Good thug, bad thug

You know the technique. In police work, it's called good cop, bad cop. A couple of detectives team up to work on a suspect. The good cop wants to be our suspect's friend, offering all kinds of inducements if he'll do as the cops say -- like provide information or just straighten out his act in general. If he'll do that, his friend the good cop assures him, he'll get lenient treatment, maybe even a reward. And won't be left to the less than tender mercies of the bad cop. And there's no telling what the bad cop will do to him if he doesn't cooperate. (In diplomatic circles, this is called deterrence, and it's been known to have considerable effect.)

In diplomacy, the same game might be called good thug, bad thug, and it's being played on us. And it's paying off handsomely for the latest aggressor out to take over Eastern Europe (and soon enough points beyond) piece by piece. Having already ingested Crimea, the latest tsar of all the Russias is now chewing on what remains of Ukraine, beginning in the east and advancing from city to city, taking hostages all along the way.

Among the victims was a group of international observers dispatched to Ukraine by the ironically titled Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. The hostages were paraded for the delectation of the Russian media by the bad thugs in occupied Slovyansk. You can tell the bad thugs by their standard Russian-issue camo (minus insignia) plus the obligatory black masks and menacing manner.

The hostages appeared nervous when they were marched before the television cameras, and they had every reason to be. Even as they tried to explain that they weren't soldiers but only observers, and formally thanked their captors for their kind treatment. ("Since yesterday, we have been in a more comfortable room, which has been equipped with heating.") Watching them at this command performance, it was hard not to be reminded of the captured POWs that the North Korean and Vietnamese Communists used to trot out for the usual naifs in the press. Or the squad of robotized hostages in "The Manchurian Candidate."

The hostages now have been released after a week of being held and exhibited. The official response from the good thugs in Moscow was to praise the hostage-takers for their "courage and humanism."

The all-too-familiar scene in Slovyansk was just Stage One in the extensive repertoire of tactics perfected by Moscow over the years, and now being practiced in various Ukrainian locales as city halls are seized, the Russian flag raised, and officials, journalists and just innocent passersby are jailed -- or worse.

The mayor of Kharkiv, which is Ukraine's second-largest city, has just been shot in the back, and in Donetsk a peaceful demonstration of about a thousand Ukrainians marching behind their national flag was set upon by the usual thugs in camo and black face masks. These Russian forces in everything but name were wielding batons and stun guns, throwing bricks and beating up anybody they could get their hands on. (What, no Cossacks on horseback?) It could have been the czarist police and the black hundreds on the prowl again. The bad thugs were having a field day.

Now enter the good thugs. Moscow's defense ministry continues to deny that it has anything to do with all these masked freebooters waving Russian flags who have taken over Ukrainian city after city. Despite the no longer concealed presence of one Igor Strelkov, a notorious Russian agent well known from his days in Crimea, and Georgia before that, directing Russian not-so-stealth operations. He's now openly in charge of occupied Slovyansk.

All the while, the good thugs keep making soothing sounds. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister who's the counterpart of our secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, has assured the ever gullible Mr. Hagel that Russia has no plans to invade eastern Ukraine. Really? Its ill-disguised forces are already taking over eastern Ukraine with no real opposition from Washington, Europe or Kiev. The latest tsar in a rapacious old line, Vladimir the Devious has repeated the same assurances. Just as Reichschancellor Hitler assured the world that Czechoslovakia was his "last territorial demand in Europe" -- before the next one. It's an old, old script, and Barack Obama and feckless company seem to have learned nothing from it except how to be suckers.

Not so, says our president, who at a time when forceful action is called for, promises only symbolic sanctions against a few Russian big shots here and there. No wonder the Russian stock market has rebounded from its dumps as investors realize these much- promised sanctions are only gestures in place of a real foreign policy -- the kind Harry Truman, George Kennan, and George Marshall had to improvise after Comrade Stalin began picking off pieces of Europe one by one. That's when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- NATO -- was born.

The next half-century of conflict became known as the Cold War, but our current president is at great, and greatly unconvincing, pains to deny that his pal Vlad has started another Cold War. For if Barack Obama did recognize that obvious truth, he'd have to take a good hard look at just what his Reset of Russo-American relations has accomplished: little except to give aggression new license. His talk about taking forceful action to save what's left of Ukraine (someday) has reaped pretty much worldwide contempt. And deserved to.

. . .

To quote Sen. Lindsey Graham, who believes in a strong deterrent in diplomacy as well as defense: "Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine." No doubt Vladimir Putin's do, too. That customary sneer on Tsar Vlad's face didn't get there because Barack Obama has proven such an effective leader of the free world. Remember when Leader of the Free World was a title almost synonymous with president of the United States? Now it's verboten in official Washington. For there are some titles that only invite raised eyebrows.

After all his huffing and puffing, Barack Obama has produced only a few superficial sanctions against a few Russian tycoons and other influentials. Not against that country's big banks or natural-gas monopoly or anything else of real importance. To call his foreign policy feckless only begins to describe it. To do that would require a whole thesaurus of synonyms for ineffectuality, vacillation, futility ... terms that haven't been so relevant since the West was being led by statesmen like poor Neville Chamberlain in the fearful Thirties, which were inevitably followed by the calamitous Forties.

And now our president has reacted to the latest outrages in Ukraine with the same force and effect as ... Jimmy Carter during the nigh-eternal Iranian hostage crisis. One of the leaders of that mob has just been designated the mullahs' representative to the United Nations. Yes, we've been here before. "America Held Captive" became a nightly feature of the television news in the late stages of the Carter administration, when it was going from helpless to hopeless. Now another administration is following the same well-trodden path to failure, shame and futility.

. . .

Today's version of appeasement invites the same violent result it did in the 1930s. But it's still not too late to call on our contemporary Churchills -- the John McCains and John Boltons still among us. They may be voices in the wilderness now, but they will become more and more relevant as the Obama administration becomes more and more irrelevant.

It was said that George W. Bush demonstrated the limits of American power; this president seems intent on demonstrating the limits of American powerlessness.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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