“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” declared President Ronald Reagan in June of 1987 in Berlin, and sure enough, a little more than two years later, the wall that separated Berliners and Germany came down. Mr. Gorbachev didn't tear the wall down, however, and revisionist history aside, neither did Mr. Reagan. The president and the United States were on the right side of history, but Berliners brought the wall down.
When the Chinese communists chased out Western-backed nationalists four decades earlier, the cry of “Who lost China?” echoed around Washington, with Senator Joe McCarthy holding hearings to ferret out commie stooges who must have undermined the favored pro-U.S. regime. Actually, nobody lost China, at least nobody in Washington. That long and complex battle was won and lost by the Chinese.
It's not always about us, as in U.S. America's ascendancy after World War II and during the Cold War intrigue with the Soviet Union made it appear that way, and it was true to an extent, but the limits to America's influence were fully exposed in Vietnam, a lesson learned at the cost of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, American and Vietnamese. The Iraq War proved that those lessons were not learned by all, and the bellicose chatter heard today in Washington — essentially, “Who lost the Crimea?” — reveals that some will never learn anything.
Washington's relentless Obama-bashers, who a couple of weeks ago were calling him a despot, now see him as a weakling who did nothing to prevent Russian leader Vladimir Putin's move into the Crimea. The critics are less clear about what exactly the president should have done then or what he should do now. The armchair warriors are at least not demanding some form of military action. Nobody beyond Dick Cheney would argue that U.S. troops should be sent to Kiev.
The recent assertion that Mr. Putin was emboldened by administration “weakness” shown when the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked is an absurd example of the arrogant mindset that every event in the world can be traced to American action or inaction. The current situation in Ukraine has everything to do with Mr. Putin's longing for the Soviet Union, petroleum politics involving the European Union, the status of Black Sea naval bases and a variety of other complex factors, and little to do with the U.S.
The U.S. should support the cause of freedom and independence everywhere, and it will do so for Ukrainians with financial assistance and moral support and by applying political and economic pressure upon Mr. Putin whenever possible. Washington, however, cannot undo what it could not prevent. The U.S. is no longer the cop on the world beat, and election year political posturing aside, must accept the limits of its influence.
Soon we will be leaving the people of Afghanistan to the mercy of their corrupt, incompetent president, various feudal war lords, and the Taliban, but leave we must. We were there too long and there is only so much we can do. Here also, the limits of American influence were laid bare.
In his “A People's History of the United States,” historian Howard Zinn convincingly made the argument that a nation's people have a far more substantial impact on the course of history than do their leaders — great, small and mediocre — who are exalted and brought low by politicians and pundits. That doesn't apply only to the U.S. What happens in Ukraine and Russia will be determined in the long run by their peoples, as is the case everywhere. The role of the U.S. is to help when it can, to get out of the way when it cannot, and to show some humility.