Vladimir V. Putin: Neo-Con
About a year ago, the Bush administration and the neocon babble-ocracy began touting Vladimir Putin as America’s next Man We Love to Hate. This is odd, since by nearly all standards, Mr. Putin is the most successful neocon on the planet. Or perhaps it’s jealousy. Since taking power in 2000, Mr. Putin’s Russia has dodged chaos, seen its GDP increase six-fold, its poverty fall by half, average monthly real wages rise by 150% and, with the invasion of Georgia, demonstrated to the world that it can no longer be baited, humiliated or ignored without consequences.
In politics, international politics especially, the standard is not perfection, it’s the alternative. Putin’s no Stalin, either at home or abroad. Nor is he the new tsar. He’s a Russian authoritarian, in some ways an autocrat, who is leaving his country better than he found it.
Would that the accomplishments of Mr. Bush and his (and Rupert Murdoch’s) neocon minions and shills might receive the same evaluation. But they can’t. Mr. Bush will go down in history as our worst president ever in terms of what he squandered, and among the worst in terms of criminality. The neocons have been proven wrong so often that, were they physicians or attorneys or plumbers, they’d have their licenses revoked. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is currently the most successful leader around and in one very important way, among the most moral and humane.
For in power politics, it is extremely moral to know when to stop and profoundly immoral to posture and preen and make promises you can’t keep and issue threats you can’t back up.
We shall return to Mr. Putin in a bit. For now, it’s necessary to review neoconservatism in its American context, then show why and how they’ve brought us only ruin…while Russia begins a resurgence that, if properly understood and acknowledged, can only benefit the world.
The present generation of American neocons believes, like many of us, that America is the greatest country on earth. To them, however, the greatest country on earth has to have an empire and a Purpose sufficient to justify whatever we want to do. In fact, for them, without a Mission, America isn’t even America. Let’s go thump someone and call it spreading democracy, “benevolent hegemony” or whatever. It’ll be great fun and they’ll thank us later. Or so the neocons told us.
American neocons have a long relationship with Russia, a viscerally hostile relationship that goes back to the Cold War. Sadly, it’s a relationship they’d like to revive, now that Saddam’s no longer available, Osama’s gone missing and bombing Iran lacks popular sizzle.
It’s a hostility few Americans have ever shared. Throughout the 20th century, the vast majority of Americans believed that we had no beef (or borscht) with Russia per se, and certainly not with its people. When the Romanov monarchy collapsed in 1917, we cheered Russia’s ascent to democracy…and then did nothing to help. When the Bolsheviks took power, we began eighty years of proclaiming that Russia was not the problem. All they had to do was get rid of communism and everything between us would be copasetic. After all, we’d never fought each other (few Americans today know that we landed troops in the Russian far east in 1918, ostensibly and ineffectually to aid Bolshevism’s enemies, and kept them there for two years). We’d even been allies during World War II. Nor did we have any obvious geographical or economic conflicts. It was just that darn Communism.
The American neocon movement was born in the aftermath of Vietnam. Its founding generation was composed largely of former liberals and Leftists, even a few cafeteria Trotskyites. Some had drifted away from communism in horror at the excesses of the 1930s, or during the 1950s when the full extent of those excesses began to be known. Many were conventional liberals who broke with the Old Left over Vietnam, which they supported, and with the New Left, whose anti-Vietnam antics they found frivolous, self-centered, self-righteous and self-interested. The neocon movement coalesced during the Carter administration and attained its first real influence during the Reagan years.
The neocons were not traditional conservatives. Some remained unrepentant New Dealers, when they bothered to consider domestic issues at all. They were primarily Manhattan and Beltway types, heavily Jewish, with little use for the “paleocons”-the Old Guard William F. Buckley crowd and Die Hard segregationists, or with the rising Sunbelt evangelicals. The paleocons and Sunbelt types, for their part, returned the sentiment.
The movement came of age with Ronald Reagan and it had but one overriding purpose: win the Cold War. A few senior neocons, such as movement “Godfather” Irving Kristol, took a broader view.
His stated purpose was “to convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.” But foreign policy was always Job One, and the senior neocons included hard liners such as Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, both Democratic Senators, as well as former Democrat Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Ambassador to the UN under the Reagan Administration. The bipartisan nature of these elder neocons made them very useful to Ronald Reagan, who wisely never got in bed with them, instead keeping them at a distance. As he used to say, “Sometimes the Right hand doesn’t know what the Far Right hand is doing.” But in private, he and his senior advisers would tell the neocons, “We need you to hold our feet to the fire.”
The elder neocons and, increasingly, their junior clique (many of whom were children of the founding generation) were happy to do so. This is because neocons like to play with fire, especially when it’s other people getting burned. Throughout the 80s, they agitated incessantly for military action, covert and overt, against the Soviets in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, Afghanistan. They were not always wrong.
When Ronald Reagan came to power, most Americans accepted the “mature Cold War” as a permanent fact of international life. This acceptance was based on the perceived realities of Soviet military power. But it was also based on the belief, carefully nurtured by the Soviets and the American academics and CIA types who studied them, that material life was getting continually better for the average Russian.
How nearly everybody got it exactly backwards is a fascinating story in itself. Suffice it to say: Ronald Reagan did not.
His strategy was cold, it was clear, it was thoughtful and purposeful, and it was very definitely his own. Reagan knew intuitively that the Soviet Union was tottering. But he did not want to fight the Soviets, he wanted to bring them to the negotiating table. To that end, he used little, if any, overt force against the Soviet Union. Instead, he developed what in Pentagonese was known as “competitive strategies.” In plain English, this meant, “Spend ‘em to death.” Reagan’s aim was to force the Soviet Union to spend money, allocate resources, and occupy technical talent that they either had better use for elsewhere or didn’t have. (The best Soviet scientists and engineers were world-class, but they had no real depth, no bench strength.) Supporting the mujahedin in Afghanistan was one way to deplete them. The Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as Star Wars-perhaps the most successful weapons system never built or intended to be built-was another.
In short, Ronald Reagan walked the Soviets up to the edge of an economic abyss of their own making, then let them ponder what a revived competition with the United States would mean. Mikhail Gorbachev got the message. He wanted “Perestroika,” or “restructuring.” He got collapse.
And then we broke our word, which was not so much a set of firm promises as the word that had underlain our attitude toward Russia since 1917. Get rid of communism, call off the global offensive, we’ll be friends. We’ll even help.
But we didn’t. Instead, we pushed them toward their present angry stance. And that is hard to forgive.
We said the right things, from time to time. But as we’d done with Vietnam and Afghanistan, we lost interest and walked away. We got attached to telegenic “celebrities” like Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, which was a huge mistake. When they left power, we lost our frame of reference and were unable to sense the positive qualities of other leaders, such as the late General Alexander Lebed. When Russia’s early experiments in democracy segued into anarchy, we shrugged it off. We sent them humanitarian aid, not troubling ourselves too much when it mostly ended up on the black market.
We even sent them Ivy League economists to screw up what was left of their economy by advocating extraordinarily premature privatization. Whole industries were looted or otherwise acquired by well-placed apparatchiks, former communists who’d printed up new business cards, while inflation soared. Both economic and political problems in the former Soviet Union were compounded by the fact that for generations, private business was a crime and “profit” was itself a criminal concept. The result was that criminal penetration of legitimate business activities is pervasive and profound; while organized crime in Russia became a huge business-and we didn’t particularly care. If anything, trying to get a handle on organized crime kept the Russians busy. And we were pleased when some of the former Soviet Socialist Republics declared independence (like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) or tried to do so (like Chechnya and Dagestan). We could hardly disguise our glee when the Russian Army almost came apart in the First Chechen War.
Democracy, as the neocons liked to gloat, was a’ bustin’ out all over.
If we’d given a damn, we would have tried to understand this regional fragmentation from their point of view-a point of view that predated communism by five hundred years. If we’d given a damn, we would have helped, seriously helped, the Russians get their economic house in order before making any but the most basic political reforms. We would have understood that a nation with no democratic heritage and no functioning middle class had to go through some messy times, and could not do so on our timetable. We would have understood that a Vladimir Putin had to emerge-because the alternative was worse.
For that matter, if we’d ever cared about our own real greatness, we might have helped the Russians get their own house in order. But America’s policy elites totally wasted the 90s with narcissistic navel-gazing. America needed a Purpose, and helping the Russians just wasn’t sexy enough. So they were assigned their role in America’s New World Order-pathetic, impotent basket case and object lesson-and we left it at that. We had the rest of the planet to play with.
And so the politics of feeling good about yourself came to dominate post-Cold War foreign policy. The “America’s Purpose” debate of the 1990s must rank as proof of both the inherent idiocy and the inevitable failure of defining the world as a place for us to administer or save. On one side were the liberal “Muscular Humanitarians,” not averse to using force provided we did it “selflessly.” On the other were the neocons, the “America’s Greatness” crowd, casting about for a lifelong crisis worthy of what they deemed their literary and political talents. They-the younger generation of neocons, especially-had no problem with Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, when she asked Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having an army if you don’t use it?” Indeed, they answered the question General Powell was too furious to address. The neocon response: Let’s use force-to turn the Arab world into good little American knock-offs, for starters. And ever since 1991, we’ve been using our muscle on behalf of Muslims: in Kuwait, in Somalia, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan, in Iraq.
But what of Russia?
While we were nattering about America’s Purpose and getting into war after war, the Russians were slowly putting their internal house in order. But we saw only corruption and crime, suppression and incompetence…when we bothered to look at all. And when we weren’t ignoring or dismissing them, we were humiliating them. When the Cold War ended, we congratulated ourselves on how we were too decent to gloat. But we didn’t bother to consider the cumulating humiliations we then inflicted upon them both by our indifference and our policies toward others.
We ostentatiously built bases and signed agreements with nations of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. We got bases in Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan in order to access Afghanistan, which we actually occupy, and have emergency landing rights in Kazakhstan that go beyond international treaties requiring any airport to offer landing rights to any aircraft in distress. NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization established in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union, now found itself without a purpose. So, with American blessing and prodding, NATO began an aggressive Drang nach Osten, moving eastward toward a nonexistent threat in order to have something to do. Today, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, what used to be East Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are all members of NATO, All except Slovenia, which was part of the former Yugoslavia, were either members of the Warsaw Pact or actually part of the Soviet Union.
And then there was Georgia, still a candidate for membership, along with Ukraine, another former Soviet republic. And today we’re busily planning to establish anti-missile systems in these areas, ostensibly to protect Europe from Iranian attack.
We call this expanding democracy and strengthening the “international community.” In some ways, it was. But we did it boorishly, rather like a man who flaunts his new mistress in front of her old lover. And we continue to do so today, along with all our threats and admonitions: the empty, ludicrous words of a braggart whose bluff has been called but can’t seem to shut up.
The Russians didn’t like this militarization of lands near and on their borders. They let us know they didn’t like this. They let us know it for a long time, very loudly. That was always the thing about them during the Cold War. If something really bothered them, they let us know, clearly and in a timely manner. This hasn’t changed, except-until Georgia-we believed we didn’t have to pay attention.
Which brings us to Vladimir Putin, who turns out to be less the Man You Love to Hate than a Russian who intends for his country to be respected…and is prepared to respect us in return. More’s the pity that we’ve given him so little opportunity to do so.
In December 2007, Time Magazine named Putin as “Person of the Year.” The magazine described him as “diminutive” (if he is, I’m a supermodel) and “sardonic but humorless. In our hours together, he didn’t attempt a joke, and he misread several of our attempts at playfulness.” But Time’s transcripts of the interview show a man who is unfailingly courteous, even when confronted with outright insolence. Asked if he believed in a Supreme God, Putin replied, “Do you? … There are things I believe, which should not in my position, at least, be shared with the public at large for everybody’s consumption because that would look like self-advertising or a political striptease.”
Asked how he viewed the relationship with the United States, Putin replied, “Indeed, Russia and the U.S. were allies during the two tragic conflicts of the Second and the First World Wars, which allows us to think there’s something objectively bringing us together in difficult times, and I think-I believe-it has to do with geopolitical interests and also has a moral component. … The ability to compromise is not a diplomatic politeness toward a partner but rather taking into account and respecting your partner’s legitimate interests.”
Asked for an example, Putin offered the North Korean nuclear issue: “We were thinking about each other’s interests and at the same time about the interests of the country in question, the problems, the issues we were trying to address. Based on such an approach, in the end we resolved the issue to a large extent. At the same time, where we fail to be guided by those basic principles, where we push forward some economic or political self-interest, we fail to arrive at solutions that would realistically address the issue. … Where we try to take into account each other’s interest, we achieve lasting results.” A back-and-forth exchange between Putin and Time is as follows:
TIME: Do you think the U.S. wants to see a strong Russia, or a weak Russia?
PUTIN: I believe the U.S. already understands and will understand more and more that only a strong Russia will respond to the genuine interests of the United States.
TIME: What is NATO’s purpose today? If Russia were invited to join would it do so?
PUTIN: I wouldn’t call NATO a putrid corpse of the cold war, but it is a leftover of the past, indeed…. Russia has no intention of joining military-political blocs because that would be tantamount to restricting its sovereignty. But we want to have good relations, both with the U.S. and with other countries, including NATO countries.
Later, after answering a question about chess great and dissident Gary Kasparov’s unsuccessful bid for the Presidency, Putin addressed a very large issue: “The bloc system of relations must be replaced by an altogether different system based on common rules that are called international law, and those rules should be strictly abided by. At the end of the day, only this may ensure stability and respect for the interest of small nations and not just large ones and superpowers like the United States.”
In a 10,600 word transcript, Putin uses the words interest or interests 23 times. These are not obscurantist subtleties that require a Ph. D. Kremlinologist to interpret. This is a man who has brought his country back from the brink of anarchy, saying in words so plain and simple even a child can understand them, that Russia is a friend and equal of the United States and as such, we must respect their interests-as they respect ours. He was too polite to state the obvious, that it is in the best interests of the United States to respect Russia’s interests and that those interests will not be disrespected without consequence. An adult, he did his interviewers the courtesy of assuming they were also adults.
Time Magazine notwithstanding, the US has responded in two ways. First, Putin is increasingly demonized, especially in the Murdoch media apparat. The neocons continue their well-co-ordinated muttering about a new Cold War, and seem quite happy to do so. And why not? For eight years, the Bush administration’s acting-out of their fantasies and obsessions have so weakened America, financially and militarily, that only a new threat can justify further expenditures and exertions.
Not so long ago, the neocons wanted Russia to be a basket case, on the verge of famine, corrupt and impotent, so we could have our way in what used to be their empire-and remains their border area. Now, suddenly, the neocons find their resurgence so deliciously alarming that it’s already being used as justification for that ultimate indicator of Purpose, increased defense spending.
It’s all so obvious, so contrived, so made-to-order, that you feel embarrassed for them.
Russia is never going to be an exemplar of democracy and human rights, no more than Iraq or Afghanistan. But that does not mean that Russia cannot be a decent and humane country. The neocons and the administration do not desire that for Russia, and that is the gravamen of all the verbiage about keeping Russia out of the “international community.”
It helped the demonization process that Putin was former KGB. But even if he’d been a former dissident or priest, it wouldn’t have mattered. We prefer our Russian leaders evil or, failing that, incompetent. Putin is neither. He is, to borrow a favorite neocon phrase, “tough-minded.” And tough-minded people understand that patience is not a limitless virtue.
We brought him to the end of his patience. For a decade, we had been oblivious to Russian humiliation by our ham-handed pursuit of our interests in their own back yard. Then we began to deliberately bait them in a way we would never have dared to do to the old Soviet Union. The final straws were our recognition of Kosovo, part of the former Yugoslavia, as an independent and sovereign state back in February, over both Serbian and Russian protests, the attempt to extend a US anti-ballistic missile shield into the Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine, and an offer of membership in NATO to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, a US-supported drama queen of a democracy that was engaged in some very unwise provocations of its own.
In terms of the morality of power politics-a harsh morality that tolerates neither fantasy nor stupidity forever-there are three things wrong with baiting the Russians like this.
First, we didn’t just humiliate the Russians; we angered them over their vital interests when there was no reason to. Anger can be very motivating. For over a decade, we humiliated them when they were really in no position to respond. It’s when you can’t respond that, when you have to just take it, that you are humiliated. When you can engage in the hard, purposeful pleasure of taking action, the humiliation is over. Time’s transcript of the Putin interview was read by people who matter in DC-as Putin, a former professional intelligence officer, meant it to be. Putin was saying, clearly and publicly, the time for this nonsense was over; it was time for America to come to an adult understanding of its real interests and act accordingly.
We ignored that message by threatening Russia’s very real interests. They didn’t like it-they really didn’t like it-when former Warsaw Pact nations join NATO, even if it is not quite a putrid corpse. And no one is stupid enough to think that an Iranian missile attack is going to come through Poland or Ukraine. Not even the neocons, and that was a gratuitous insult to Russian intelligence. But offering NATO membership to parts of the former Soviet Union, like Georgia, threatens Russia’s right to control its own borders and no nation can tolerate that. Nor should any nation tolerate the hostile and threatening militarization of its neighbors. China didn’t in 1950 when US troops approached the Yalu River in Korea. We didn’t in 1962 when Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba.
In the end, nations who tolerate threats on their borders pay for it. Israel knows about this. So does the United States with-dare we be honest?-Mexico.
In sum, we have violated a basic tenet of the morality of power politics. Do not threaten the vital interests of others when you yourself have nothing vital to gain. Neither we nor the rest of NATO-including former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland and former Soviet Republics like the Baltics-has anything to gain by admitting Georgia (or Ukraine) to NATO over Russian objections. Rather the opposite. In fact, we’ve gone out of our way to ignore their positive actions and our commonalities of interest elsewhere. Russia supplies oil and natural gas to Europe and has been quietly very helpful and cooperative to both America and Europe when dealing with terrorism, Islamic and otherwise. Russia could be of enormous help in dealing with the Iranians, if we gave them any reason to be (the Iranians know better than to bait the Russians; doing so to us is safe). Russia also has a dwindling ethnic Russian population and a 2,600 mile border with China, which has a growing population, including a huge surplus of military-age males; in fact, the natural eastern border between Russia and China is the Ussuri River. Nevertheless, Russia holds lands east of the Ussuri, including the major port of Vladivostok, denying China access to the Sea of Japan. Prudent people wonder how long those lands can remain Russian, and the Russians, who are nothing if not prudent, remember the 1969 Ussuri River fighting. Currently, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and Russia have all signed a treaty limiting troops along their borders, but all those nations know that treaties only last as long as they are in the interests of the signatories.
America might also consider that the United States is for the foreseeable future imprudently dependent on oil, and begin cutting deals with Russia as we wean ourselves, first off Middle Eastern oil, then off of oil itself. America and Europe more generally have an enormous amount to gain from cooperating with Russia, and Russia knows very well it has an enormous amount to gain from cooperating with us. In return for infuriating and alienating the Russians the Georgians offer us-what? Two thousand troops whom we have to equip, transport, and train, to maintain the pretense that our Iraq war is really a “coalition” operation.
And then, unforgivably, our encouragement of Mr. Saakashvili’s delusions of democracy and NATO membership got ordinary Georgians killed for nothing.
There has never been the slightest chance we would sacrifice Peoria, or anything else, for Georgia. Even if we had the money and conventional military forces available, any American President who would militarily challenge the Russians for part of their own nation would be justifiably considered certifiable. All we did, all we could have done, by offering NATO membership to Georgia, was get Georgians killed-conscripts, women, children, old men. For nothing. Not even in unilateral American interests. All we can do to the Poles by permitting them, as we have, to sign our missile defense treaty, is endanger them-for nothing, not even our own selfish interests. We have no intention of defending them, and this travesty of a treaty can only further convince the Russians (and anyone else who happens to be watching) of our President’s lack of basic common sense and decency. At this point, Russian policy makers are probably less angry than deeply concerned about the collective sanity of the Bush Administration.
Of course, the United States is going to be around long after the neocons-who, not content with having wrecked our military and looted our treasury, are apparently trying to alienate our most powerful potential ally-are gone. We’re going to have to fix the mess.
So how should we deal with the Russians?
For a start, look at a map. Russia’s real enemies are to the south and east, and none of those folks, Chinese or Islamist, wish us well, either. Second, take a page from the Russians. Our foreign and defense policies have to take a back seat to fundamental economic restructuring because it is our wealth that enables us to implement our policies. Then let’s start acting like adults: adults make foreign policy based upon a realistic assessment of their interests and capabilities, and the interests and capabilities of those around them. They don’t pick fights they can’t win and have nothing to gain from, with people who don’t want to fight them.
The real world is a nasty place and America needs friends and allies. Why are we making an unnecessary enemy of a power that by all rights, as well as by logic and morality, ought to be our friend?