Global Pairings

Obama’s Whitewashed History

Putin is no saint, but he simply revived Russia’s own version of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine.


  • Obama's Brussels speech was an exercise in whitewashing history. All US sins were conveniently forgotten.
  • It is the West's turn to come to terms with an eastern Monroe Doctrine, as Russia pushes back at last.
  • The US approach – of blaming Russia for what it does oneself – is an amazing double standard. Iraq anyone?

Obama’s whitewashed history

U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in Brussels in March 2014 was remarkable in two regards: First in his determination to take Russia to task after its move into Crimea.

And second, Obama’s Brussels speech was remarkably full of double standards. The rules that he applied to Russia — and one can certainly make that case — are evidently applied not at all when it comes to assessing the United States’s own aggressive foreign policy moves.

In Brussels, Obama spoke boldly and confidently as the leader of the West — as if he could extract himself from his U.S. role. He spoke as if he were some über-secretary-general of NATO.

But for a sitting U.S. President to “forget” America’s own long record over the past 30 years of acting unilaterally with military force in its own interests is too clever by half.

There was no explanation of why the constraints of international law and the U.N. Security Council evidently don’t apply to the United States — as recently as President Obama’s own aborted plans for action in Syria last September.

To emphasize the vitality of international law (in Russia’s case, but not for the United States) is not just convenient. It is fundamentally dishonest.

The cases of unilateral U.S. foreign policy go well beyond the canceled Syria operation, nor have they been limited to the United State’s “back yard.”

It is more than the invasions of (tiny) Grenada in 1983 and of (almost equally tiny) Panama in 1989 that were carried out without any regard for international law. The case of the unprovoked Iraq invasion of 2003 concerns a larger country outside the Western hemisphere.

U.S. claims that Saddam Hussein was successfully developing weapons of mass destruction were used to try to push through a UN resolution in 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq. When that failed, the U.S. invaded anyway. The supporting claims were later shown to have been based on false intelligence.

If anything, they eerily resemble Soviet-style fabrications of creating a pseudo-legitimate argument for an invasion of another country.

Russia’s relative restraint

If one is willing (a big “if”) to call a spade a spade, one must recognize this irony: The Russian takeover of Crimea and its looming moves against eastern Ukraine are not projecting Russian power halfway round the world.

That is what the Soviet Union did in Angola, Mozambique and Afghanistan in the 1970s. Not so in today’s Russia.

Instead, the current Russian leadership, like the Soviet leadership of 1956 and 1968, has enough sense to realize that it can only get away with interventions in its own “sphere of influence.” So far, the Russians have never really stepped out their near-abroad.

No doubt about it, President Putin’s new moves are truly dangerous in terms of world peace. But one must at least recognize two points, unpalatable though they may be: First, his moves are consistent with Russia’s historical fears and legitimate security concerns.

These have been recognized as legitimate by the other great powers ever since the days of the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

In other words, Russia’s actions are part of the classic canon of big-power diplomacy. Its course stretches through the Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam summits during and after World War II. And they extend all the way to the first President Bush and his solemn commitment to President Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War.

The second point to recognize is this: The U.S.’s ill-fated move into Iraq, certainly no less than Russia’s move into Ukraine, has also been extremely dangerous in terms of world peace. How so? It was the key step to destabilize and inflame the Middle East — a region that is seen as the world’s most dangerous theater of conflict.

Russia’s Monroe Doctrine

Ultimately, what Vladimir Putin has done is that he has revived Russia’s own version of the Monroe Doctrine. We in the West may not like that. And we may not like him personally.

But we shouldn’t glibly make mincemeat out of history. Considering that Russia lost at least 26 million troops and civilians from hostile invasion from the west at the hands of Nazi Germany and its allies in World War II, Russian fears are certainly comprehensible. Russia wants to maintain its own zone of security. That should be respected by the United States.

Putin’s moves today cannot be properly understood without realizing Bill Clinton’s role in Russian feelings of encirclement.

It was the United States’s aggressive NATO expansion, undertaken against earlier commitments, that has created Russia’s sense of a need for a determined pushback against the United States’ constantly stepping into Russian’s sphere of influence.

Let’s be honest

Like it or not, Russia certainly has more justification for intervention in Crimea — which was Russian in 1783 (before the time when the United States Constitution was created) — and in Ukraine than the United States has for “its” cases.

U.S. military interventions in Vietnam and Iraq pinned down the threat of nations halfway around the world. These countries had no historical significance for, or connection to, America whatsoever.

In the eyes of President Putin, and most of the Russian people, the United States – and, by extension, the West — has spurned them and treated them with contempt over the past 20 years.

No wonder then that it is now the West’s turn, as Russia finally pushes back, to come to terms with this new Monroe Doctrine of the East.

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About Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff is a book author, consultant and former foreign editor.

Responses to “Obama’s Whitewashed History”

Archived Comments.

  1. On April 4, 2014 at 3:09 am edsel responded with... #

    As with much of what Mr. Sieff writes, this article is totally off base. the Monroe doctrine was formulated nearly 200 years ago. It was essentially a cover for the British navy to protect both the US and the British from incursions by the Spanish, French etc. It has absolutely nothing to do with the current pahse of hsitory. Russia agreed 20 years ago to behave according to a foundation laid in Helsinki, Brussels and in many bilateral agreements. Putin has now thrown the entire structure overboard. The West has not been perfect over the past 20 years, but it has honored this arrangmenet. Russia has now broken out and this will cause tremendous changes. To use a precedent from the early 19th century is both inaccurate and intellectually dishonest.

  2. On April 4, 2014 at 10:34 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    The United States continues to intervene in the rest of the Americas to this day, which is why the Monroe Doctrine (or more properly, its Roosevelt Corollary) remains relevant. Within the past decade even, the U.S. has staged quasi-military interventions in countries such as Colombia to “deal with” the drug trade and production there. Ten years ago, the U.S. sent Marines to Haiti for the millionth time. Etc.

  3. On April 4, 2014 at 12:03 pm originalone responded with... #

    To John Kornblum: You seem to be the one who is off base here. What he writes, is facts known to anyone willing to investigate them. Your P.R. is showing it’s holes, though you probably don’t care, as you only write to make yourself or you sponsor happy.

  4. On April 5, 2014 at 10:02 am Tatiana2013 responded with... #

    For the last twenty-odd years all Soviet and Russian leaders from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Medvedev to Putin kept sending strong signals to Washington and Brussels about their desire for Russia to become an important part of the Western security and economic architecture only to be obnoxiously rebuffed by American and EU leaders.
    The West, in its victor’s arrogance, looked down on Russia like a high and mighty lord does on a poor relation.
    Oddly enough, Ukrainians, who, when all is said and done, are not all that different from Russians, were warmly welcomed at every imaginable Western agency as bona fide Europeans, not at all like those Russian barbarians.
    Of course, the chances for Obama to invite Putin for such a talk are close to zero as one needs the strategic vision of Ronald Reagan to do that.
    Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, fasten your belts, we are in for tough times ahead.

  5. On April 6, 2014 at 1:52 pm Dennis Rodwell responded with... #

    Thank you, Martin, for a balanced and responsible assessment of the historical context, and for exposing the culpable duplicity of the Western position. Afghanistan (remember the US reaction in 1980?), Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, have all exposed the West’s obsession with triggering mayhem in the world. Putin has opposed interference in Syria and been bemused by the US ignorant antics in Iraq, etc. How many hundreds of thousands of deaths have been caused? How many millions displaced?
    Putin responded to the West’s attempt to absorb Ukraine.
    What on earth did Obama, Cameron, Merkel, Holland and Nato expect? The West has no moral authority in the world and should stop pretending that it does. John Kerry: stay home. Sort out America’s multiple problems before preaching to others. Or is it a substitute? Stop pretending to be to be somebody and something that you transparently are not.
    Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is a reaction; not an aggression. Read and understand history.

  6. On April 6, 2014 at 2:33 pm Pan Szymanowski responded with... #

    The USA’s got lost in their own double and triple standards. “First border change” after WW2 sounds very funny. Poor Obama-boy has never heard about “annexation” of Eastern Germany without any referendum. He also have not noticed the new border inside Chehoslovakia. New borders in former USSR looks invisible too. Well don’t blame America. They have extremely low education level. And the Geography is the weakest. Hi, Barak! Can you find Florida state on the map?

  7. On April 7, 2014 at 10:53 am Barbara Steffek responded with... #

    Well, actually the Middle East didn’t need anything to inflame it; it already was ever since the last battle for Jerusalem.
    Whatever faults the U. S. has or had, it did not initiate two world wars, did not enslave a group ofEuropean nations behind an Iron Curtain for almost five decades and treat their peoples with brutality and death.
    It is true that Russia suffered egregious losses at the hands of the Nazis, but it also inflicted egregious losses on people behind the Iron curtain. As someone whose European relatives were trapped behind that Iron Curtain, I know from them exactly what was endured at the claws of the Russian Bear.
    Noriega wasn’t worthy of toppling? How so. Saddam Hussein wasn’t worthy of toppling, if possible? How so. The U. S. was not the only nation that had hefty suspicions based upon intelligence that ldid turn out to be faulty “later on” as the article says. It’s a great shame Hussein wasn’t taken out by commandos instead without the loss of thousands of Americans and allies and those left maimed and scarred for life. But he wasn’t.
    However, one of the most egregious steps, neither in the air nor on the ground, this administration did take was calling for the overthrow of Mubarak and supporting the takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood, naming it “the Arab Spring.” Obviously, the Egyptians woke up about a year after the fact and took care of business themselves.
    Do Americans have any appetite whatsoever for another war, either on behalf of Syria or anyplace else? I’d bet “no.” But to knock the U. S. as some kind of Godzilla hovering over the world is ludicrous. The U. S. is the only country in the world to whom the world looked for help during those excruciating world wars, the country whose huge initiatives after those wars helped a number of those nations rebuild in the form of the Marshall Plan for Europe and MacArthur’s initiatives in Japan were unheard of by a victor. where is there any mention in the above article about the savageness with which the Russians treated the Poles at the time of World War II?
    Did I read about all that in books or on-line articles? No. I lived through all the years of WW II.

  8. On April 7, 2014 at 11:11 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    Noriega and Saddam Hussein were the U.S.’s friends right up until they suddenly weren’t. How many ruthless dictators now or recently in power have we NOT toppled? Most of them. Is it our job now to take them all out? That hardly seems realistic.

    Iraq has suffered greatly from our ill-advised and hasty removal of their entire system of order, however awful it might have been. Moreover, his removal was never the primary objective. Weapons of mass destruction he no longer had was the official goal, which proved to have been a lie. Retroactively justifying the invasion with his removal on an arbitrary timeline (he wasn’t any worse in 2003 than he had been in 1998) is exactly why we don’t have credibility to lecture others on international laws & norms. Even commandos wouldn’t have prevented Iraq’s abrupt collapse. Similar fates would be in store for many other countries under dictators right now if we took all of them out.

    Not that it seems relevant to this article, really, but the Obama Administration backed Mubarak until the last possible moment, which is not at all the same as calling for his overthrow. They certainly didn’t enthusiastically support the Muslim Brotherhood but rather accepted that it was the most widely supported political party in the country. Now Egypt is under a horrendously abusive and violent military dictatorship (which is objectively worse so far than the Muslim Brotherhood’s administration).

  9. On April 7, 2014 at 11:12 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    Were the East Germans given a referendum to remain separate in the first place? If I recall correctly, the partition was never made permanent so they were always theoretically part of the same country.

  10. On April 7, 2014 at 11:38 am Barbara Steffek responded with... #

    Hussein and Noriega were once tolerated by the U. S. To call them “friends” is a stretch. Although ridding Iraq of Hussein wasn’t the primary objective, nobody would deny it was a good thing for Iraq he was eliminated. But as far as the rest of the Middle East is concerned? Who knows.
    The Obama administration did not back Mubarak until the “last possible moment.” And if mentioning the toppling of him and the ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood for a short time wasn’t “relevant” to this article, so? But as another example of ineptness by this administration, worthy of mention. Where do you think Egypt would be today if they were still in power. Over and out.

  11. On April 7, 2014 at 11:45 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    Noriega was a longtime paid CIA recruit. The U.S. gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons. “Tolerated” doesn’t cover either of those relationships accurately.

  12. On April 7, 2014 at 11:46 am Pan Szymanowski responded with... #

    Crimea was separated from Russia without referendum as well. Both separation were performed by commies. So “theoretically” Crimea was a part of Russia all the time. But united Germany considered Good, and united Russia considered Bad, however the process of rejoining with Crimea was much more democratic. See yourself – this is 100% double standard.

  13. On April 7, 2014 at 11:57 am bhumphreyTG responded with... #

    Didn’t Crimea implicitly accept Ukrainian control in the 1994 referendum (not that Ukraine accepted that referendum anyway)?

  14. On April 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm Pan Szymanowski responded with... #

    No. The agenda was to unite with Russia in few steps. First – declare half-independence and elect the President, then full independence, then go Russia. First step was even performed in the beginning of 90-th, but then in fact rolled back by Ukraine.