Rob Cox: Solving America’s homegrown Putin dilemma
By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
As the eagle flies, it’s a long way from Bunkerville, Nevada to Slovyansk, Ukraine. Right now, though, the two places have something insidious in common: armed vigilantism. That parallel sadly seems to escape the many American policymakers who have accused President Barack Obama of adopting the logic of appeasement in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They’re missing a big point. If the United States can’t uphold the rule of law at home, it can have no credibility abroad.
Over the weekend, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham joined the chorus of Republicans branding Obama the new Neville Chamberlain. He told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the president is “delusional” and his latest economic sanctions “should have been called the Russian economic recovery act” for helping bolster the Russian stock market and rouble last week.
Graham’s comments echoed what I heard from an adviser to one of the world’s biggest hedge fund managers last week. The “A-word,” he argued, is becoming the single greatest threat to global stability. By not standing up to Putin-encouraged Russian vigilantes who are seizing towns and territory in eastern Ukraine, the United States not only gives Putin a free pass, it emboldens despots from Pyongyang to Tehran to thumb their noses at American power.
There’s some truth to this. When the Kremlin’s planners were considering their options in Crimea earlier this year, they certainly remembered President George W. Bush’s weak response to Russia’s 2008 tank joyride through Georgia. Russia decided to annex Crimea, the home of its Black Sea fleet.
Anyone who has tried to discipline children can attest that enemies view appeasement as a sign of weakness, and eventually take advantage. This is a universal truth about human behavior. So isn’t a firm response to provocation needed everywhere, within and without the U.S. borders?
Which leads us to Cliven Bundy. He’s the Nevada cattle rancher holed up in the aptly named Bunkerville, surrounded by dozens of out-of-state vigilantes bearing assault weapons with high-capacity magazines. Bundy, whose people have been lassoing cattle in southern Nevada since the 1870s, has been tussling with the federal government for two decades.
The stakes in Bunkerville are arguably more important for Americans than anything that happens in Ukraine, a long-standing regional conflict with many nuances between right and wrong taking place 6,000 miles away. If the arguments against appeasing Russia there are valid, then a failure by the U.S. government to apply the laws of the land is even more likely to encourage Bundy copycats.
If one tax scofflaw can be allowed to break the rules, simply by arming himself to the teeth, it will compromise America’s rule of law. That is a feature of the nation that truly has warranted the term “exceptional” relative to, say, Russia or China.
The authorities’ beef with Bundy is over grazing fees. Under U.S. law, cattle ranchers are obliged to pay $1.35 per horse, or an equivalent number of smaller animals, for grazing on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The formula for the fee was established legally by Congress and imposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the fees, which have not changed in eight years, fall well short of covering the government’s administration costs. So Bundy is already receiving a taxpayer subsidy. However, the government says he has unilaterally decided to get an even better deal, by not paying $1 million of grazing fees.
Bundy has taken up techniques for making his case that Vladimir Putin would recognize. There’s the inspiring defense. He told the New York Times: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to honor a federal court that has no jurisdiction or authority or arresting power over we the people.” And there are guns. The Bureau of Land Management officials tried to seize some 500 head of Bundy’s cattle last month but backed off when they met with armed resistance from Bundy’s vigilantes. And in Bundy’s case, there has been no shortage of racist outbursts.
It is not a stretch to see Bundy’s defiance in the same league as Putin’s. Yet when American politicians talk of appeasement, they only seem concerned about foreign infractions. But as long as outlaws like Bundy make a mockery of the American justice system, Uncle Sam’s calls for the rule of law to prevail in the rest of the world look hollow. This is a rare case where U.S. leaders actually need to look inward.