In clashes over Ukraine or Iraq, liberty must be defended

September 5, 2014

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A few weeks after Winston Churchill became British prime minister in 1940, he had to tell the House of Commons that Britain had just suffered one of the worst military defeats in its history. He announced the setback with these words:

“The House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle (at Dunkirk) can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make out way … through disaster and through grief, to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.”

The British like to remind themselves of this period because, “through disaster and through grief,” it ended in victory. It’s worthy of invoking now not because the threats building in the east are of the same scale as those faced by Great Britain 74 years ago – but because Churchill’s striking phrase should unite us now as it did the British then.

“The world cause to which we have vowed to defend ourselves” was the cause of democracy. Though Churchill was a committed imperialist, one who accepted with great reluctance the independence of India, he was also a committed democrat at home. He saw in the totalitarianisms of the 1930s – Communist and Fascist –shadows of evil falling ever more darkly on Earth’s democratic outposts. For him, the parliamentary processes and civil societies that parts of Western Europe, the white imperial states of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and the United States had created and maintained were “the world cause,” flickering lights in the gathering darkness.

We aren’t there yet, or even near such darkness, though there are rhetorical echoes, as heard in a midweek speech in the same chamber in which Churchill growled defiance in 1940. Prime Minister David Cameron, in response to the beheadings of two American hostages by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the threat of a British captive undergoing the same fate, said that “a country like ours will not be cowed by these barbaric killers. … We will be more forthright in the defense of the values — liberty under the rule of law, freedom, democracy — that we hold dear.”

Values again have to be defended. But this time there isn’t the prospect of a brave last stand. Instead, there’s the messy business of working out what to do with groups that practice extreme violence in Iraq and Syria, that threaten fragile and corrupt governments in Africa and that defy the state of Ukraine in the name of ethnic solidarity and attachment to Russia.

It’s a messy situation and subject to strongly conflicting views among advisers to Western leaders. And because there’s no simple choice of the kind faced in the 1940s – fight or capitulate – you find a president of the United States caught up in a handful of dilemmas with each promising bloodshed.

In the past week, two groups — one a mixture of Americans and Russians, the other largely American — have taken  public positions on the Russian-Ukraine conflict that have put them on opposite poles. One group, which counts a former high-ranking presidential aide and an ex-head of the Russian foreign secret service among its members, calls for both sides to withdraw from the zone of conflict in eastern Ukraine; Crimea, annexed by Russia on March, to be guaranteed services and its minorities protected, and Ukraine to be “non-bloc” – that is, nonaligned.

The second group, also replete with former high state officials, sees the lack of Ukrainian representatives in the first group as reason to believe that its members see the dispute as offering a deal between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s dismembered body. It believes that such a deal would give “the impression of rewarding the Putin regime for its outrageous actions.”

Both groups want the killing to stop. But the first group believes its terms, being acceptable to Russia, would lay the foundation more quickly for a more permanent resolution. Yet that plan won’t work.

It isn’t that deals can’t and won’t be made between states. It is that Russia’s neo-colonialism should prompt a determination that in the long term it will not prevail. The values of liberty and law, freedom and democracy have more divisions, more adherents and more supporters in states even where the values don’t officially prevail, or do so only weakly. Unlike in 1940, they’re in the majority — and that will come through.

PHOTO: Ukrainian servicemen ride on armoured vehicles near Slaviansk September 3, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

3 comments

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You invaded Iraq on the basis of trumped up accusations, you clueless knucklehead. Then your president was driven out of Iraq by a hail of thrown shoes.

“The absolute worst time that I’ve seen in my life has been the last five years, The occupation has not been good for the Christians and for all of Iraq.”
— Patriarch Mar Emmanuel III Delly, head of the largest Christian denomination in Iraq, 2008

Posted by ToshiroMifune | Report as abusive

Mr. Llyod, in the title you state “In clashes over Ukraine or Iraq, liberty must be defended”, yet further into your article you state “what to do with groups that…defy the state of Ukraine in the name of ethnic solidarity and attachment to Russia.”

Those two statements are in conflict…ahhh those pesky individuals who demand liberty from their all-wise gov’t overseers! You’re prioritizing the liberty of Western Ukrainians over those in the East?? In fact, the only “freedom fighters” fighting for liberty in this war are those in the East. If you support the gov’t of Ukraine, you’re against the liberty seekers in the East. The people of Eastern Ukraine are no less deserving of self-determination than you, me, or anyone else on this planet.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Sarkozyrocks is absolutely right. John Lloyd’s position is inconsistent and disingenuous. The real freedom fighters in Ukraine are those who fight against the semi-fascist and ultra-nationalist junta in Kiev.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive