Nicholas Kristof on Ukraine: Rationalizing "Our Side" in a Clash of Global Oppressors

April 21, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


In a recent op-ed column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, a mainstream liberal, favorably quotes a Ukrainian paramilitary member, boasting, "We will defeat the Russian Army, hang the Ukrainian flag over the Kremlin, and turn it into a lake." And Kristof declares of these paramilitary forces, and those they serve, "We should do more to back them up" with military "aid." ("Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Aid," April 16, 2014)

Kristof knows that his audience is war-weary and skeptical of rationalizations for U.S. military aggression. In that light, he writes, "Usually in international affairs there's a good deal of gray, but what is happening in Ukraine is pretty black and white."

Kristof obscures and reverses reality. The role of U.S. interventions in other countries—which is the operative dimension of "international affairs" here—is not a matter of shades of "gray." It is clear as day. It is a history of wars of empire that have resulted in millions of deaths from Central America to Southeast Asia, from South Africa to Syria. (See "Trampling On Other Nations? The U.S. Empire Was Built On That.")

And Kristof's "black and white" case that the U.S. should amp up military intervention in Ukraine is built on distortions and lies.

Aligning a War-Weary Audience with the Interests of Empire

Kristof's readers remember that George W. Bush invaded Iraq based on lies about "weapons of mass destruction." That invasion and occupation have been a horrific crime that killed or displaced a million people and left a country in ruins.

The fact is, every war, or "covert operation," launched by U.S. imperialism has been justified by lies. Remember the testimony before Congress leading up to the 1990 U.S. invasion of Iraq about how the Iraqis in Kuwait were pulling the plugs of incubators with infants in them? This was a major moment in justifying the first U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was a total lie, but after that lie served its purpose, those who perpetrated it simply "moved on" with the self-righteous complicity of the "free press."

Here's what happened: On October 10, 1990, testimony was presented to the U.S. Congress' Human Rights Caucus by a woman claiming she witnessed Iraqi troops disconnecting and stealing incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals, killing infants in the process. The testimony was cited numerous times by figures in the U.S. ruling class, including President Bush, and was widely disseminated in the media (including irresponsibly by some human rights groups).

Now Saddam Hussein was a (relatively small-scale) brutal tyrant. But the U.S. invasion made life far worse for the people of Iraq and the region. The U.S. invaders who drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and then moved into Iraq killed or injured 100,000 Iraqis. They left the country's critical health and social service infrastructure in ruins. That crime, followed by years of sanctions, resulted in the actual deaths of some 500,000 real children.1

After the war, ABC News reported that Iraqi troops "almost certainly had not stolen hospital incubators and left hundreds of Kuwaiti babies to die." But that story was a blip on the news, if that.

This was not a "gray" area in "international relations." It was a great crime that resulted in massive death and misery—including of children—sold with lies.

The Interests Behind the Lies

Behind the lies about the reasons for the conflict in Ukraine, and the utterly the self-serving U.S. government declarations of representing the interests of the people of Ukraine, are the interests of rival predatory powers.

For years, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) have been moving steadily, if not in lockstep, to move Ukraine into their orbit—not just or even mainly to claim a lion's share of the rich agricultural and factory output of the country, but as part of geostrategic contention with the rival imperialists who rule Russia. This has included steps to integrate Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe into NATO, the U.S./Europe military alliance.

In an article written in 1997, Zbigniew Brzezinski—a major and long-time ruling class geopolitical strategist aligned with the Democratic Party—outlined a strategy for maintaining "America's role as the first and only global superpower." He identified potential challenges to that status, and identified potential conflict with a resurgent Russia over former Soviet republics as a key front in that strategy—specifically arguing that "A sovereign Ukraine is a critically important component of such a policy." And in context, Brzezinski clearly meant a Ukraine that is "sovereign" in relation to Russia but is aligned with the U.S. He called for making Ukraine "ready for initial negotiations with the EU and NATO." ("A Geostrategy for Eurasia," Foreign Affairs, September/October 1997)

(For background on this and other global conflicts, see "Shifts and Faultlines in the World Economy and Great Power Rivalry—What Is Happening and What It Might Mean" by Raymond Lotta.)

Black and White, Right and Wrong

In the current conflict in Ukraine, as throughout their history, the rulers of the U.S. and their representatives in the mass media and culture don't mobilize people for war by declaring "the predatory interests of our empire—our share of a world of slums, sweatshops, and a million forms of oppression—are being challenged by other predators, and we have to stop them even at the risk of war, with the likelihood of greatly intensified death and suffering."

No. They don't say that. They don't even see the world that way, for the most part. To the extent they (or some of their representatives) see things in those terms, they have sense enough not to make that case in public. But in the main, their outlook, and the worldview they project, profoundly mis-identifies the interests of this tiny handful of people and the capitalist-imperialist system they preside over as identical with the interests of humanity.

So, from the invocation of "massacres by savage Indians" to claims that drone attacks on forces who are perceived as threats to the interests of the U.S. empire are about "keeping Americans safe," the rulers of the U.S. have never told the truth about why their armed forces are stationed in over 100 countries, and the wars they wage against rebels, rivals, or potential rivals.

The Last People in the World to Talk About "Interfering"

Without noting—much less refuting—what exactly it is he is referring to, Nicholas Kristof dismisses everything Russia has charged the U.S. with as "propaganda [that] has reached almost North Korea proportions."


Let's examine one of the supposedly absurd Russian accusations: that the U.S. has been meddling in the internal politics of Ukraine.

A leaked audio file on YouTube (which has not been refuted by the U.S.) reveals U.S. diplomats orchestrating regime change in Ukraine, and discussing how to portray it as a UN initiative. In December 2013, U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy (Republican and Democrat, respectively) joined and met with protesters in Ukraine who were demanding that the country accept economic conditions the EU was offering. McCain declared that "We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe." McCain and Murphy were part of a whole string of operatives from the West "advising" Ukrainian forces.

And last we checked, neither John McCain nor Chris Murphy was "indigenous" to the Ukraine, nor was the U.S. Senate.

The overt interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine by operatives of the U.S. ruling class happened—and is ongoing.

Now in fact, the Russian imperialist ruling class also has its own agenda in Ukraine. Its "aid" in the form of reduced gas prices—when that is offered—serves the interests of the resurgence of Russia's oppressive empire. And yes, Russia is involved in orchestrating secessionist forces in eastern Ukraine that no more (or less) represent the interests of the people than the forces being orchestrated by the U.S. and pro-U.S. forces in the Ukrainian ruling class.

But that doesn't mean that its accusations against the U.S. aren't true, or don't have at least a significant element of truth.

A Global Clash of Predators—With Terrible Implications for People

The escalating confrontation between Russia and the U.S. in Ukraine holds ominous implications for the people of that country, and beyond. It holds the potential to escalate into a wider and more destructive war, which would be a disaster. But even short of that, a simmering and escalating proxy war/civil war would have terrible impact on people in the region, and beyond.

Look at another front in the global clash between the U.S. and Russia: Syria. Invoking and claiming to be motivated by support for oppositional forces, the U.S. and its allies empowered a collection of reactionary armed groups to go up against the oppressive Russian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. Assad, backed by Russia and other powers, responded brutally.

As a result, Syria has become a humanitarian nightmare. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) issued a report on April 15 saying that "Syria's social fabric is being systematically torn apart" by the civil war. Some three million buildings have been destroyed along with much of the country's critical infrastructure. The report says child casualty rates "are the highest recorded in any recent conflict in the region." And that the number of children forced from their homes who remain inside the nation has more than tripled, to almost three million from 920,000 a year ago, and the number of children who have fled the country has more than quadrupled, to 1.2 million from 260,000.

Stakes for Humanity

Kristof's argument for escalated U.S. military involvement in Ukraine is based on obfuscation (portraying a legacy of U.S. aggression justified by lies as a "gray" area in "international affairs") and lies, while pointing to things the Russians are doing that are, in fact, expressions of their own predatory interests.

Anyone can "justify" aligning with one's "own" ruling class by looking only (or mainly) at what rival imperialist powers are doing. But the interests of the vast majority of humanity lie entirely outside the terms of the clash of global predators.

And it is not enough to dismiss Kristof's case. Many people, now, need to be speaking up. Remaining silent and passive because the situation in Ukraine is complex or because the danger of a war that would have a direct impact on people in this country in the short term seems remote right now, amounts to silent and passive complicity.

Breaking out of the framework of the current global world order means breaking out of the outlook and rule of capitalism—whether that takes the form of "U.S. democracy" (ruling over the world's largest oppressive empire and locking millions up in the world's largest prison system) or Putin's package of traditional (oppressive) values mixed with claims to being an alternative to U.S. global supremacy.

It is critical that a real alternative to capitalism get on the map as a force in this world. And an essential element right now is for a vocal, visible section of people in the U.S. to refuse to be played into aligning with the rulers of this country, and to expose the lies and oppose the moves of "our own" ruling class in Ukraine.


1. Madeleine Albright was the ambassador to the United Nations in 1996 when she made the infamous statement on 60 Minutes in response to Leslie Stahl's question about the price of sanctions against the people of Iraq from 1990-1996 and the deaths of Iraqi children during that time : "We think the price [the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children] is worth it." She later became the Secretary of State under Bill Clinton in 1997. [back]

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