International / Theory

The Russian Bear and the Milksop West: When Democracy Eats Its Own Tail

by Francis McLoughlin

The Kremlin

The Kremlin has certainly pulled a number on the United States of America. What is it to arouse the ire of a superpower nowadays? After Russia’s foreign minister has gone to work on the U.S. secretary of state, I’d say not terribly much. The poor beast is too busy clutching its neutered loins; even the concept of ‘revenge’ or ‘retaliation’ eludes it, as it scrambles to collect its wits for long enough to read the hastily-written script Vladimir Putin has placed before it. And if the writhing ‘great power’ is still too discombobulated to see straight, no worry: Tsar Vladimir will simply stride past it, and nail his Thesis on How to Resolve the Syrian Crisis onto the op-ed section of the New York Times.

Of course, the whole thing is a stalling tactic on the Kremlin’s part to protract a civil war in which its client, Bashar al-Assad, looks more and more likely to triumph. If scores of weapons-inspectors are scouring, at a snail’s pace, a war-zone for widely-dispersed WMDs, the Syrian rebels are going to have to do without those long-promised and as yet undelivered Western weapons. (The availability of arms and cash from al-Qaeda, however, is another matter). The darnedest thing, though, is that nobody really seems to mind that—as was to be expected—the shrivelling up of the American empire has not given rise to bounteous freedom for the peoples of the Middle East, but, rather, a Congo in the Levant, where the most savage forces in the world are battling for supremacy, overseen by the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership. In fact, it’s an anomaly, in a way, to see a president in this day and age actually get up and tell the world how it’s gonna be. If the second-term president of the Free World won’t do it, then the president-for-life of some frost-bitten, natural-gas-rich Eurasian land-mass has shown he is only too happy to step forward to fill the vacancy.

But the rapidity and ever-increasing confidence with which the Russian bear has shattered the decades-old American hegemony over the Middle East is not only awe-inspiring: it is positively pallor-inducing. The United States is still nominally aligned with the ‘Sunni bloc’ of unsavoury states—from the Saudi and Jordanian monarchies to the Gulf fiefdoms and perhaps the military-ruled limbo known as Egypt—against the Shi’ite crescent. But with Iran on the threshold of imposing a nuclear extortion racket over the region, the Sunni bloc looks decidedly less impressive than it did back when Henry Kissinger ‘flipped’ Egypt from Soviet suzerainty to U.S. stewardship in 1972, during the Cold War, which, for a time, made Washington’s word a great deal more persuasive to autocrats from the Maghreb to Central Asia.

How did the balance of power shift so dramatically, and in so short a space of time? It’s tempting to lay it all on the feet of the most incompetent and wilfully-weak president ever to rest his polished shoes on the Oval Office desk—to wit, the United States’ 44th. If one wishes to give credit where credit is due, however, one has no choice but to elevate one name above all others: that of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s hard-drinking, cigar-loving foreign minister. No Profiles in Treachery that some patient future scholar may wish to put together would be complete without a chapter on Mr. Lavrov, a man whose world-view was expressed in a recent Foreign Policy profile, when Russia’s twenty-first century answer to Alexander Gorchakov confided to his interviewer that, under his watch, Russia “can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests in the areas where we were absent for quite some time after the demise of the Soviet Union.” And Russia’s naval base in Tartus is but one site which Mr. Lavrov hopes to evoke by the words “our legitimate interests.”

Much of the early scholarship on the old Soviet Union has been supplanted by a new generation of revisionists seeking to impugn Uncle Sam for stirring up the initial belligerence which launched the Cold War. Among the cultural elite, the mantra “Blame America First” is back in vogue. Among the more neutral-minded, however, one should beware the perils of ‘mirror-imaging’—that is, of projecting one’s own calm, reasoned, strategic preoccupations onto an enemy-nation—which were manifest in the redundancy of Kremlinology, the CIA’s Soviet-specialists assuring their patrons that the USSR was an economic superpower right up to its unforeseen collapse. This ‘mirror-imaging’ phantasm has by now trickled into the conventional wisdom: snap-polls the world over reveal the deep-set reluctance of one Western public after another to involve their nations in strange rumblings in the Middle East.

The intelligentsia today is brimful of moderates who exhibit the same caution, and await open-mindedly the weaponisation of Iran’s nuclear program (even as Tehran facilitates the flow of military supplies to Damascus). They attribute the Mullahs’ nuclear ambitions to a desire to edge their country’s way into the worldwide ‘deterrence’ system, which would have the effect of dispersing any foreign plans for regime-change in Tehran. Elucidating this view at its highest level, the late Kenneth N. Waltz wrote an article titled ‘Why Iran Should Get the Bomb’ for Foreign Affairs, published last year. Purveyors of this equal-opportunity nuclear warfare scenario may display a rather blasé attitude to the coming nuclear arms-race in the Middle East. Partial as they are to viewing the game of nations as a sport for ‘rational actors’, however, one of their forefathers in the ‘sober’ ‘realist’ tradition was a little less myopic.

George F. Kennan, the arch-foreign policy ‘realist’ who devised America’s containment strategy during the Cold War, was one of those old-school scholars who argued that Soviet behaviour was best understood as a continuation of Tsarist policies aimed at expanding the Russian empire, which was supposed to account for Russia’s posture in international power politics. Mr. Lavrov not only hints that this insight is all the more applicable to Russia’s resurgence under Putin: he affirms it, by proclaiming it his very raison d’être as foreign minister. So, one might ask, if Mr. Lavrov’s tactics are such a roaring success, can the West take a page out of the Kremlin’s manual? In his Memoirs 1950-1963, Kennan remembered devoting much time to ruminating over the question of how ill-prepared Western democracy could be when faced with an enemy that was itself disencumbered of the constraints of constitutional checks-and-balances, not to mention a popular sentiment which was then, as now, all too prone to war weariness—a sentiment which could, lest the decisions and conduct of the state be gently concealed from view, express its misgivings through the ballot-box.

What spooked Kennan above all was the question—which he likened to “the old dilemma of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor”—of the relative prowess of a state run by a self-appointed vanguard purporting to advance its peoples’ interests, without ever deigning to consult them as to where their interests might lie, the people being deemed insufficiently ‘enlightened’—that is, versed in the relevant state-sanctioned catechisms—to know what was good for them anyway. “It was the Soviet example”, he wrote,

rather than the question itself, that frightened. The possibility that a democratic, free-enterprise system such as ours might have to be fundamentally altered to meet the challenges now looming before us was of course disturbing, because our people had little talent for constitutional reform: vested interests and assumptions would stand in the way, and the path of transition would obviously not be easy. But this was still not a cause for despair. American democracy was not the only way one could live. There had been many other social and political systems in the course of the world’s history and not all of them bad or intolerable.

Devising foreign policy over the heads of the demos gave the Soviets an edge, the thinking went. Just consider Western democracy rife with the ennui fostered by advanced industrial society, in which the body politic is softened up by excessive leisure-time and a general loosening of social mores. Niall Ferguson, more recently, has argued in his Colossus: The Rise and Fall of American Empire that the American empire was always bound to fail because of three deficits: a man-power deficit, a fiscal deficit, and—most importantly—an attention-span deficit.

And oh, how the Obamians have cashed in on this attention-span deficit! Fickle, when it comes to foreign policy, are the ordinary folks with other things on their minds than the rigours of Realpolitik. Kennan agonised over a third-way, defining “the problem” as follows:

to find a method of governing people that would not demean or deceive them, would permit them to express freely their feelings and opinions, and would take decent account of the feelings and opinions thus expressed, and yet would assure a sufficient concentration of governmental authority, sufficient stability in its exercise, and sufficient selectivity in the recruitment of those privileged to exert it, to permit the formulation and implementation of hopeful long-term programs….

I do not share Kennan’s yearning for more “concentration of government authority”, but I’ll gladly annex his analogy of a virtuous middle ground, especially on reflecting that, while totalitarians will speak cynically of channelling “the will of the people” in the course of tyrannising their plaything-population, the Obamians have taken to the opposite extreme of actually steering the ship of state along a path laid out by the latest polling-figures, which they accord the same weight certain scatterbrains confer on the horoscopes.

Indeed, the Obama White House resembles more a headquarters of busy pollsters than a faculty of cold, detached intellectuals whose decision to relinquish U.S. influence over the Middle East depends on a theoretical edifice founded on near-pacifist first principles. Thomas Donilon, for example, was promoted to national security adviser by virtue of belonging to the ‘in-group’ centred around Denis McDonough, Daniel Pfeiffer and Ben Rhodes, whom President Obama sees fit to consult on the all-important things which make the world go round. Mr. Donilon once laughably let slip that his education in statecraft had consisted of a short time he set aside to read “voraciously” (that mandatory word) about the career of General Brent Scowcroft, on which one-time Kissinger Associate he directly modelled himself. After expounding the man’s inexperience in an article for Foreign Policy magazine, James Mann, straining for a nice word to say about his subject, said that “Donilon has been a principal architect of the administration’s press strategy on national security”.

A “press strategy”, mind you: not a foreign policy strategy. It is apt that the woman who replaced Donilon in the West Wing once said, in a meeting of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?” Echoes of this operative-mentality were heard in an NSC meeting on Syria in late 2012 between President Obama and his closest advisers, of which the New York Times gave the following account:

Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

These are evidently the kind of advisers President Obama likes to surround himself with: glorified speechwriters with their connect-the-dots diplomacy and their indignant attitude to suggestions that it may not be in their interests to allow the shredding of American hegemony by the Russo-Iranian-orchestrated flattening of the Great Arab Revolt.

Russian empire, with its fealty to the Mullahs in Iran, is a threat to a liberal world-order, where free-trade and ever-latent waves of democracy are venerated before all else. The Kremlin has already begun flexing its muscles in its “own backyard”, with the prospect of an enlarged Eurasian Customs Union hanging over ongoing concerns with the European Union. So well done to Dan Pfeiffer for devising such an effective “press strategy” during the recent ‘government shutdown’ that the GOP’s approval-rating has plummeted to a historic low. Meanwhile, Secretary Kerry has been bamboozled by Lavrov over Syria, and suckered by the ‘moderate’ President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, handpicked by his long-time employer, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. At least Rouhani knows how to combine a “press strategy” with a foreign policy strategy: he, after all, has followed Putin’s lead in appending a missive to the American op-ed pages (this time in the Washington Post), in which he glosses over his country’s ongoing enrichment-scheme in favour of acting out what is known in diplomat-speak as a ‘charm-offensive’. I believe it was Fredrick the Great who said, “Diplomacy without military power is like music without instruments”.

If the Obamians aren’t even capable of confronting an aggressive Islamic Republic intent on developing a nuclear weapon—a regime that, as the IAEA has reported, already has 186 of the 250 kilograms of 20-percent enriched uranium required to produce a nuclear bomb, and is preparing to add 3,000 new high-speed centrifuges to the 18,000 already spinning in Natanz—then how on earth are they going to counter a Russian resurgence? Their conception of democracy is akin to that old quip by an anonymous wit, who called it “rule by publicity”?

And even after the EU3, the P5+1, and the supposedly ‘final’ negotiations hosted last year by Istanbul… then Baghdad… then Moscow, in which Iran declared its nuclear dossier closed—and even after two more rounds following those doomed talks, in which well-trained Western envoys jumped, exuberantly as ever, through Tehran’s outstretched diplomatic hoops, the hard-boiled statesmen of the Obama administration have been delivered the most recent findings of the opinion-polls—and what is their verdict? More talks!—the will of the people—even though the new ‘moderate’ Iranian president, in a 2004 speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, was recorded making the following jeer:

While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran [in 2003], we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium conversion] facility in Isfahan…. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.

If these words of Rouhani’s were to actually crystallise into the figurative dagger with which Iran’s Mullahs have repeatedly stabbed the West in the back, and then plunged directly into the face of the U.S. of A.’s numero uno himself, I’m sure it would still pierce the man right in his ever-expanding geopolitical blind-spot: the reality blanketed by his obsessive compulsion to “engage” with America’s duplicitous, self-declared enemies. After all, unless the polls dictate a course of action to the contrary, when the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership tells Washington to roll over, you’d best believe Washington will do as it’s told and roll over!

And what happens when a nuclear-armed Iran, on a whim, decides to deny carriers of Europe-bound oil safe-passage through the Strait of Hormuz? What happens when this choke-point of the global economy, through which some 16 million barrels of crude oil passes each day, becomes the exclusive asset of the Khomeinites? Open sea lanes, global commerce, regional stability: these things don’t grow on trees. Only sheltered academics, who practice ‘mirror-imaging’, projecting their best intentions onto their most ardent foes, believe they do—when actually, they require the hegemony of a powerful nation (or an alliance of nations) that favours such things, and styles its foreign policy in such a way as to preserve them. And what happens, by the way, when the jihad-sponsoring House of Saud decides it wants a bomb, too, to ward off the intimidating spectre of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Hezbollah proxies gloating over their possession of a dooms-day device?

If democracy is synonymous with “rule by publicity”—in which the best “press strategy” takes the West by storm, and the prospect of high approval-ratings so intoxicates civil servants that it becomes a supreme end-in-itself—then all is exactly as it should be. If, on the other hand, Western foreign policy advisers ought to actually safeguard their nations’ interests, by finding it within themselves to do the—gasp!—unpopular thing, consigning their short-term Pavlovian incentives to election-eve, and instead finally drawing up an actual strategy to fend off the profoundly anti-democratic, Russo-Iranian-backed counter-revolution now paralysing and bloodying-up the Middle East, Western democracy just may stand a chance.

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