By seizing the Crimea, Russia has threatened the international community

Aaron Ellis

As the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine escalated over the weekend, many in the West showed an embarrassing lack of character. Seemingly contemptuous of its international obligations, a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council seized the territory of another country, justifying its actions on the same grounds as Hitler when he demanded the Sudetenland. Rather than appreciate the potential awfulness of the crisis and summon up their courage, however, Westerners reacted to it parochially and with snark.

“It’s Europe’s problem, let them sort it out,” declared many Americans, “we don’t have any interests there”, whereas various Western Europeans commented that, “We cannot be dragged into a war because of Russophobes in the East.” Those on the right of the political spectrum in both Britain and the United States blamed the supposedly ‘weak’ President Obama. Sajid Javid, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, claimed that there is ‘a direct link’ between Ed Miliband’s opposition to intervening in Syria last summer and Moscow’s actions now, making the Labour leader unfit to be Prime Minister. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Who gives a shit about all this? Russia is invading Ukraine.

The Allies fought a world war for, and built an international system on the principle that states must not be allowed to forcibly redraw their borders – no matter how much the people in the annexed territories ‘like’ their occupiers. We enshrined it in the UN Charter: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity…of any state’. The system that was created by the Allies (Russia amongst them) was designed to help countries find “the surer ways of preserving peace”, as Margaret Thatcher once said, ways enabling “the peoples of each sovereign state to lead their lives as they choose within established borders.”

When President Putin seized the Crimea, Ukraine became a vital interest of Britain, the United States, the European Union, and indeed anyone else interested in maintaining world peace. Mr. Putin’s actions struck at the foundation of a global order that has, in his own words, ‘underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.’ We simply cannot allow the challenge to go unpunished.

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In arguing over Snowden, pundits should not lightly disregard the complexities of national security


Louis Reynolds

The recent detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda at Heathrow Airport by Security Service officers is, unsurprisingly, a more complex event than most of the media has acknowledged. At both ends of the British political spectrum the series of events from the release of Snowdon’s stolen information to Miranda’s detention can be easily explained. To some, Greenwald stands as David to the state’s Goliath, the champion of journalistic freedom, fighting against a bullying security apparatus keen to use the necessity of secrecy as an excuse to crush personal liberty. To others, Miranda could be regarded as the naive puppet of a sanctimonious, short-sighted and self-interested liberal media outlet, pursuing profit and the advancement of its political agenda.

This binary perception of events fits conveniently into the timeless antagonism between liberty and security, that problem which troubled the Athenian empire of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and still troubles post-industrial states today. For Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society Douglas Murray, Julian Assange, Snowden and Greenwald are ‘saboteurs’ working towards an ‘increasingly clear and specific anti-Western agenda’. In Janet Daley’s opinion, national security concerns cannot compensate for the fact that the destruction of hard drives at the Guardian looks ‘on the face of it, like something out of East Germany in the 1970s’; Daley has even gone as far as to earnestly warn that ‘once you hear the jackboots, it’s too late’.

Despite the strong convictions of these opposing camps, this most recent incident cannot be explained in such a simplistic manner. The voluntary surrender of The Guardian’s hard drives to British intelligence officers and their subsequent destruction might seem like state intimidation; in reality it was the logical escalation of a series of requests by government officials to have the sensitive information destroyed. Miranda was not merely an innocent victim, detained because of his relationship with the man who broke the Snowden story; Miranda, whose plane ticket was paid for by The Guardian, was carrying sensitive documents on Greenwald’s behalf. Greenwald himself is not merely a champion of freedom, but a complicated actor who recently declared that the he was going to ‘publish things of England too’, that he had ‘many documents on England’s spy system’ and that they would be ‘sorry for what they did’ to his partner. Such a statement hardly echoes with the idealism of ‘give me liberty or give me death!’, and suggests motivations beyond public interest.

Yet it remains true that, if the detention of a journalist and the destruction of a newspaper’s hard drives had occurred in the same manner in Russia, the British government may well have expressed outrage and incredulity. Even Washington has felt the need to publically distance itself from events, perhaps self-indulgently given that US interaction with British security policy is far from that of a detached observer. Indeed, while this drama plays out in London and Heathrow, the real scandal remains curiously under-examined in the US, where alleged abuses of power and apparent mismanagement by the National Security Agency increasingly appear to pose a threat to the security of the US and her allies in a manner that threatens to dwarf the Snowden affair itself.

This leads us to contemplate the ‘security’ aspect of the debate. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger dismissively remarked in a recent editorial that the destroyed computers had to be thoroughly inspected ‘just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents’. Such flippant comments reveal how little such factors enter into the consideration of those at the centre of this media circus. That foreign nations or non-state actors might take advantage of intelligence leaks in order to damage our national security or that of NATO is a pressing danger, particularly given that the extent of the leaked information is uncertain. It is even clearer that these leaks are damaging to British foreign policy.

The motivations of The Guardian are principally pure, a genuine concern for personal liberty mixing with the pursuit of profit and publicity, and driven by a few significant egos. But while purity of intention confers morality on our deeds, it does not grant us special insight. Snowden betrayed the US security apparatus thanks to a schoolboy’s understanding of civil liberties; the result of his efforts to evade American justice was his courting of nations with a significant disregard for the individual freedoms and liberties. That The Guardian might through damaging the British and American states bolster opponents of liberty abroad is a clear danger. The Guardian has acted unilaterally, and judging by Greenwald’s latest outburst, driven by motives as crude as the desire to ‘stick it to the man’.

The risks of this media project are significant, and disregarded far too readily by those involved. The necessity of secrecy in intelligence work combined with the need for oversight means, as I have argued in these pages before, that we should trust in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s judgement or even perhaps seek to further bolster its powers. What is clear is that newspapers and private individuals are not more qualified to decide what is in the interest of the United Kingdom. Those involved in this media saga flippantly undertake actions with grave potential consequences. The media companies and individual ‘leakers’ involved might feel that they have a responsibility to champion civil liberties and inform the public about our security apparatuses. However, they also have a significant responsibility to consider the real repercussions of their actions in terms of the national interest, and to think more carefully before they act.

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Syrian rebels must accommodate Russia to end the civil war

Alexander Pannett 12.30pm 

The civil war in Syria has entered a new chapter of vicious proportions. In the past week a government plane and helicopter have been shot down and suicide bombs have erupted through the capital, Damascus. The rebels have now acquired heavy weaponry and surface-to-air missiles, underlining their growing proficiency and power.

Worryingly for the West, foreign Jihadists have been reported amongst the rebel ranks, including such al-Qaeda linked groups as the Al Nusrah Front. Fourteen of these groups based in the city of Aleppo recently rejected the newly formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Oppositional forces, instead calling for an Islamic State. In a country with vast stores of biological and chemical weaponry, the threat of Islamists gaining control of such dangerous reservoirs is particularly chilling.

These developments re-affirm the importance of the recent establishment of the National Coalition as the political leadership of the rebellion. It offers hope that a national government can be formed after Assad’s fall that will represent all the disparate elements of the rebellion and prevent Syria fracturing into chaos.

However, the Assad regime’s demise is far from certain. As each day goes by, Syria falls more and more apart as mounting atrocities splinter societies and allow extremist elements to gain support. Now that there is an established opposition government, the West must send arms and funds to secular rebel groups that support the National Coalition. But it must and can do more to speed the downfall of Assad. The quickest way to achieve this goal is to use old-fashioned realpolitik to both cut away Assad’s international support and to offer him a personal exit and sanctuary.

The major supporter of Assad that is preventing any action by the UN Security Council is Russia. I have written before about why Russia supports Assad and it is one reason above all others, Tartus. The Russian naval base at Tartus on the Syrian coast grants the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean and influence over the vital water-ways that lead to the strategically important Middle East. The West must press the National Coalition to assure Russia that it will retain its naval base after the fall of the Assad regime. This will encourage Russia to allow a UN mandate to impose no-fly zones in Syria.

For their part, the Russians are worried about direct military intervention in Syria, citing the sovereignty of nation states to resolve domestic disputes. This is a smoke-screen dilemma that hides Russia’s anxiety about losing influence in the Middle East to the US. These fears can be allayed by the West’s encouragement of the National Coalition to announce that palatable representatives of the Assad regime will have a place in the future of Syria. The National Coalition must also emphasise that minorities will be protected and could even gain autonomy.

Russia is also concerned about the advent of Jihadist elements amongst the rebels. The West also shares these security concerns. It should therefore share intelligence with Russia in order to isolate these extremist elements. It is in Russia’s interests as much as the West to ensure that the post-Assad regime is secular and not extremist. Russia must be encouraged to see that the National Coalition is an answer to its concerns, not an enemy to its interests.

Finally, the West should allow Assad a sanctuary to encourage him to end the fighting. Despite being a betrayal of the rights of the victims of his atrocities, if he is denied escape he will resist until the last and will likely resort to chemical and biological weapons as he becomes more desperate. For this Russia could be approached to facilitate Assad’s safety. He will be more likely to respond to assurances from such a powerful protector. Allowing Assad to avoid immediate punishment may be a distasteful solution but it will save many lives and Syria from further ruin if it brings the war to a swifter end. It should also be added that sanctuary offers only temporary safety, and as Mladic and other war criminals have discovered, justice not politics is a friend of time.

Civil wars erode the fabric of society that forms the basis of any functioning state. They run in negative correlation to the abstract legitimacy of a national identity. Now that the National Coalition has formed, Western support must crystallize around its secular aims. However, to achieve a quicker end, Russian interests must be consulted and accommodated. The National Coalition can isolate the Assad regime from international support if its guarantees Russian influence in post-Assad Syria. It can also end the war before extremists become too strong by granting Assad sanctuary to Russia.

Realpolitik may be an ugly solution but, at times, it saves lives.

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Arab politicians continue to use distant British history as an excuse for their own mistakes

Aaron Ellis 2.31pm

For many in the Arab world, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is what the Yalta conference was for many conservatives in the United States during the Cold War. It is a betrayal of people seeking freedom; a damning indictment of Great Power politics; and the source of all problems in the Middle East.

As with Yalta, all kinds of things are attributed to Sykes-Picot years after the event. For instance, the veteran Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt has said the Syria crisis is “unravelling” a deal that created the countries of the region. This lazy understanding was reinforced by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov writing that the Agreement was adopted by Britain and France in 1919, not 1916

The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Middle East between the two Great Powers and the Arabs; it did not create the nation states we know today.

France got modern Lebanon and southern Turkey, as well as a sphere of influence over an Arab kingdom in Syria. Britain acquired most of Mesopotamia and exercised influence over a Y-shaped Arab kingdom that stretched from the Egyptian border to northern Iraq and down into the Arabian Peninsula. Though the post-war carve-up vaguely resembled the deal, it actually began to unravel almost as soon as it had been negotiated by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.

British officials in Cairo hated the Agreement and worked to undermine it: they wanted Syria to be part of a Greater Egyptian viceroyalty that would rival the Indian Raj.

"I am afraid that swine Monsieur P[icot] has let M. S. badly down," wrote the Tory politician and diplomat Aubrey Herbert, an intelligence officer in Cairo. “This is what comes of disregarding the ABC of Diplomacy and letting Amateurs have a shy at delicate and important negotiations.”

In 1917, the deal unravelled further when the Bolsheviks leaked its details to embarrass the Allies, prompting a fierce reaction to what was viewed as outdated imperialist thinking, especially in the United States. The Russian Revolution had also removed Britain’s geopolitical reasoning for giving the French such a huge chunk of the Middle East: creating a buffer zone between them and the Russian Empire, which had been promised land in Turkey. Sykes wrote that the sooner the Agreement was scrapped the better, as the world had “marched so far” since it had been negotiated a year before and it could “now only be considered as a reactionary measure”.

His about-turn coincided with one higher up in government when David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in December 1917. Lloyd George wanted to increase Britain’s sphere of influence beyond that which Sykes had negotiated just a few years before. In his book A Line in the Sand, James Baar reports a conversation between Lloyd George and French premiere Georges Clemenceau in which the latter conceded to British demands. “Tell me what you want,” Clemenceau is supposed to have asked him.

“I want Mosul.”

“You shall have it. Anything else?”

“Yes, I want Jerusalem too.”

“You shall have it,” said Clemenceau. These concessions were recognised in the many peace conferences after the First World War, thus by 1922 the Sykes-Picot Agreement had completely unravelled.

The Middle Eastern order that people like Mr Jumblatt fear is disintegrating was created long after this much-maligned deal was a dead letter, and centuries-old problems in the region cannot be blamed on what was even then considered to be old-fashioned thinking about Great Power politics.

Britain can be rightly blamed for many things, but too often Arab politicians use our decades-old faults as an excuse for their own mistakes.

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Book review: ‘The Godfather Doctrine’

Aaron Ellis 10.12am

There is nothing wrong with using popular culture to enliven international relations. I once argued that The Magnificent Seven can be viewed as an analogy for Afghanistan, while this article explains why outdated warfare methods and institutional group-think made the Jedi a poor choice to lead the Grand Army of the Republic.

Undoubtedly there are those who will scoff at such things, yet if it is the job of an expert to communicate complex issues to the layman in a way he understands then popular culture is an important resource.

In The Godfather Doctrine, two experts try to use the best film of all time (yes, I said it…) as a parable for American foreign policy in the early 21st Century.

John C. Hulsman and A. Wess Mitchell argue that the world is changing at the expense of the United States and that it has been ill-served by both the liberal institutionalism of Tom Hagen and the neoconservatism of Sonny. If the country is to maintain its position in the world, it must adopt the realpolitik of Michael Corleone.

Unfortunately, the book’s premise is undermined by bad analogies – and as I have said in these pages before, bad analogies are fatal in foreign policy analysis.

Michael Corleone did not merely preserve his family’s power in the criminal underworld; he made it even more powerful and hegemonic than it was under his father Don Vito. He did not do it through ‘smart power’, as the authors of the book believe, but by murdering his rivals. If the United States literally tried to follow Michael’s example, it’d wipe out Brazil, Russia, India, and China in a pre-emptive nuclear strike and then become rulers of the galaxy…

This bad analogy, which undermines the premise of the book, is followed by many others which makes one wonder whether the authors have actually seen The Godfather. For example, they blame the “neocon” Sonny for the gangland war that followed after the murder of the drug-dealer Virgil Sollozzo – just as happened in Iraq. Yet it was Michael who triggered the conflict, first suggesting the hit to a reluctant Tom and Sonny and then carrying it out himself.

An analogy is also made between Sollozzo and Iran. Messrs’ Hulsman and Mitchell rhapsodise about Michael’s use of diplomacy and limited force and say that he would talk to Iran, as well as apply economic sanctions ‘to bring them to their knees’. Of course, in the film, Michael actually puts a bullet in Sollozzo’s head and then weathered the ensuing storm, just as the Israeli strategist Ron Tira argued his country could do a couple of years ago.

If I had to recommend a gangster film that would best explain American foreign policy to the layman, it would be the Coen Brothers’ Millers Crossing: the erratic, headstrong boss Leo whose temper is just about controlled by his realist right-hand man, Tom.

Not to mention being awesome with a firearm…

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The West, Russia & Syria: Foreign policy is rarely a zero-sum game

Aaron Ellis 6.12am

It is perfectly possible for one country to argue with another over a controversial issue at the same time as co-operating with them on several others - as long as they both get their priorities right and are diplomatic in explaining their differences publicly.

Unfortunately, both Britain and the United States have failed to do this with regard to Russia: they have given more attention to Syria, where they disagree with the latter, than to the many more important issues on which they share common interests. The way British and American officials have explained their differences with their Russian counterparts has also been appallingly undiplomatic and, unsurprisingly, counterproductive.

If London and Washington want to withdraw from Afghanistan, negotiate an end to the Iran crisis, reduce nuclear weapons, and expand NATO, they must give less ‘airtime’ to Syria when dealing with Moscow. If they want to stop the violence there, they must be more respectful of Russia’s views, no matter how heartless they believe them to be. Otherwise, the Kremlin will take a zero-sum approach to the issues listed above, making the world a considerably more dangerous place.

Anyone familiar with the history of Anglo-American relations with Russia knows how difficult it can be to get them on your side, no matter how obvious it is that your approach to an issue will benefit them as much as it would benefit yourself. Russian foreign policy is characterised by interplaying contradictions. Its practitioners can be refreshingly honest one minute, deceptive the next; they can play the aggrieved party in a dispute when they are actually the aggressor; and can alternate between undermining the international order and being one of its key pillars

Yet there are best practice principles that can be teased out of our difficult history with the Russians.

One, respect their interests and treat them the way a great power ought to be treated, even if it is obvious they’re not one. Two, be honest about your own interests and don’t try to trick them, though they may be trying to trick you. Three, don’t be a hypocrite, no matter how hypocritical you think they are behaving. Essentially, keep in mind Ronald Reagan’s dictum: trust, but verify.

If this is “best practice”, both the United Kingdom and the United States have badly mishandled the Russians during the Syria crisis. They have not tried to safeguard their interests in the country should Bashar al-Assad fall, nor have they taken seriously their view of the crisis, as Giles Marshall argued they should in these pages last month. Rather than be diplomatic about their differences, some Western officials have publicly attacked Russia, as the US Ambassador to the UN did in February.

Some of the British and Americans’ actions have just been tin-eared: for example, leaking that David Cameron thought about using Special Forces to stop a Russian ship from allegedly taking weapons to Syria.

For months now, the conflict has preoccupied Anglo-American diplomacy, yet there are many other issues that are much more important to us than Syria and which require Russian support – or at least acquiescence. If we continue to bungle things with the Kremlin, it will become less cooperative on Iran and Afghanistan, even taking a zero-sum approach. One official said as much yesterday, warning that “if Russia doesn’t like the outcome” in Syria, it will start selling long-range surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

Given that Russia is part of one of the two routes via which NATO supplies troops in Afghanistan, its support will be vital over the next two years as we withdraw, as the only other route out of the country is through Pakistan…

British and American officials are understandably exasperated with Russia’s Syria policy, for it is cold, self-interested, and hypocritical. Vladimir Putin attacked humanitarian interventionism a few months ago, yet he justified the war with Georgia on the same as grounds as those calling for military action in Syria. Unfortunately, the terrible things happening there simply aren’t important enough to us to risk an open breach with the Kremlin and losing its cooperation on much more vital issues.

Much of what Otto von Bismarck said over a hundred years ago holds true today, not least his belief that the secret of foreign policy is to make a good treaty with Russia…

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We cannot intervene in Syria

Giles Marshall 9.16am

I hate to say it, but Vladimir Putin has something of a point about Syria. We could do worse than simply wring our hands and leave things to the once and future Russian President.

Our problem is our outraged liberal values. Yet if we were able to take a step back from moral emotionalism, we would also have to acknowledge that not a single western intervention in the Middle East has resulted in a safer and more stable regime. Usually the reverse - utter chaos, anarchy and extremism, where innocents still die in large numbers.

Peter Oborne has a revealing account from ‘free’ Libya in this week’s Spectator (not yet online). In it he offers a vision of street fighting as a spectator sport, the kidnapping of hotel managers, and the descent of society into a murderous, corrupt abyss. There may not have been sweetness nor light under Colonel Gadaffi, no more than Iraq was a blissful democracy under Saddam Hussein, but what the West has orchestrated in its place is arguably much worse.

There are few things more damaging to a society, or more inimical to the pursuit of worldly peace, than countries without functioning governments. We might rail in our foolishness against governments and politicians here in the liberal West, but that is because we have them.

Governments are absolute prerequisites for stable, functioning and prosperous societies. That is why in 1787 the American Founding Fathers decided it was so important to have strong central government rather than merely a loose confederation of states. And that is why western nations today should err on the side of caution before conniving to overthrow yet another ghastly regime.

It could be that President Assad will fall in time as a result of internal revolt. On the other hand, it could be that we have greatly underestimated the support he still receives in much of Syria, and the fear that Syrians have of being overrun by Islamic militia of the type now ruling the roost in Iraq and Libya.

Whatever the true state of affairs, it would be madness now to propose action on the basis of emotional news reportage, regardless of how imperative and moral such an intervention might seem to us.

In this instance, it is the morally neutral President Putin who could in fact understand the value of realpolitik more than we do. We do not have to like Putin or the Syrian regime to realise that there is far more to Syria than we could ever hope to comprehend. That of course was the case in both Iraq and Libya, but this time, perhaps, we should resist the temptations of our better nature in favour of realism, however unpleasant it may seem to us. It is profoundly conservative, and reflects that clear understanding of man’s flawed nature.

It is not heroic, but international affairs rarely are.

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Russia’s Syrian hypocrisy

Alexander Pannett 10.38am

Yesterday, diplomats at the UN Security Council were engaged in a concerted attempt to pass a resolution calling for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power, which is a key part of an Arab League plan.

This is a welcome move as bloody government reprisals against the protesters have led to more than 7,000 civilian deaths as Syria slides into civil war.

The text, however, had to be dropped due to Russian objections that it amounted to “regime change”, which was a threat to the principles of national sovereignty as protected under the UN charter.

This is contrary to the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which was recognised as a concept by all countries (Russia and China included) at the UN World Leader’s Summit in 2005.

Responsibility to Protect is a concept for intervention in a state by the international community for the prevention of genocide, ethnic cleansing, mass killings and human rights violations taking place, in a country which is unwilling (or unable) to stop it. In the event of any such acts occurring, the wider international community has a collective responsibility to take whatever action is necessary to prevent it.

Both the Russians and the Chinese, whose modern history has been dominated by bloody foreign interventions, are understandably reticent about any development of liberal interventionism that protects a people from the violent abuses of its government.  Considering the poor human rights records in both these countries, it is unsurprising that they will be wary of a liberal doctrine that legitimises external interference along the grounds of human rights.

However, it is callous in the extreme for the Russians to cite the UN charter’s protection of national sovereignty as the rationale for its support for the Assad government.  Or for the Russians to justify their current intransigence with a resolution against Syria by suggesting that the UN resolution that allowed for “all necessary means” to protect the Libyan people went too far in toppling the brutal dictatorship of Gaddafi.

The Russians were quite happy to cite the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine with their invasion of Georgia in 2008 or use interventionism with their ongoing suppression of “terrorist” separatist groups in the Northern Caucuses or recent use of energy blackmail to interfere with Ukrainian elections.

The real hypocrisy of Russia lies however with the realpolitik of their global strategic ambitions.

At Tartus, Syria’s second largest port city, lies one of only two Russian naval bases outside Russia that Russian capital ships can dock at for re-supply. With the other naval base outside Russia at Sevastopol only on a 25-year lease and subject to the whims of a Ukrainian government with lukewarm relations towards Russia, Tartus is crucial to the Russians’ plans to re-establish themselves as a world military power.

The Syrian government recently agreed to transfer the naval base permanently into Russian hands and the Russians have since been pouring billions into the base to allow it to host a new Mediterranean fleet. To re-affirm Russia’s interests in Syria and its support for the Assad regime, a flotilla of Russian ships, including the Russian flagship, were deployed to the Tartus naval base in November 2011.

Without Tartus, Russia’s plans to project its power around the globe would be severely curtailed, especially in the nearby oil-rich Middle East, an area of vital strategic importance.  It is this concern that is dictating Russia’s morally bankrupt actions at the UN rather than any simulacrum of UN protections of national sovereignty.

As Aaron Ellis has pointed out on these pages, the West is currently undergoing a crisis of confidence about what it stands for in the world. While hard questions are rightly being asked about the Western economic model, we must not forget that our political and liberal values helped shape the present structure of international relations.

Our voice is needed to help prevent the oppression of the weak and dispossessed and to uphold the goals of the UN which sought to prevent massacres such as those that are occurring in Syria.

The West has certainly made terrible foreign policy errors that have resulted in the deaths of innocents. But we should not forget the far worse, dystopian machinations of those to whom our current angst would cede the leadership of the world.

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