The real Joe Stalin turned up at the Potsdam Conference: not benign Uncle Joe, but the murderous dictator — a bully brimming with malice. Old newsreel footage captures an act of startling rudeness. In a show of truculence and disrespect toward his wartime allies, Stalin strides into the conference room and tosses his briefcase onto the table where Truman and Churchill are seated.
Everything had been breaking Stalin’s way in the ten weeks that had passed from Germany’s surrender on May 7 to July 17, 1945, the first day of the conference. While American forces pulled out of Europe and headed for the Pacific, Stalin still had most of his 2 million-strong Red Army stationed in a long line from the Baltic to the Adriatic.
The Soviet Union had overrun most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. What was to stop it from conquering Western Europe, including Britain? If there was anything that Stalin needed to complete the task, it was a credible navy.
One of the topics on the agenda at Potsdam happened to be the fate of the German fleet.
Stalin suggested they split it three ways. Churchill recoiled in horror — saying that the German warships should all be sent straight to the bottom of the sea. “Let’s divide them anyway,” Stalin responded cheekily, displaying his dark brand of humor. “If Mr. Churchill wishes, he can sink his share.”
It may be argued that Truman “saved” Western Europe when he dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan a few weeks later – hitting Hiroshima on August 7 and Nagasaki on August 9.
That brought the war against Japan to an abrupt end; it also extended a protective nuclear umbrella over Britain, France, and other U.S. allies in Western Europe. All of a sudden, Stalin faced the reality that the U.S. had a new weapon that could destroy whole cities and armies. He would risk his own annihilation if he started a third world war hard on the heels of the one that ended with the defeat of Germany and Japan.
But let us return to Stalin’s boorish behavior at Potsdam – when he hurled his briefcase on the table as if he were throwing down a gauntlet and proceeded to bully Churchill on the disposition of the German fleet – and consider the question:
How would Mr. Obama react under similar conditions?
Would he be prepared to do whatever it took (even sinking some of our own warships) if he thought that were needed make the Soviet dictator happy?
What makes those questions relevant is emergence of another Russian leader — in Vladimir Putin — who calls the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century and who has made it clear that he wishes to regain much if not all of the territory that it lost when the Soviet empire disintegrated into 15 separate countries — with most of them going on to join NATO and the European Union.
Still more, there is the role that the Obama administration has played in encouraging Putin’s ambition and in failing to do anything substantive to curb his aggressiveness.
In his first year in office, he canceled plans to deploy ballistic missiles to our friends, Poland and the Czech Republic, as a peace offering (the so-called “Russian Reset”) to Putin.
Putin has repaid Obama’s gesture with ever increasing hostility toward the United States and its allies — most especially including the 12 nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union and have become a part of NATO. He has also spent heavily to modernize the Russian army and reportedly doubled the number of troops in the Baltic region since 2009.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, did nothing to stop Russia from annexing Crimea last March and it continues to refuse to provide military support to Ukraine as Putin has sent tanks and artillery across the border to wrest control of other parts of the country.
In tapes obtained by the Polish magazine Wprost last June, then Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski was quoted as saying: “The Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bulls—t.” The leaked recording came to light just two weeks after Mr. Obama paid a visit to Poland.
The administration has exhibited the same kind of supine behavior in dealing with other dictators — notably including Syria’s Bashir al-Assad and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei. It gave up economic sanctions against Iran in advance of – and in the absence of – any meaningful commitment to abandon the further pursuit of nuclear weapons and to disavow repeated threats to obliterate the state of Israel.
As it has been defined by the Obama administration, the art of the deal in international relations is to disarm, disengage, and make breathtaking concessions first, and to worry about the consequences only later, if at all.
Let’s hope that help is on the way with a new Congress and the possibility of another Republican landslide in 2016. Let’s also hope help arrives in time to prevent any one of several looming catastrophes from coming to fruition.
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