WASHINGTON -- One of the greatest movie scenes of all time is doubtless the one in "Lawrence of Arabia" where the tribal Arab sheikhs are gathered together in Damascus after supposedly having "taken" the city. As they argue with one another over organizing the city, the romantic Lawrence suddenly realizes the reality of the horror he has unleashed:
The tribes and their leaders had no capacity whatsoever to supply oil, electricity, water or anything else to the Damascenes. Today we would say they were "organizationally challenged."
At this point comes the classic scene where the distraught Lawrence, who had just waged brilliant wars against the Turks in the First World War on behalf of the tribes, meets with the aging Arab leader and with the aging British negotiator.
Wars, one of the older men says, are waged by young men, with their passions and energies. But in the end, the solution rests upon the white hairs of the exhausted old men to make peace. Lawrence sees the truth of these words and goes home to England.
Why did that scene come back to me so strongly this week, as everyone and his dog seemed to be playing around with Ukraine? I think because of its sheer wisdom -- on the battlefield and on the rolling hills of peace. The young and the old: They see and feel things differently.
The indomitable Henry Kissinger, for instance, wrote recently: "Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins."
The 90-year-old former secretary of state and Nobel Prize-winner then proceeded to do, in detail, what most of the young diplomats and security thinkers in Washington refuse to do these days: He outlined Russia's historic ties to Ukraine.
"The West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country," he wrote. "Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries and ... some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil."
Thus, he goes on to say, "a wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine" would not only see a way for the U.S. and Russia to reconcile, buts it "would seek a way for the two parts of (Ukraine) to cooperate with each other." As well, "we should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction."
Actually, while Kissinger sees Vladimir Putin and his Russia as the major troublemakers, he also says that, among the factions in the West, Russia and Ukraine, "Each has made the situation worse. ... For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one."
Over and over, Dr. Kissinger talks about talking, about reconciliation, about historic memories, about strategy and not merely tactics. At the end, he sums up with: "The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or comparable elements is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate."
Yet, if you have been watching television news these last three weeks, you will hear, over and over, things like: "The U.S. cannot afford to stand back. We don't want boots on the ground, but should it come to that ... another war?" These words come almost always from young journalists and policy analysts, most of whom have had no experience in warfare.
Luckily, the president and others didn't act on this incessant war talk and invade anybody before dinner one night because the day Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared somewhere in the southern seas, Ukraine was barely mentioned again on the news shows.
At least one sub-section of the discussion, however, has been historically useful. Many of the analysts realize that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so fatigued the U.S. that it probably could not move now on Ukraine if it wanted to. That is what happens with the irresponsible wars waged by leadership acting upon their egos.
This week, President Obama is scheduled to go to Europe for the three-day meeting of the G-7 in The Hague (Russia has lost its place as No. 8), then to NATO and the E.U. -- in effect, all the groups representing the West. Meanwhile, Russian forces were seizing more ships and bases, and Western analysts were worried about attacks on Transdniester, Odessa or Eastern Ukraine.
President Obama has been too often criticized for attempting to end violent conflicts through the civilized discussion of Lawrence's older compatriots in Damascus, or through the achievement of "balanced dissatisfaction" that Dr. Kissinger so wisely speaks of. Yet, unless we want to fight bloody wars that will not be resolved for decades, if ever, such must be the wiser solution in our times.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)
- Politics & Government
- Henry Kissinger