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Wineke: Changing the 1 percent

Published On: May 07 2014 05:24:38 PM CDT
Barack Obama interview

President Barack Obama is doing something pretty unique to combat Russian aggression in Ukraine; he’s asking mighty American corporations to pay the price.

In basing his policy on economic sanctions rather than military sanctions, the president is, in effect, selecting a new “1 percent” to bear the burden of conflict.

What the country has done in the past is to place the burden on the backs of the 1 percent of Americans who serve in the military.

In Iraq and Afghanistan we weren’t even willing to raise taxes to help pay for the conflict. We just borrowed all the money we needed to pay for the wars.

But this one, so far, is different. News media ran stories earlier this week about the frustrations corporate executives are expressing about the administration’s pressure on them not to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin later this spring.

Putin’s government has made it pretty clear that they will take names and play favorites when it comes to corporations that do or do not attend. Obama has made it equally clear that he won’t appreciate American corporations undermining economic sanctions.

It’s not that Americans will boycott the meeting entirely, but few will send their chief executives. And angering Putin will have some economic risk. Russia, for example, is Pepsi’s second largest customer. Russians bought $5 billion of Pepsi products last year. The chief executives of these corporations are among the “one percent” of the richest Americans.

But our use of the military to solve international problems has had its risk, too. The main one being that our finest young men and women get killed.

The real question is whether economic sanctions will work as well as military sanctions. The answer to that isn’t as clear as the president’s Republican opponents like to make it seem.

For one thing, it isn’t clear just what “military” means we can use in Ukraine.

We can’t really send American soldiers to fight a war there (and no one is suggesting we do so) because if we did, then Russia would also invade and Russia already has 40,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. We would lose.

Some administration critics, both Republican and Democrat, are suggesting we send new arms to the Ukrainian military. Then they could fight on their own and Putin would see he has a price to pay for his aggression.

The only problem with that is that Ukraine already has military ships, airplanes and army bases, and Russia keeps stealing them. In Crimea, the Russians just kicked the Ukrainian navy and air force out and took their stuff.

So, if we send guns and helicopters into Ukraine, wouldn’t we also end up sending “advisers” to maintain them and protect them? And if we did that, well, you know. what would happen.

Others think that what we have to do is approve the Keystone Pipeline and build facilities to shop liquefied natural gas to Europe. We might not be able to build all that in time to deter Putin.

My guess is that Obama is choosing to use economic means because they are the best bet he has and that he’s using them not to defeat Putin in Ukraine but, rather, to deter him from continuing his expansionist policies. Which might or might not work.

In the meantime, the sabers he is rattling are not the lives of American servicemen but the economic fortunes of the American rich.

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