it for at least a month. Then on 28th July 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia and the rest of Europe followed them over the abyss shortly after.
I’m not suggesting that we face a world war. But like in that summer of 1914 the conditions exist for a very rapid escalation to serious conflict which could see the horrific deaths of 298 passengers of MH17 remembered merely as the starting pistol to a conflict that will claim very many more.
Now is the time for measured restraint.