Step by Step to World War III?

As 2014 commenced, the media was awash in the events leading up to WWI a hundred years previously: the diplomatic miscalculations, power plays, honor pride, and other human frailties in an ineluctable march to hostilities; all with a vain conceit that it could not happen in today’s world. Yet in the current Ukraine crisis, Washington is offering its own mix of myopia, evangelic righteousness, a Washington beltway echo chamber where dissent is drowned out, and an amazing capacity to transform reality into its narrow and misguided hegemonic strategy.

To press forward with the effort to corner and neutralize Russia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was invited to Washington in an effort to pressure the most significant European opposition into stronger sanctions. At the onset of her trip, however, four major German companies signed and delivered a letter to her opposing any such escalation. Since her return there have been signs of some initial progress with Mr. Putin – in part due to his change in rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the first clashes, fatalities and what some are labeling a massacre (of 38 civilians sheltering in an Odessa labor union building which was firebombed), have turned peaceful demonstration into confrontation. The latest attacks in Mariupol have killed another score or more. It could have been expected when Kiev dispatched the far-right militias to accompany the military. As in all such situations, events are murky with charges and counter-charges. Nevertheless, two things are certain: many have died, and the prevailing sentiment in the east has hardened against Kiev. It did not help that the Mariupol killings occurred while Russians commemorated the end of WWII, in which 26 million Russians (including Ukrainians) perished, and during which the far-right Ukrainian militias were Nazi sympathizers.

Russian troops have been massed on the eastern border (which Mr. Putin claims – and NATO disagrees – are being withdrawn) while NATO is developing a response on the western side, and the game is becoming exceedingly dangerous. Pressed further, the Russians may feel impelled to defend their brethren in the east. If NATO, urged by Kiev, enters from the west, we have a tinder box with the possibility of a serious miscalculation and a direct clash. Russia, of course, is not Iraq; it, like the U.S., has enough nuclear weapons to obliterate the world. So why this madness?

The fact is U.S. strategic thinking is embalmed in the Cold War – Russia must be contained. This containment strategy has absorbed almost all the former East European Russian satellites in contravention of the agreement with Gorbachev. NATO’s march is now into the heartland, into Ukraine. Bottling Russia up or marginalizing it has been and still is the intent: denying the Mediterranean, or attempting to, forcing it to act, first in Crimea and now possibly in eastern Ukraine to bring chaos on its western flank. But it remains in Kiev’s interest to negotiate a solution if it wishes to retain the industrial east.

A clear-headed analysis and a future horizon would orient towards economic cooperation with a nuclear-armed state the size of Russia. Unfortunately, Sovietologists of the past holding sway in the U.S. are still tied to their geopolitical imperative of European domination, of a strategic encirclement to neutralize Russia. The rigid mindset trumps economic considerations, or the dangers of going backwards to the Cold War days when people were building nuclear shelters in their backyard, or even some odious Kiev allies. U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and far from a liberal, forced Victoria Neuland (of ‘f*** the EU’ fame) to admit to the latter in a recent appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The backward thinking does not stop in Europe. It sees China’s economic growth as a future threat to be countered militarily. The U.S. is now building a base on Jeju island in South Korea not 300 miles from Shanghai as a part of the ring of missiles and nuclear-armed aircraft around China.

All this brings to mind the award-winning documentary filmmaker Robert Frye’s latest effort In My Lifetime. Spanning the arc of time from 1945 to the present day, it follows the theme of nuclear weapons, the buildup of an arsenal capable of destroying the earth. In one scene, a janitor is shown sweeping the floor right next to a neat line of a score or more bombs, each one a hundred times more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki which together killed 240,000 people. As he casually continues his task, the contrast between a single human being and a bomb capable of killing tens of millions is a stark reminder of our nuclear insanity.

Evan Thomas’ book Ike’s Bluff reveals an Eisenhower who was opposed to dropping the atomic bombs on Japan, and who, as President, used guile and wile to protect us from nuclear catastrophe in a perilous time with a raging Korean war (which he ended), and the memories of killing hundreds of thousands in a night of bombing fresh enough to desensitize some policymakers and generals into adding another zero to the numbers and imagining nuclear war as a real option.

And on Korea, University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings’s latest book, The Korean War: A History, reminds us of the origins of the Korean conflict where the Northerners who fought the Japanese in WWII were branded ‘commies’ whereas the collaborators with Japan in the South were installed there by the U.S. as a countervailing force. The subsequent hell (1950-1953) killed more Koreans than the number of Japanese killed in the entire Second World War.

Eisenhower might have had the courage and military heft to stand up to the warmongers; the worry is who can do it now, and who can do it when alternative voices have been all but silenced in the major U.S. media space, and the public is uninformed.

Arshad M Khan is an occasional contributor, whose comments have appeared in a wide-ranging array of print and electronic media including The Christian Science Monitor, Dawn (Pakistan’s leading daily), The Dallas Morning News, Forth Worth Star Telegram, Asia Times Online, Eurasia Review, and many others.