Must Putin Save Us Again?
George Washington warned against “foreign entanglements.” Was it because he had a premonition of the cluelessness and ineptitude of his successors in the Bush years and in the Age of Obama?
If so, the Bush-Cheney – now Obama — War on Terror shows how right he was. It might as well have been concocted deliberately to encourage Islamists to attack Western targets. The ill will it has created will be a factor in world politics for generations to come.
It has also diminished the liberal protections Washington and his contemporaries prized. Privacy rights have suffered the most.
Was that the idea all along? It could be.
Bush and Cheney certainly saw to it that their successor would have a hard time changing course. Did Obama even want to? There is no sign of it. He and his advisors have carried on with unbridled gusto.
Who would have thought that the peace candidate would develop a taste for murder and mayhem or that the Constitutional Law professor would be so cavalier with the Bill of Rights?
But the War on Terror is getting old, and Obama’s heart is no longer in it. Even the neocons have moved on; these days, they are mainly interested in vilifying the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement. Plainly, the time is ripe for new adventures.
And so we find the White House and Congress bolting forward into the past – pouring new wine, post-9/11 skullduggery, into the old bottles left over from the Cold War.
All indications are that Obama would like to pull China down a notch or two. Why else “pivot” towards Asia? But if there is a way to do that without also harming the interests of the fraction of the one percent he lives to protect and serve, he has yet to figure out how.
It must frustrate America’s “pro-democracy” NGOs as well. Try as they might to stir up trouble, the Chinese state seems unassailable. The prospects for tearing it apart or dragging it down the path of civil war are nil.
China does have separatist movements – the most important is, of course, in Tibet. And now, thanks to a widely publicized terrorist incident in southern China, the (Muslim and Turkic speaking) Uighurs in the Xinjiang region at the westernmost edge of northern China are in the news.
But disrupting the status quo in China is a fool’s errand and also a foolish idea – because for now and the foreseeable future, Chinese “communism” is a godsend for American and Western capitalists.
For them, there is not even any percentage in trying to split China apart. The regions where separatist sentiments run high are not economically important enough.
Russia, however, is another story.
There, separatist forces are strong, and the economic stakes are high. And, though you would never know it from our media, opportunities for stirring up trouble abound because the level of state repression is low. Think how far Pussy Riot had to go to provoke an illiberal (“authoritarian”) reaction.
NGOs intent on creating chaos have their work cut out for them in China; in Russia and the former Soviet republics, their job is easier.
Therefore, if the idea is to revive the Cold War, Russia is the place to do it.
Bill Clinton showed the way.
Yugoslavia in the nineties was easy prey. Under Marshall Tito, ethnic tensions had subsided but, with him gone and Communism on the ropes, the pendulum was set to swing back.
The prospect made Western capitalists and unreconstructed Cold Warriors salivate. A unified, still vaguely socialist Yugoslavia was an obstacle in their way.
For them too, the parts were worth more than the whole.
Clinton let the Germans get the process started: their banks had the most to gain. Moreover, the parts of Yugoslavia most inclined to break away — Slovenia and Croatia – were historically in their sphere of influence.
But then before those uppity Europeans had a chance to forget who the real boss is, Clinton took over the operation.
With the anti-imperialist Left diminished, and with atrocities committed and suffered by all sides, the West’s propagandists had no difficulty establishing a narrative that suited their aims; they had ample resources to draw upon.
It was easy going too because Clinton could count on public opinion siding with him. Outside émigré circles, memories of Croatian fascism had faded, and there was no effective Serb lobby in the United States. It was therefore easy to depict Serbs as bloodthirsty villains and their leaders, Slobodan Milošević especially, as demons.
It wasn’t only Americans who were blissfully complicit; Europeans were worse. And the Left, such as it is, in both continents – the part that had turned away from anti-imperialism – was the worst of all.
Yugoslavia was therefore dismembered, and an impediment in the way of neoliberal hegemony got cleared away.
The Clinton model worked once; why wouldn’t a thoroughly Clintonized leader dust it off and try it again?
Vladimir Putin is good for being turned into another Milošević. Fitting Ukrainians into the Croatian role is more of a stretch because they have no effective lobby in the United States and because there are too few Catholics there for the Catholic Church to get involved. But it balances out because Russians are far more demonizable than Serbs. It is a lonstanding American tradition.
And for keeping liberals in line, in addition to a servile media, Obama had a wedge issue to exploit: gay rights.
Let the hypocrisy pass. The laws in some of our “red” states are as homophobic as Russia’s and our Bible thumpers are as reactionary as their Orthodox clerics. But at least we are getting better while they, our media tell us, are getting worse.
Too bad, then, for the new Cold Warriors that until last week, there was no blood in the water. The pink washing leading up to the Sochi Olympics, though disingenuous, was therefore low key; it certainly didn’t rise to the level of full-blown chutzpah.
But now that chaos has enabled a coup – as happens when American meddling “succeeds,” as Obama et. al. are trying to make happen right now in Venezuela – the water is thick with blood, figuratively and literally. And the chutzpah is breathtaking.
From every quarter we are told that Obama’s Milošević substitute broke international law – something Obama would never do! — because he wants to restore the power and influence the Soviet Union once enjoyed; maybe he even wants to patch the old union back together.
And he wants to combat Western decadence. The West, it seems, is too tolerant for Putin’s taste. Its acceptance of homosexuality is only the most flagrant example. Putin, the story goes, abhors deviations from established norms; multiculturalism and freethinking sicken him. He is like the Grand Inquisitor. Or Hitler, Hillary Clinton chimes in.
Predictably, liberals, many of whom are not nearly as reactionary as the Clintons, are on board, just as they were when Hillary’s better half was overseeing the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. Indeed, they are outdoing themselves, even by the standards they established as Bill’s bombs fell.
There is a well-known story that illustrates what chutzpah means: about a man who, being tried for the murder of his parents, throws himself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that he is an orphan.
When all the facts are known, blaming Putin for the events now unfolding in Ukraine will eclipse the orphan story.
For now, though, there are still too many “known unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld would say. There are also plenty of known knowns, however, and plenty of reasonable surmises.
We know, for instance, that the United States has been playing picador with Russia at least since Ronald Reagan lied to Mikhail Gorbachev about how America had no intention of bringing NATO right up to Russia’s borders.
Why wouldn’t Gorbachev believe him? Without a Soviet adversary, NATO had no reason for being.
But the military-industrial complex and the Cold War establishment were not about to give it up, and Bush the Father was not hard to convince. With its Security Council vetoes and Third World member nations, the UN was all but useless for endorsing projections of American power. NATO gives the U.S. a free hand.
We know too that in the War on Terror, the CIA has taken over many missions that would formerly have been the military’s – targeting and deploying Obama’s drones, for example. And we know that when the job calls for creating chaos abroad, the State Department is the new CIA.
It works mainly through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other ostensibly “non-governmental” organizations. The NED has been all over Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. It even operates in Russia itself.
What we don’t know yet, for sure, is what role the NED and the others played in instigating the events that started on the streets of Kiev. We know they served as catalysts, but we don’t know how extensive their involvement was.
We do know, however, that, at the very least, the Americans and Europeans supported a coup against a democratically elected government, ostensibly for democracy’s sake; and we know that, in the process, they reinvigorated the long suppressed demons of the eastern European Right.
Needless to say, the Ukrainian people had legitimate grievances against their government; it was corrupt and its economic policies were ruinous. The Libyan people had legitimate grievances against their government too, as did the Syrians and the Egyptians, and so on.
But whether by ineptitude or design, American and EU meddling inevitably makes things worse; usually, much worse.
Hence, the situation brewing in the Crimea.
It is too soon to panic. After all, Obama did turn away from a war with Iran, despite all the pressure the Israel lobby could muster. It was a case of the national interest taking precedence over political cowardice.
In this instance, the national interest is even clearer – making war on Russia would be worse than insane. This is why no one is agitating for it, except the usual gaggle of Republican Senators and imbecile pundits.
Still, Obama must find the prospect tempting. After all, he has his “legacy” to think about; and who wants to be remembered for drones, gridlock, 24/7 surveillance of everybody and everything, and Obamacare?
He did break the color line; therefore, had he resigned on Day One, he’d have a glorious legacy indeed. But, as it turned out, he was no Jackie Robinson.
Glory abounded in the Crimean War, or so it might nowadays seem to a boy with a lively interest in history. Did young Barry encounter “The Charge of the Light Brigade” at an impressionable age? I haven’t the slightest idea, but the conjecture is plausible enough to warrant concern.
But that adventure, unlike the Cold War, cannot be resurrected. The Crimean War was a creature of another age; it can no longer repeat itself, not even as farce. If Obama wants glory, he will have to look elsewhere.
To be sure, there are superficial similarities. Then too it was the West – France and Great Britain – against Russia, and then too Russia’s access to a warm water port on the Black Sea was a concern. And, like now, fatuous pretexts and rationalizations abounded.
But those were different times. It is hard to imagine now, but in the 1850s, it would never even have occurred to anyone in Britain or France, much less the United States, that the West needed to defend itself against the Muslim East. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire was allied with Britain and France.
Back then, the clash of civilizations was between Western and Eastern Christianity. That was where the belligerents looked for pretexts. The issue that supposedly got the Crimean War going was control of Christian shrines in Jerusalem, the eternally troublesome city. The French and the British joined the Ottomans purportedly to keep the Russian Orthodox Church from displacing various Protestant sects and the Church of Rome.
Needless to say, that pretext was about as central to the Crimean War as democracy is to America’s and Europe’s machinations in Ukraine today. Then, as now, geopolitical maneuvering was all.
The Western powers in the 1850s neither knew nor cared about Middle Eastern oil. But they cared a great deal about access to their various Asian “possessions” – India, above all. They therefore wanted to prop up the waning Ottoman Empire in order to keep the burgeoning Russian Empire at bay. They could control the former; the latter was a rival they wanted to beat down.
Nowadays, of course, Russia has no designs on Turkey and no interest in dominating the eastern Mediterranean. It is happy to leave Constantinople (Istanbul) to the Turks. It wants to pacify the Muslims in its domain, not to add to their numbers.
But it does want security around its borders. George Washington and his co-thinkers would have understood; remember the Monroe Doctrine. John Kennedy understood too; he nearly ended the world as we know it for just that reason, when the Soviets brought missiles into Cuba.
Russia also wants to protect the rights and property of Russians living outside its borders. The founders of our republic were on board with that idea too, as the Barbary Coast pirates realized to their regret – along with Mexicans and Native Americans and countless others as the years wore on.
Even Ronald Reagan understood. When he and his advisors decided that the Vietnam Syndrome had been standing in the way of the empire’s predations long enough, he used alleged dangers facing American medical students in Grenada as a pretext for calling in the troops.
Yet somehow Putin is the devil. It isn’t just Republican Senators and right-wing pundits who think so. Ask any liberal. If you can bear it, tune in to NPR or MSNBC.
On Vietnam, most liberals finally wised up. Nowadays, only unrepentant John McCain types still defend that war. And, although the liberal media was every bit as servile to the regime after 9/11 as it now is on the events in Ukraine and the Crimea, no one today, outside the Cheney and Bush families, still thinks the Iraq War was a good idea.
On Yugoslavia, liberals remain as benighted as ever. And because Obama did it, there are still liberals around who think that bombing Libya was a good idea. What a sorry, hopeless lot liberals have become!
Therefore don’t count on them to understand how, when Obama and his minions blame Putin for all that they have done, how much like the “orphan” throwing himself on the mercy of the court they are. It will be clear as can be to future historians, just as Vietnam and Iraq now are to almost everyone; but, by then, it may be too late.
Fortunately, Russian foreign policy is in wiser and more capable hands than ours. Not long ago, it was the Russians – indeed, Putin himself – who saved Obama from launching a catastrophic war against Syria after he had backed himself into a corner with foolish statements about a “red line” that Bashar Al-Assad dare not cross.
Our best hope now lies with them again. If what happens in the Crimea stays in the Crimea, the Russians will be the reason why.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).