‘What matters is the intent. And we don't have a sense of that." That is what one of Washington's legion of anonymous "senior government officials" told the Wall Street Journal about the Russian military forces now massing on Ukraine's border - complemented, of course, by the tens of thousand more Russian troops stationed in what, until just a few days ago, used to be . . . Ukraine.
Clearly, our Beltway gurus have refined a bit of ancient wisdom: If you cannot remain silent and proceed to remove all doubt that you are a fool, at least remain anonymous.
Let us pretend for a moment that our senior official is right, and that Vladimir Putin's intent, rather than America's strategic perception, is "what matters." Is the Kremlin's intent really so shrouded in mystery that our $50-plus billion per year intelligence community doesn't quite "have a sense" of it?
Putin has just annexed the Crimean Peninsula with virtual impunity, after promising not to do it even as his forces were moving into place to do it, and despite Russia's prior guarantee of Ukraine's territorial security. His military invasion and seizure comes in the wake of his 2008 invasion of Georgia and seizure of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - which followed security assurances similar to those Russia had given Ukraine.
In connection with both invasions, the United States and Western Europe vowed that there would be serious consequences but meekly accepted Russia's aggression. In fact, during the Bush administration, after the United States publicly touted Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership, the hand-wringing alliance stopped short of incorporating them.
Rest assured that Putin's bare-chested romps do not include navel-gazing over what the West's actions imply about its intent. He fully understood that NATO was unwilling to extend to these former Soviet satellites its security guarantee - viz., that an attack on any NATO country is considered an attack on all NATO countries that must be repelled as such. Coupled with Europe's willingness - actually, anxiousness - to increase economic intercourse with and energy dependence on Russia even after the Georgian invasion, Putin grasped that he had a green light to indulge his revanchist ambitions.
Against this backdrop of recent history, Russia now has upwards of 50,000 troops in position for an invasion of heavily Russian sections of Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin claims to be engaged in military exercises, under circumstances where there are many thousand more troops than training exercises would justify and where the "we're just doing exercises" pretext is shopworn. Russia's claim that it has no hostile designs on Eastern Ukraine echoes its false assurances regarding Crimea and Georgia. Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal report elaborates, the gathering Russian forces are making active efforts to conceal their positions and their equipment along the Ukrainian border. They are establishing supply lines that would be essential to an invasion and prolonged occupation.
So what do you suppose Putin's intent might be? Sure is tough to get a sense of it, no?
Willful blindness to easily acquirable knowledge is standard operating procedure in Washington. When accountable national-security officials learn that important American interests are being threatened, the public expects them to take decisive action. Decisive action is politically risky. Often, politicians would rather not know.
When information is too available and too pellucid for them to feign ignorance, epistemological uncertainty about its significance is always a convenient fallback position. Let's say a cop on the beat in a high-crime area in the dead of a summer night sees a man in a ski mask, screwdriver in hand, eying an apartment window. He would not be a cop for long if he turned his back because, after all, you never know what the masked man's intent might be. But he would still qualify for a front-office job at the National Intelligence Directorate - perhaps analyzing "largely secular" organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood.
All that said, though, intent is not what matters in international affairs. The key is to have a strategic vision of the real world and our interests. That is the solid foundation for American foreign policy. If it were in place, there would be far fewer occasions to wonder about our adversaries' intent. That problem is solved by having decided they are adversaries until proven otherwise; by treating them in that manner in every interaction; and by making clear to them that the wages of crossing us will be real and lasting. (Maybe someone could tell President Obama that Putin has joined the Tea Party - might do the trick.)
It is all well and good for House majority leader Eric Cantor, among other Republican leaders, to chide the president for designing policy around the Putin he hopefully imagines rather than the real Putin. This, however, is neither a new problem nor one that's unique to Obama.