What Are We Doing in Russia’s Neighborhood?

Napoleon III, Emperor of France, saw his opportunity. With the United States sundered and convulsed in civil war, he would seize Mexico, impose a Catholic monarchy and block further expansion of the American republic. In 1863, a French army marched into Mexico City. In 1864, Maximilian, the brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, was crowned Emperor of Mexico. The French empire had returned to North America a century after its expulsion in 1763.

Secretary of State Seward did nothing until the Union armies had defeated the Confederacy. Then, he called in Gen. John Schofield, who had wanted to lead an army of volunteers into Mexico to drive the French out, and instructed him instead to go to Paris. “I want you to get your legs under Napoleon’s mahogany and tell him he must get out of Mexico,” Seward told Schofield. To impress upon Napoleon that the Union was in earnest, President Johnson, at the urging of Grant and Sherman, sent Gen. Sheridan with 40,000 troops to the Rio Grande.

Napoleon got the message. The French army headed for the boats, and Maximilian went before a Mexican firing squad.

Lesson: Nations are unwise to seize upon the temporary weakness of a great power to put military forces inside its sphere of influence. Which brings us to this headline in last week’s Washington Post: “U.S. May Set Up Bases in Former Soviet Republics.”

The lead graph reads like something out of the London Times in the salad days of Kipling and Queen Victoria: “Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that the United States might establish military bases in parts of the former Soviet empire, but he sought to reassure Russians that increased U.S. influence in the region does not pose a threat to them.” With bases already in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, we apparently intend to build a base in Georgia, birthplace of Stalin.

Query: What are we doing there? What is the strategic interest in Georgia? Tbilisi is about as far away as one can get. Why are we rubbing Russia’s nose in her Cold War defeat by putting U.S. imperial troops into nations that only yesterday were a part of that country? Powell anticipated the question: “Are we pointing a dagger in the soft underbelly of Russia? Of course not. What we’re doing is working together against terrorism.”

But after Iraq, where we invaded an oil-rich country on what the world believes were false pretenses and forged evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, why should Russians not suspect our motives?

After all, the neoconservatives who beat the drums loudest for war, and cherry-picked the intelligence sent to Bush that got us into war, have been braying for years that we intend to create an American empire and impose our “benevolent global hegemony” on all mankind.

Why should Russians, Chinese and Iranians not believe America’s crusader castles in Central Asia and the Caucasus are not part of a grand scheme for a Pax Americana?

Have we forgotten our history? When Reagan put Marines into the middle of Lebanon’s civil war, 241 perished in the terrorist bombing of their Beirut barracks. Reagan retaliated, but got out. He should never have gone in. Who runs Beirut or rules Lebanon is not our business.

When we intervened in Somalia’s civil war, we got “Blackhawk Down” in Mogadishu and 18 dead Rangers. Again, we pulled out. We should never have gone in. When we planted a U.S. army on Saudi soil after the Gulf War, we got 9-11. Now we have pulled out of there.
How often must we be taught the lesson?

Have we considered the consequences of planting military bases in countries afflicted by Islamic fundamentalism and ruled by autocrats who, only 15 years ago, were apparatchiks of Moscow?

A U.S. imperial presence in Central Asia and the Caucasus resented by Russia, Iran and China and detested by Islamists is less likely to contain terrorism than to invite it.

Even a cursory reading of U.S. history shows us to be an almost paranoid people about any foreign military presence near our frontiers. The French, British, Spanish and Russians were all bought off or driven out. Moscow’s presence in Cuba and meddling in Grenada and Nicaragua in the Cold War were constant causes of American outrage.

But if we are entitled to our own Monroe Doctrine – i.e., no foreign colonies or bases in our backyard – are not other great nations like China and Russia equally entitled? Why should they not feel as we do, and one day act as we did with Napoleon, and tell us to get out of Central Asia and to get out of the Caucasus?

But, again, why are we going in? Other than empire, what is the vital interest here?

(Patrick J. Buchanan was twice a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and the Reform Party’s candidate in 2000. He is also a founder and editor of the new magazine, The American Conservative. Now a commentator and columnist, he served three presidents in the White House, was a founding panelist of three national television shows, and is the author of seven books.)