Reality and Symbolism in Public Affairs

by , October 06, 2015

While the American media was enamored by the charismatic pope’s "historic" visit to the United States (I seem to remember popes have visited before), more important earthly developments occurred. The leaders of the next two most powerful countries in the world (after the United States) did or were scheduled to meet with President Obama, and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives announced his resignation – all with important implications for U.S. policy.

Xi Jinping, the leader of China, a nuclear power and the second biggest economy in the world after the United States, arriving in the United States at the same time as the pope, had much less attention paid to his consequential visit. He pledged to adopt a "cap and trade" arrangement to attempt to limit greenhouse gases, to adhere to limits on cyber hacking of business secrets, and to avoid militarizing the artificial islands China is building in the South China Sea (the American media always forgets to mention that other countries have also built such islands). Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia, the only other county with anywhere near as many nuclear weapons as the United States, continued to build up Russian military forces in Syria and penned an agreement with the Shi’ite governments of Syria, Iran, and Iraq to gather intelligence on the Sunni Islamic State or ISIS group. Meanwhile, John Boehner, a pragmatic conservative, announced that he would resign as Speaker after being flummoxed and hectored by a minority faction of more militant conservatives in his own party. Most of those militants, emboldened by taking Boehner’s head on a platter and arrayed against a weaker successor, could push U.S. foreign policy in an even more hawkish direction.

And Barack Obama’s foreign policy is already hawkish enough – although the American people, bedazzled by the regal pomp and circumstance of a visit from the "people’s pope," are too busy to notice that the president is not as much of a wimp as the Republicans accuse him of being. This myth was exposed by none other than Charlie Rose’s interview with Vladimir Putin. The broadcaster accused the Russian leader of not only fighting the ISIS in Syria but also defending the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Whereupon Putin, with a quizzical expression on his face, answered that of course that was true and that great powers should be careful about what would follow if they depose foreign leaders using military force, such as the chaos that Obama created by doing so in Libya (and that George W. Bush also created with his invasion of Iraq). The U.S. government, always with a double standard no matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, fears greater Russian involvement in Syria, yet was the first to begin bombing ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Since things haven’t been going too well lately against this allegedly menacing threat, one would think the United States would welcome any help from Russia it could get. Evidently, since the U.S. government instead would prefer that Russia stay out of Syria – so that the Russians wouldn’t gain influence in the Middle East – then shouldn’t we implicitly conclude that the ISIS threat is not so dire after all?

We must also keep in mind that Putin, always portrayed in the American media as an aggressive villain, is playing a weak hand and maneuvering to salvage what he can in both Syria and Ukraine. The Russia-friendly elected government of Ukraine, with centuries of historical political and economic importance for Russia, was overthrown by street protests. Russia’s meddling in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Russophilic Crimea are designed, respectively, to prevent Ukraine from entering the hostile alliance of NATO and as a hedge in case it does anyway. Rose incredulously asked Putin if he really believed that the West was behind the street protests that overthrew the Ukrainian government – as if the CIA’s record of helping to overthrow many governments around the world, including democratically elected one’s like Ukraine’s, didn’t make that scenario at least plausible. In Syria, the Russian-supported al-Assad regime holds only about one quarter of its former territory and is losing the war to ISIS and al Qaeda.

Yes, Putin has made Russia itself less democratic and has a bad human rights record, but it was naïve after the Cold War for the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to believe that Russia would go democratic. In the mid-1990s, during the euphoria of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union collapsing, I was even recruited to go on a congressional trip to teach the Russians how to convert to democracy. Given the long history of the Russian people wanting a strong leader, I felt that the undertaking was naïve and likely futile, even at the time.

U.S. interventionist foreign policy has its roots in the Christian missionary zeal to convert everyone to one way of thinking, whether it be Christianity or its modern, secularized substitute: democracy promotion around the world. Even before President Woodrow Wilson, a minister’s son, enshrined the nontraditional American foreign policy of meddling in other people’s business, the Christian missionaries had laid the groundwork for the policy. That the American people and media applauded the pope’s canonization as a saint, on U.S. soil, a friar who had helped Spanish conquerors to forcibly convert Native Americans to Catholicism shows how such intrusive behavior toward other nations and peoples is now just routinely accepted in the United States.

Read more by Ivan Eland