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The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: alternative lenses, imperialism and colonialism (part 2 of 2)

By Chris Beall

In my previous article, I discussed the normalization of flagrant human rights abuses inherent in forced historical analogies between the Middle East and Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. However, this does not mean that history is unimportant in attempting to understand today’s conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. While the deployment of the Thirty Years’ narrative seeks to cram today’s sectarian conflicts within the interpretive boundaries of a very different place, from a very different century, a far more productive methodology would explore the history actually relevant to these conflicts: that of the Middle East itself. Rather than succumbing to the ignorance—perhaps willful ignorance—wrapped up in the Thirty Years’ model, the Middle East’s own past events (political, social, and economic) shed light on the complexity and nuance crucial to the fight for peace and human rights in the region.

In a rare and refreshing article by Shireen Hunter, Director of the Carnegie Project on Reformist Islam at Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, writing for Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, Hunter combats the Thirty Years’ narrative. Such “commentaries convey a sense of inevitability and permanency about Sunni-Shia conflict, not only in Iraq but also elsewhere in the Muslim world where there are substantial Shia minorities,” Hunter writes. Prefacing her argument with the fact that Sunnis and Shiites have lived aside one another, overwhelmingly in peace, since the original Islamic schism, Hunter points to modern history (post-1979) and regional politics to explain the current escalation of sectarian conflict. Of particular note, Hunter highlights the unsupervised aftermath of the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent “Western strategy of instrumentalizing sectarian differences to forge a regional alliance against Iran.” This seems important. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, Hunter’s analysis allows us to realize that both the U.S. and “the West” possess a share of ownership in these crises. Whatever shortcomings we face in influencing combatants on the ground, this recognition leaves us plenty of space to alter our conduct—operative space within our direct control.

I would add to Hunter’s analysis that the Western interventionist policies that have fueled these conflicts in fact run more deeply than modern history alone. Centuries of European colonialism did a number on the world, and the Middle East is no exception. As the Ottoman Empire gradually declined at the end of the 19th century, European focus increasingly shifted toward the Near East. By the turn of the 20th century, there was an almost obsessive fear in colonial circles, who were worried about the threat “pan-Islam” posed to European colonial holdings, notes Middle East scholar Zachary Lockman in his book Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. Lockman cites a 1901 French colonial journal, quoting one orientalist who wrote, “Although Islam as a religion was basically finished, the colonial powers still faced a serious threat from pan-Islam, which might foster anticolonial revolts in a number of Muslim lands at the same time. Therefore the goal must be ‘to weaken Islam… to render it forever incapable of great awakenings.’ ‘I believe,’ this scholar wrote ‘that we should endeavor to split the Muslim world, to break its moral unity, using to this effect the ethnic and political divisions… In one word, let us segment Islam, and make use, moreover, of Muslim heresies and the Sufi orders.’” (Notice, by the way, that while these fears were always overblown, they represent the exact opposite of our current fears regarding essentialized sectarianism).

This was not just some colonial conspiracy, either. When Britain and France inherited large Ottoman territories at the end of World War I, such intentionally divisive policies were carried out into practice. Much has been made of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which essentially plotted today’s boundaries of the Middle East according to the logic of Empire, rather than any social or demographic accord with the populations actually living there. But equally important are colonialism’s less talked about “divide-and-rule” administrative strategies. In the same way that Britain ossified the Indian caste system and popularized the Hamitic Hypothesis among Hutus and Tutsis, colonial administrators looked to amplify existing divisions within Islam in the Middle East. Colonial powers used these divisions to elevate minorities into domesticated positions of docile power. It was not so much that these sectarian divisions actually mattered, but that figures like Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence forced them to matter.

And so Britain placed a Sunni Hashemite king on the new throne of Shia Iraq, while the French loaded the military in Sunni-majority Syria to the brim with minority Alawites. These inverted sectarian power structures have seen much turbulence, and are still to this day under violent contestation. Such colonial inversions might not have been a source of violence themselves. The whole area had, after all, been relatively peacefully administered by foreign Ottoman Turks for a couple of centuries. But along with inversions of political administrative and law-making power came new, near kleptocratic concentrations of economic power in the form of Western-modeled capitalism. Whatever your feelings on Marx, it seems clear that such material hierarchies tend to self-perpetuate and exacerbate over time. Through violent post-colonial periods of both monarchy and authoritarianism, sectarian minorities often held dominating control over society’s means of production. To take just one consequence: it was, in large part, the radical and unadulterated redistribution of these economic hierarchies in post-2003 Iraq, which convinced enough Sunnis to don black balaclavas and call themselves ISIS.

The point is not that the West is the root of all evil in the region—another common narrative, as problematic as forced allusions to the Thirty Years’ War. Rather, my point is that if we cannot even realize our own equity in these contemporary sectarian disasters, then it seems intuitively less likely that we will recognize and properly navigate the contours of equity belonging to the region’s indigenous shareholders. This, unfortunately, is the exact substance that eventual peace will be forged of. If the roots of these conflicts are political—as opposed to immutable and religious—then their solutions can also be politically crafted. Both the United States and the wider West do have important interests in the region, not the least of which involve protecting human rights and promoting liberal values. For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the West does not play some eventual role in extinguishing this sudden rise of sectarian tension. We should seek ways of understanding what’s going on over there.

But calling today’s Middle East the Thirty Years’ War is both ideologically self-serving, and immensely counterproductive. It entirely muddles the possibility that this is all just senseless bloodshed. The possibility that each life lost is not one step toward peace and sectarian reconciliation (à la Westphalia), but rather a step in the other direction: a senseless prolongation of hostilities that only ratchets up the cycle of violence, deferring peace and planting the seeds of tomorrow’s human rights disasters in the collective memories of all parties involved.

Heuristics are great when they facilitate understanding. Really. But here, blind acceptance of this Thirty Years’ War narrative is more like taking a shortcut through a swamp. As long as we opt for this route, chances are that peace will come later, not sooner. One can only hope that this realization does not take thirty years.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Alessandra Kocman/Creative Commons


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The Middle East is not undergoing a Thirty Years’ War: forced analogies and human rights (part 1 of 2)

By Chris Beall

With the recent escalation in Yemen between Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Arab coalition forces, journalists, commentators and policymakers have resurfaced a popular story to explain the latest wave of fighting in the Hadramaut. It goes something like this: whatever the particular circumstances of this individual conflict, what we’re really witnessing in the sectarian warfare across the contemporary Middle East is a theological realignment and reformation of Islam itself—a prolonged umbrella conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that resembles the scope and significance of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War.

Whatever its original source, this story has gained remarkable traction over the last few years. With the rapid ascent of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the virtual unraveling of Syria and Iraq along sectarian lines, commentators from a variety of backgrounds have deployed this narrative to explain the truly horrific bloodshed that has unleashed in the region. Whether one looks to the easing of Iranian sanctions or the implosion of the Arab Spring, 17th-century European history seems to be on everyone’s tongue. For the last three centuries, the Thirty Years’ War has never been more in vogue.

EUROPE’S THIRTY YEARS’ WAR

I’ll leave a detailed exegesis of this old European conflict to the historians. Essentially, the series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648 were fueled by Catholic-Protestant tensions, resulting from unsustainable post-Reformation political arrangements throughout the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. What was planted as structural insufficiencies in the Peace of Augsburg sprouted into the violent fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire, and then, through the vying international interests of competing great thrones, blossomed into devastating decades-long warfare that was truly continental in scope. Although the protracted conflict saw its share of opportunism and side-swapping, the course of the internecine bloodshed basically played out along Christianity’s sectarian boundaries.

In today’s discussions, there are two important takeaways from the Thirty Years’ War. The first concerns the Peace of Westphalia, which brought an eventual end to hostilities, and is commonly cited as the birth of the modern nation-state international system. The idea, crudely, is that subjects no longer paid sometimes-competing allegiances to the throne and the clergy, but instead envisioned themselves as discrete social units (or “imagined communities”) paying undiluted loyalty to an authorized sovereign administering specified and legal territorial borders. On one hand, 30 years of shifting war fronts earns you territorial boundaries that reflect at least some demographic and socio-religious logic, while on the other hand, the passions and ferocity of religion itself are subdued and partially supplanted by nationalism.

The second important takeaway from Thirty Years’ War is how three decades of combat truly ravished the continent, killing an estimated eight million people. In Germany alone, one-fifth of the population was lost to violence, disease and starvation. The war also devastated Europe’s early 17th century economy, leading marauding armies to loot and prey on civilians, thereby inviting atrocities perpetuated by all sides of the conflict.

A SUNNI-SHIA THIRTY YEARS’ WAR?

Considering the first lesson above, there are tempting reasons to want to believe that the current sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites is a development that mirrors the Thirty Years’ War. To do so endows an undercurrent of nationalist sacrifice to all of this violence— that whatever blood might get spilled in places like Iraq and Yemen, it’s all for the greater good as this long-troubled region earns its own Peace of Westphalia. At which point, of course, peace and stability will undoubtedly flourish.

However to accept this idea inherently implies an acceptance of that second above point as well, and this inseparability plays out in the commentary. For example, Richard Haass, in his July 2014 article for Project Syndicate: “Policymakers must recognize their limits,” Haass writes. “For now and for the foreseeable future – until a new local order emerges or exhaustion sets in – the Middle East will be less a problem to be solved than a condition to be managed.” Such nonchalance is nothing short of chilling, when you consider that the “condition” Haass so casually mentions takes the form of mass executions, kidnappings, beheadings, sexual enslavement, sectarian cleansing and literally lighting people on fire in cages. It should also distress us that Haass is not exactly making these comments from his mother’s basement: he is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of America’s most accomplished diplomats and an active advisor of both Democrats and Republicans.

Many onlookers, including myself, have argued that military intervention—especially U.S. military intervention—in Syria and Iraq would do more harm than good. I, for one, still believe that. But to confuse this with the idea that today’s Middle East involves any less of a “problem to be solved,” and that both the US and the international community should sit idly by (with, out of all fairness to Haass, an occasional drone strike) and await some naturally occurring grand peace is an absurdity. A far more reasonable course of conduct would involve using diplomacy and American soft power with the intensity and resources we seemingly devote only to hard power—but such a policy argument is beyond my scope here.

My point is simply that to mindlessly compare today’s sectarian wars in the Middle East to Europe’s Thirty Years’ War both normalizes and practically endorses the rampant human rights abuses that such conflicts have wrought. While it is certainly tempting to accept this analogy, and keep our hands clean in the process, realize that to do so involves a political decision, and an impulse forged more by ideology than any facts on the ground. It’s one thing to connect dots and recognize patterns. Surely, there are commonalities between Sunni-Shia and Catholic-Protestant sectarianism, or any sectarianism, for that matter. But it’s something else entirely to enslave our thinking to our own forced analogies, out of nothing but the desire for heuristic simplicity and cookie-cutter interpretive models. Recognize also that when we allow such limited thinking to bleed into our policymaking (and considering the comments of both Haass and Leon Panetta, I think that we do), there will be monstrous consequences for human rights in the region.

In the second part of this series on the Thirty Years’ War narrative and the Middle East, I’ll look at more useful interpretive models to analyze the recent conflicts.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Palamedes Palamedesz/Public Domain


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One last in memoriam: the Oslo Accords

By Chris Beall Oslo

Since the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud party in Israel’s Knesset election on March 17, there’s been a lot of talk about what these results mean for whatever still exists of a “peace process.” For many commentators and onlookers—human rights advocates among them—five more years of a Likud government brings a deep pessimism concerning the likelihood of foreseeable peace between Israel and Palestine. I, myself, tend to share this pessimism, and I don’t think it very hard to buy into the premise that, in some abstract way, a vote cast for Likud is kind-of-sort-of a vote for extremism on all sides of the battle lines.

Seriously, imagine the jubilee that must be sounding from the yellow-bannered bunkers of Dahiyeh and South Lebanon, or the under-reconstruction tunnel networks in Gaza, right about now. Rather than facing the domestic scrutiny and credibility crises that groups like Hezbollah and Hamas certainly deserve among their own constituents (and the world, for that matter), these groups may instead cite Netanyahu’s particularly ugly campaign tactics, and get back to business as usual. Whether they point to the Prime Minister’s reversal of his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, his rejection of a two-state solution under his watch, or his fear-mongering warnings of Arabs “voting in droves,” it seems that at least in the short term, Bibi’s bought them some time.

Violent non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas justify and publicly legitimize their own acts of violence and/or terrorism under the politically calculated assumption that actual coexistence alongside Israel is not, and has never actually been, on the table. With campaign comments like the above, Netanyahu has single-handedly provided a great deal of weight to the skepticism that asks whether such coexistence is possible, in the absence of external pressure. And external pressure, in its vilest form, is exactly what groups like Hamas are selling.

To be clear: nothing justifies terrorism or the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians. Even stripped of such moralism, there’s a million pragmatic flaws in the idea that such violence can ever accomplish these sorts of groups’ espoused political goals. But any analysis would be remiss if we overlooked a certain problem of democracy here. Without diving too deeply into my fuzzy undergraduate memory of Rousseau and social contracts, there’s something especially depressing in the fact that Netanyahu’s revolting, xenophobic green light comes with the backing of a democratic majority (technically a plurality, but you get what I’m saying). On the last days of the campaign trail and behind in the polls, Bibi stood ideologically naked, exposing to the world how he actually feels, or at the very least, how he strategically would have needed to feel in order to get reelected in Israel—and it worked.

There’s real hazard in talk like this. When the workings of representative government mutate a toxic elected official or political party into a toxic body politic writ large, then, at least in this conflict, it becomes dangerously easy to casually slip into overblown common denominators: the essentialized and “inherently” dichotomous fictions of Israeli v. Arab or Muslim v. Jew. Stated differently: What is undoubtedly a century-old political problem—surely one with a political solution—suddenly starts to feel a lot more explainable and readily understandable in terms of the binary narratives offered by the extremist opponents of that exact, hoped-for political solution. These sorts of groups, which have existed on both sides in various forms well before 1948, are the ultimate antagonists of lasting peace in the region.

Instead of accepting such narratives, which can only exacerbate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the question right now should become, “How else might we make sense of all this?” As discussions about the status of a two-state solution heat up internationally, we must revisit the political circumstances that have birthed this Likud reelection—a victory fueled by ethnic tensions and toxic dichotomous language.

THE MANY SLOW DEATHS OF OSLO

Palestinians, Israelis and the international community alike have all grown increasingly frustrated and wary of the Israeli-Palestinian peace framework first adopted under the 1993-1995 Oslo Accords. At risk of bulldozing the nuances, a crude summary: The Oslo I Accord, negotiated in Norway in 1993, established mutual recognition between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and created the Palestinian Authority to semi-autonomously govern some of the occupied territories for an intended interim period. The Oslo II Accord, signed in Taba, Egypt in 1995, created the current Areas A, B and C jurisdictional schema in the West Bank, which is still in force today, and established a degree of economic and security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Collectively, neither plan promised Palestinian statehood, but created a procedural apparatus for hashing out an embryonic prototype of an eventual two-state solution. By showing tangible and immediate acts of goodwill on both sides, the goal was to build a negotiating relationship that would foster a final-status agreement. The Oslo Accords promised mutual-recognition and small steps towards peace, with the ultimate goal of reaching a final agreement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 within five years of the Accords’ adoption.

To some, the degree of step-by-step conditionality structurally built into the Oslo Accords meant that they never realistically stood a chance from the start. Perhaps. But it is also true that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority did take tangible measures—sometimes at great political cost—to meet and exceed their obligations under Oslo. Indeed, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paid for Oslo with his own life, assassinated by a Zionist fanatic just weeks after signing Oslo II. And yet, by and large, the Accords were met with popular support from both Israel and Palestine. Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad boycotted Palestine’s post-Oslo 1996 elections, the results do represent a high-water mark for hopes of peace and mutually negotiated Palestinian sovereignty. Yasser Arafat’s landslide victory with 88 percent of Palestinian presidential votes represented more than tacit approval for the PLO’s peace efforts, and a popular mandate for Oslo itself.

Things fell apart, of course. A brutal terrorism campaign launched by Hamas, combined with Israel’s own lackluster implementation of Oslo initiatives (settlement freezes, to take just one example), would mean that by the end of that five-year Final Settlement deadline in 1999, both parties had largely forgotten those mutual acts of goodwill first birthed by the process. The failure of the Camp David peace attempt in 2000, the Second Intifada and Israel’s launch of Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 represented the first major death of the Oslo Process.

In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, Hamas’ radical Islamist coalition won a shocking 74/132 seats in Palestine’s interim-legislature, causing a subsequent civil war between Fatah and Hamas. This election, the lasting rift between Gaza and the West Bank and monolithic statements made about Palestinians being untrustworthy partners in peace could easily be said to represent a second deathblow to Oslo. The loss of popular support for the formalized peace process among Palestinians would mark a much more difficult derailment of peace, not easily fixed by any forced-sit down among the parties.

As hinted above, such a loss of popular support should not have surprised anybody. The Palestinian disillusionment with the Oslo Accords was entirely reasonable, in the face of ongoing Israeli colonial projects, renewed direct occupation, shattered optimism at sovereignty and the Palestinian Authority’s own crippling corruption and gross maladministration. With a constricted Bantustan economy (or an outright blockaded economy in Gaza, post-2007) and unceasing loss of dignity under the brutalities of occupation, ordinary Palestinians failed to ever see any tangible and concrete benefits stemming from the political trust-building process that was the Oslo Accords.

FIVE MORE FOR BIBI: THE LAST DEATH OF OSLO

Until recently, little had changed in the lives of Palestinians. The period since 2006 has been marked by continual settler expansion, the demolition of Palestinian homes and agricultural crops, restricted access to resources and sources of Palestinian livelihood and intermittent periods subjected to direct and disproportionate Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) violence. Whether one supports or condemns the Palestinian Authority’s recent efforts to pursue heterodox, perhaps even quasi-unilateral solutions to their ongoing plight, what we are seeing today is a logical ending and a final release from the paralyzing aftermath of the Oslo Accords.

Truthfully, nobody knows where this leads us. And it is this exact renewed sense of wilderness that in large part explains Netanyahu’s latest electoral miracle: a development that will likely position him as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister since David Ben-Gurion. Change is scary. With Abbas pursuing justice in international forums entirely beyond the horizons of the traditional peace process, and with Palestinian nods toward ending security cooperation in the West Bank (the definitive ending of Oslo), the political utility of Bibi’s cheap resorts to xenophobic provocation isn’t exactly surprising. For a man who has furiously opposed the Oslo Accords since their inception, Bibi now finally gets to be the political leader who will steer Israel beyond whatever remains of their grasp. He’s finally won.

Granted, the immediate outlook of peace under Netanyahu is unsurprisingly bleak, and will almost certainly get worse before things can get better. But as we collectively watch the Oslo Accords die one last death in Israel/Palestine, there is still immense hope to be shared that all parties involved will learn something from the Accords’ presently unwinding failed legacy.

Above all else, Oslo’s last shot at a noble death would entail the recognition that, while this century-old conflict’s solution will surely be political in nature, this does not mean that peace can exist solely as some gentleman’s agreement, between politicians. Rather, a future peace must address the immediate and tangible concerns of the conflict’s most direct stakeholders, those that have suffered most viscerally and shed the most blood: ordinary Palestinians and Israelis alike. People actually have to care about peace, or at least be shown its rewards and its benefits. Political goodwill is important, but cannot survive in the absence of popular support. While the failure of Oslo reveals that public patience is a limited resource, it is also, thankfully, a renewable resource. We shouldn’t lose sight of that.

Whatever comes next, Oslo should haunt us and influence how we approach peace in the future. Otherwise, the Oslo Accords will be remembered as little more than a photograph in our children’s history textbooks—two guys shaking hands on the White House lawn, and none of it meant a damn thing at all.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Vince Musi/The White House/Creative Commons


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Self-fulfilling propaganda: the effects of arming Ukraine

By Chris Beall

Did you know that in November 2013, Ukrainians overthrew their legitimate and democratically elected government in a violent, Western-supported coup? Did you know that later in April, the Kiev military launched a brutal campaign against the nation’s “independence supporters” in Donbass, or that, through a sophisticated Western propaganda campaign, the U.S. has maliciously and wrongfully painted Russia as the conflict’s aggressor?

How about the “very likely” belief that most weapons possessed by the independence supporters are, actually, locally sourced? Or the fact—substantiated through multiple neutral inspections—that no indication of Russian military activity has yet to be detected along the Ukrainian border? That “Canada, Britain, the U.S. and the boys with their toys in NATO headquarters are looking for a fight with Russia,” and that these Western nations are implementing policies in the region based on “imperial hubris instead of science and expertise?”

So goes the discourse, under the Russian propaganda machine. This is what journalism looks like when the Kremlin handles your payroll.

Of course, as a preface, let’s not oversell this. Our own media system is no stranger to questionably selective cherry-picking. It’s rare even in the West to find a truly nuanced treatment of the Ukraine crisis: one which takes seriously Russia’s real geostrategic interests in the region, or, for example, the important role played by Ukrainian gas debts in explaining Russia’s reaction the above-noted coup.

And yet, without myself being on the ground in Donetsk, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the bulk of the above amounts to utter absurdity. Amnesty International has highlighted the mounting evidence of direct Russian involvement in Ukraine, and a recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think-tank, confirms the same.

Writing for Foreign Policy, Peter Pomerantsev argues that Vladimir Putin’s greatest political success in recent years has been his construction of a truly modern Russian propaganda apparatus: a selective information machine marked by glitz and innovation beyond the scope of its stale Soviet predecessor. According to Pomerantsev, Putin has created a willingly captive audience for the narratives disseminated out of the Kremlin—claims like Ukraine’s new government being run by neo-Nazis or the borderline-paranoid assumption that the United States and NATO are constantly plotting to weaken and undermine Moscow. This partially explains Putin’s extraordinary 86 percent approval rating as of late, despite the virtual collapse of the ruble and Russia’s increasingly repressive domestic police measures.

But what is perhaps the most remarkable in all of this post-Soviet propaganda regarding the Ukraine crisis is how badly certain elements of our own government in Washington apparently seek to legitimize these exact narratives.

As the less-than-optimistic Minsk II peace treaty between Kiev and Ukraine’s Eastern Provinces limps onward, conversations have already resurfaced in Washington encouraging President Obama to arm the Ukrainian government with lethal aid and military assistance, aimed at countering Putin’s aggressive foreign policy actions. Just on March 4, a bipartisan mix of eleven U.S. Representatives brought a new letter to President Obama, urging the “transfer of lethal, defensive weapons systems to the Ukrainian military.” Meanwhile, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey and our new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter have each displayed some willingness to adopt such a policy.

Needless to say, there is some logic to arming Kiev. These sorts of arms shipments are an all too familiar form of asymmetrical hard power, employed by nation-states all over the globe. The basic idea is to put Ukraine in a position where it may drastically increase the strategic costs of Russian intervention in the region. Put bluntly, the goal is to kill increasing numbers of Russians fighting alongside Eastern Ukrainian separatists, and thereby erode Putin’s domestic approval as casualties mount. Or, as Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution summarizes, “The government supposedly fears the ire of Russian mothers whose devotion to the well-being of their soldier-sons can move political mountains even in authoritarian Russia. Rather than face a growing number of aroused and organized Russian mothers, the thinking goes, President Vladimir Putin will avoid escalation in Ukraine.”

However, while this form of containment policy can be implemented cheaply and easily by the United States, this hardly means that it will actually solve anything. As Shapiro wisely recognizes, “Unfortunately, one of the few more powerful forces than mothers in Russian politics is anti-Americanism.” Given President Putin’s current approval ratings and the complex and multifaceted propaganda machine he has built for himself, it would be impossible for the United States to arm Kiev without providing support and credibility to the Kremlin’s U.S.-imperial narrative.

Furthermore, while it’s easy for members of the House to romantically sympathize with the ongoing struggle of the bullied Ukrainian government—as we should—it’s quite another leap entirely to think that sending guns will actually aid in their plight. Paternalistic as it may sound, it is crucial to consider the realpolitik backdrop of this conflict. Nobody doubts that geopolitically, Ukraine is far more important to Russia than to the United States. Likewise, it is clear that short of direct U.S. military intervention and open combat with Russia, nothing is really stopping the Russian military from storming Kiev and devouring the whole country, if that’s what the Kremlin actually wanted.

The risk, then, is turning this into a post-Cold War chicken match, in which the United States is almost certain to blink first, and the result of which will only reinforce the American imperialism framework that Russia has utilized to rationalize and build domestic support for this conflict. Statesmanship starts to get silly as one approaches universal approval ratings. By placing ourselves in a position where the U.S. actually does play a hand in killing Russian servicemen, Putin would have all the fuel he needs to make a real mess of things in the region.

This, ultimately, raises questions regarding the human rights concerns of this policy. By upping Putin’s stakes in Ukraine and escalating this conflict beyond the last year’s six-thousand casualties, the real losers of U.S.-Ukrainian arms shipments will be those exact victims who would benefit the greatest under a diplomatic close to hostilities. This includes future victims of Kharviv-style terrorist attacks, in Kiev and elsewhere, as well as the civilians on both sides of the conflict, currently caught in the crossfires of Donbass. An escalation of hostilities, absent some realistic end goal of peace, will simply drag out this crisis.

There’s a reason that the U.S.’s own allies are warning us not to arm the Ukrainian government. France and Germany, the brokers of the current Minsk II peace treaty, recognize that this conflict only ends diplomatically. The fact that we will rely on these nations, in any attempt to place further economic pressure or Russia, goes without saying. But the U.S.’s relationship with its allies aside, if we truly want to promote rights, democracy and peace in Ukraine, then there seems little choice here other than at least temporarily placing our bets on Minsk II. Shaky as this treaty as started, sending U.S. arms to Kiev can only cripple its efforts, and further delay a diplomatic peace in Ukraine.

Chris Beall is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: People in Need/European Commission/Creative Commons