I recall that shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, a rumour went round that Sylvester Stallone was thinking about creating a “Rambo IV”, which would involve the muscled warrior going back into Afghanistan, this time to fight against the very same people he fought side by side with in “Rambo III”. Wisely, Stallone probably figured out that this might call unwanted attention to some of the complexities surrounding what led up to the then recent terrorist attack in New York, and parked the film. Rambo would later resurface in Burma in 2008, you may or may not be glad to hear.
Now, you’re all probably wondering what a jingoistic motion picture that never even got made has to do with the horrible events on the Russian-Ukraine border yesterday that saw the lives of 298 passengers aboard a Malaysian Airlines flight taken. The link is the increasing problems American foreign policy is creating, how restricted in both theory and practice it has become, and how an increasingly multi-polar world has some incredibly scary sides to it all.
The Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine have said they will let investigators have access to the crash site. Of course they will, why not; I can guarantee you that the Russians had people on the ground in Luhansk region, removing anything incriminating to the Russian government, within a few of hours of the whole thing having taken place. I would like to stress here that I am not implying the Russians brought down flight MH17 on purpose. Simply that when you give a bunch of morons high grade weapons, a disaster is always just around the corner, and I think the Russians have always been acutely aware of this (and are especially now).
Let’s imagine for a moment that the Russians had really dropped the ball, and a team of investigators did discover, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the bomb used to destroy the airplane had been used by Russian backed rebels. And that furthermore the weapon could only have been supplied by the Russian government. How would the West react? Or more to the point, how could they react? Russia is one of the two largest nuclear powers in the world, and Europe relies heavily on its natural resources. So there is almost no way to punish Russia if it was proved they were involved anyhow, not in any meaningful sense. You only have to try and imagine a commercial airliner being bombed over Yemen, what the Western reaction would be to such an event, for the powerlessness of the West in dealing with Russian belligerence to be brought into focus.
One thing the West and specifically the US could do, however, is learn from mistakes, both past and present, committed both by themselves and other powers. The Russians, as I mentioned, would not have wanted the Malaysian Airline flight to have been bombed. But it is a consequence of them having handed over WMDs to a bunch of nobodies. The West is in no position to preach, given that doing the exact same thing is official policy here too. When the debate about what to do in Syria was live around this time last year, I was amazed at how firmly the consensus was embedded that sending in western troops was terra vetita; the only options on the table seemed to be arming the rebels or doing nothing. When did throwing arms to questionable groups of people as opposed to fighting our own battles become the norm? Sat anywhere in the world in October 2001, you would have thought that this being seriously debated in 2013 to be an impossibility. Have we learned nothing from 9/11, when the training the CIA gave to members of the Mujahideen in the 1980s resulted in them having the technical skill to pull off the hijacking of two commercial flights and then redirecting them into the Twin Towers a decade and a half later?
To put this in the bluntest way possible, arming roving gangs of dipshits with WMDs is a bad idea. Seems pretty obvious when you put it like that, doesn’t it? So is educating intelligent but belligerent groups of individuals in the most advanced concepts of technical warfare. But these ideas are still discussed as if they were not the worst ones in the world; that getting people to fight these wars around the world, and us trying to steer them in the right direction without being directly militarily involved, is not a bad way to take things, at least for the time being. Perhaps we could all learn a thing or two from Sylvester Stallone and the aborted “Rambo IV”: sometimes if you’ve started down the wrong path, it’s okay to pull the plug before things get a whole lot worse. And leaving Rambo on the shelf is never a bad thing either.
Which brings us all back to the Russians. Will they learn the appropriate lessons from this horrible tragedy? I really doubt it. Their policy of fighting wars via proxy is even more engrained in their thinking than the same concept is in the West’s foreign plans. They may tighten up who they supply weapons to in the short term, but ultimately if they want to fight a war in eastern Ukraine at a few steps removed, they then lose the power as to where the arms they distribute eventually end up. Only when it rebounds badly on them in a heartfelt and direct way, such as their own WMDs ending up in the hands of Dagestan fundamentalists, who then use those weapons to target a major Russian city, will they have real cause to pause. But even then, they have no other real way to achieve their goals than through the use of covert warfare, so the same problem will rear its ugly head, again and again. Welcome to the 21st century.