A recent survey compared what Americans wanted to do about the situation in Ukraine with their ability to locate Ukraine on a map. Only one in six placed Ukraine properly in southeastern Europe. Respondents put Ukraine all over Africa and Asia, even in Canada and in the U.S. The average answer was about 1800 miles off. Partisan voters on both sides did poorly compared to independents.
Geographical ignorance is unfortunate, but it’s a serious problem when it leads to dangerous foreign policy. The survey’s authors concluded, “The farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene with military force.”
In our recent history, ignorance and war have formed a grievous mixture. We know how the Bush administration’s highest officials, including the President himself, misled Americans, from Congress to the broader public, about the danger that Iraq and Saddam Hussein posed to us. If they had not been so busy drumming up support for a war they had long intended to start, we could have avoided the invasion of Iraq in 2003, almost nine years of fighting, and 4500 deaths of American soldiers.
The escalation of American involvement in Vietnam a generation earlier was prompted by President Lyndon Johnson’s assertion in August 1964 that the North Vietnamese had attacked an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. Within a week, Congress passed a resolution authorizing him “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force” in Southeast Asia, without a declaration of war. By early 1965, American planes were bombing North Vietnam and American combat troops poured into South Vietnam.
In those two horrific cases, American political leaders drove us into wars of their own making by telling us lies, both about what happened in other parts of the world and about what they really wanted to do and why. We will probably never be able to penetrate the deceitful statements of our political leaders. But we can as a people learn more about the world.
Americans who have no idea where Ukraine is certainly don’t know that Ukraine was one of the most advanced regions of the Soviet Union, and that Russian political leaders and many ordinary Russians fear what will happen to their dreams of greatness if Ukraine becomes a Western ally. Not knowing where Ukraine is means not having any idea about what we should do in and after the current crisis.
There are many others who know exactly where Ukraine is, who understand Ukraine’s history and strategic significance, but who ignore what they know in favor of seeking partisan political advantage. Because President Obama can never do anything right on any issue, Republican leaders are gambling with war, more concerned with their own political power than with our national security.
In March, Obama clearly stated the basis of his policy: “We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine.” Since that moment, Republicans in Congress have advocated military intervention. Senator John McCain immediately responded with his party’s favorite characterization: “This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength any more.” McCain wants to send small arms and ammunition to Kiev. “The United States should not be imposing an arms embargo on a victim of aggression.”
Senator Marco Rubio, a much younger man with presidential ambitions, agrees. In an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Rubio wrote that the Obama administration’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine is “shameful”. Making Crimea the most important issue on the world stage, he wants to send military aid to Ukraine and stop working with Russia on negotiations with Iran. He also wants to send US “military assets”, including personnel, to Poland and the Baltic states, where we currently have none.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers responded to the Russian annexation of Crimea by advocating “non-combatant military aid”, by which he meant medical supplies, radio equipment, and “defensive posture weapons systems.” Senator Bob Corker took an apparently more moderate approach: only after this crisis is over, the US should create a military relationship with Ukraine. McCain wants that to happen sooner rather than later, bringing Ukraine into a relationship with NATO.
The most radical war-mongers are not in Congress, but in the conservative media. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, told CNN that “deploying ground troops … should not be ruled out.”
What do we get from this kind of military adventurism in places where Americans have never been and know little about? Our ignorant entry into Vietnam was a disaster. We have left Iraq in a state of disintegration. After nearly 13 years of fighting and dying in Afghanistan, our man in Kabul since we invaded in 2001, Hamid Karzai, just joined the tiny group of world leaders who recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, along with Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and Sudan.
The genuine ignorance of the American public about world affairs is troubling. The willful ignorance of our political leaders about the consequences of their political posturing is deadly.
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