Susan Rice ought to stay off “Meet the Press.” The last time she was on, she misrepresented what led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya. On Sunday she was back, this time misrepresenting critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. Last time her misrepresentation was unintentional. This time it wasn’t. I prefer it, though, when she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
In a frustrating colloquy with host David Gregory, Rice initially said all the right things about Syria. She called the war there “horrific,” which indeed it is. She said it had “spilled over and infused the neighboring states,” which indeed it has. And she said the United States had “every interest in trying to bring this conflict to a conclusion.” Yes. Yes, indeed.
“But if the alternative here is to intervene with American boots on the ground, as some have argued, I think that the judgment the United States has made and the president of the United States has made is that is not in the United States’ interests,” she continued.
Gregory, usually as alert and twitchy as a squirrel, flat-lined. He did not ask Rice who, precisely, advocated boots on the ground. He did not ask her to name just one prominent critic or to wonder why this is “the alternative” when there are so many others. He just pushed on, leaving this straw man to crinkle and crackle under the hot TV lights and allowing Rice, who is the president’s national security adviser, to get away with rebutting an argument that has not been made. She did, though, exhibit an administration mind-set — all or nothing — that, in practice, amounts to nothing.
Rice’s was a splendid performance, characteristic of an administration that values the sound of policy over its implementation. But it bore directly on another urgent foreign policy problem confronting Washington and the world: Ukraine. Of course the revolution in that country was discussed, and Rice warned Russia not to resort to force, saying that would be “a grave mistake.” She declared the United States on the side of the Ukrainian people, an airy but prudent generalization. This will have to do for the moment.
But matters may soon get out of hand. Russia may not permit the major nation on its southwestern border to align itself with Europe. It’s not likely that tanks will roll, but it is not all that unlikely that the Russian-speaking east of the country may turn to Moscow for support.
Ukraine on its own would be a formidable challenge. But it is not alone. It is, in fact, just another place on the globe where nationalism joins separatism to create instability. In September, Scotland will vote on secession from the United Kingdom, and while an independent Scotland is a threat to no one but the Scots (What are they thinking?), it is part of a trend.
Catalonia is uncomfortable in Spain. Belgium is forever breaking up, and in Italy, the Northern League wants nothing to do with the south. Yugoslavia, once one nation, is now effectively seven, Czechoslovakia is two, and the former Soviet Union is now 15 separate nations, one of them being Ukraine. In the Middle East, Syria is flying apart, a Kurdistan is gestating, Iraq will never be the same. And in the Far East, Japan and China, feeling their nationalistic oats, bicker over a collection of rocks.
An increasingly messy world is looking for guidance. But not only does the United States refuse to be its policeman, it won’t even be its hall monitor. The utterly false choice in Syria articulated by Rice — America can do nothing because it won’t do everything — is noticed by the rest of the world. Obama threatened “consequences” if someone stepped “over the line” in Ukraine. Ah, another line. Is it red?
Economically the world grows closer together. Simultaneously, the world fragments and empires crumble. Believe it or not, these were the conditions that preceded World War I when nationalism burst all constraints. Four empires — the Russian, the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman — collapsed and the world hurtled toward an Armageddon that ended only with Hitler putting a pistol to his head and the Enola Gay obliterating Hiroshima.
I predict nothing like that this time around, but the rise of nationalism and the retreat of American power have been seen before. A familiar figure appeared in Kiev and identified himself to the New York Times as Nikolo. “Nationalism is what I believe,” he proclaimed. “The nation is my religion.” Susan Rice should meet him. His boots are already on the ground.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.