President Barack Obama’s trip to Russia – overshadowed in our air-headed media by the death and funeral of Michael Jackson – shows that the change we were all so eager to welcome is rather a bit less than anticipated. Indeed, if we take the text of the speech he gave at Moscow’s New Economic School as in any way definitive, one is forced to conclude it looks and sounds like the same old, same old – and possibly a bit worse.
After getting through the requisite flattery – praise of Russia’s artistic contributions, and a jokey reference to a Russian-born hockey player – our president described the Bad Old Days of the Cold War as "when hydrogen bombs were tested in the atmosphere, children drilled in fallout shelters, and we reached the brink of nuclear catastrophe." Scary stuff, although he doesn’t say who was responsible. Suddenly, however, "within a few short years, the world as it was ceased to be. Make no mistake: this change did not come from any one nation alone. The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful."
This is demonstrably false: the end of the Cold War had nothing to do with "the actions of many nations over many years." Instead, it was a decision by the Soviet leadership not to resist the inevitable downfall of their system, which had been calcified and virtually moribund for many years. In short, U.S. foreign policy had zero to do with it: it was all about what was happening (and not happening) inside the Soviet bloc, including inside the USSR itself.
Okay, it’s a minor point, but, in the context of Americans’ routine assumption that everything is all about them, it is one worth making. Another point worth making is that, when you discard all the frippery and flattery, what you get from this speech is Bushism without Bush. To wit:
"I know Russia opposes the planned configuration for missile defense in Europe. My administration is reviewing these plans to enhance the security of America, Europe, and the world. I have made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran, and has nothing to do with Russia. In fact, I want us to work together on a missile defense architecture that makes us all safer. But if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated."
The idea that American "missile defense" weaponry is being based in Poland and the Czech Republic, for fear of an Iranian surprise attack on either or both of these countries, is absurd. When this fantastical explanation was first uttered by U.S. officials during the previous administration, it was meant, and taken, as an insult to the Russians, as if to say: screw you, Boris, we don’t even have to bother coming up with a halfway credible rationale!
That weapons system, pushed by the "expand NATO" crowd – say "hi!" to Randy Scheunemann – is a naked provocation aimed at Moscow’s increasing vulnerability. Building on the Bushian policy of abandoning progress on nuclear arms reduction begun by Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev in the waning days of the Soviet Union, the Obamaites have taken Bush’s "Eastward, ho!" strategy and run with it – apparently intent on using the missile shield issue as a bargaining chip, in hopes Russia won’t make too much trouble as we prepare to confront Iran.
The Russian response, in Putin’s words, has been cautious yet unequivocal:
"As far as we understand, the new U.S. administration has not defined
its position with regard to the future of the missile defense system at least
as it relates to its deployment in Europe. But it is evident that the offensive
and defensive parts of strategic forces are closely and indissolubly intertwined
with one another. This was always the case and we always proceeded from this
assumption. And this is precisely why the anti-ballistic missile treaty was
signed in the first place.
"When the United States unilaterally abandoned that treaty and ‘buried’ it, the threat of disparity emerged naturally with regard to the offensive and defensive strategic systems. I think one does not have to be an expert to understand the following: if one side wants to have or intends to have an ‘umbrella’ from all kinds of threats, then it may have an illusion that it can do anything it pleases and then the aggressiveness of its actions will considerably increase while the threat of global confrontation will reach a very dangerous level. Russia will, of course, link the questions of missile defense and everything that is related to that subject to the issue of strategic offensive arms."
Those words were spoken some months ago, and no doubt Putin now has a clearer idea of what he’s up against: a U.S. administration that is playing hardball and has no intention of changing its basic policy. The long-term objective of every post-Cold War administration – the encirclement of Russia – remains the same, and there will be no letup. Far from it.
The encirclement strategy really took off with the Clinton administration, as the U.S. bombed Belgrade in the name of "humanitarianism" and Washington began dreaming of the vast oil riches that lay at the end of the Great Silk Road. Indeed, it was the Clintonites who first set up a special sub-agency of the U.S. government, the Office of the Special Adviser for Caspian Basin Energy Diplomacy, to subsidize and otherwise enable U.S. oil companies to get in on the Silk Road action. The oil reserves in and around the Caspian Sea are said to be enormous, and Clinton massaged the regional despots with plenty of U.S. tax dollars and pledges of support to get them to go along with his plans. The U.S. devised a scheme whereby a pipeline that avoided passing through either Russia or Iran would be built, transporting the oil of Central Asian autocracies like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan through the Caucasus, from Baku, in Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, a Turkish port – making sure to pass through Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Here lies the real sore point between Russia and the U.S.: Georgia, whose U.S.-supported-and-subsidized "Rose Revolution" installed a militantly anti-Russian and ultra-nationalistic regime in power. Last year Georgia launched an unprovoked attack on the neighboring republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which have been effectively independent of Georgia for a decade. Candidate Obama was among those who competed for the dubious honor of denouncing Russia’s aid to the beleaguered Abkhazians and Ossetians the loudest. Yet the European Union’s investigators have determined Georgia, not Russia, struck the first blow – no wonder the discussion between Obama and Putin went into overtime.
I had to laugh when I heard our president utter the following line: "State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order." No mention that the U.S. is the single greatest violator of that principle. "Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders," Obama continued, "states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That is why this principle must apply to all nations – including Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of NATO, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; and they must be able to contribute to the Alliance’s mission. And let me be clear: NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation."
When NATO was founded in 1949, if any of its conservative Republican critics had suggested it would outlive the Communist bloc it was supposed to be defending the West against, they would have been dismissed – as they were dismissed – as troglodytic "isolationists" and hysterics. That NATO persists though the Leninist project is dead and buried dramatizes the truism that government programs never die, they just keep on expanding unto infinity.
The mantra that Obama represents "change," in the sense that he’s making a real break with the foreign policy of the previous administration, is sounding particularly hollow these days. This is especially true when it comes to our relations with Russia. The only change is stylistic. Obama, as a personality, is more sympathetic than Bush could ever hope to be, yet this will not get him very far with the Kremlin. Indeed, our own media noticed, with more than a touch of petulance, that Obama-mania seems nonexistent in Russia.
And with good reason. That he is picking up where the Clintons and the Bushes left off is certainly disappointing, but not, alas, unexpected, at least to those whom I count among my regular readers. Long before Obama took office, I warned that the most we could expect would be a continuation of the status quo – and things could even get worse. Nothing underscores the latter prospect more dramatically than Obama’s apparent escalation of the previous administration’s anti-Russian campaign.
The hotheaded Georgian strongman, Mikheil Saakashvili, has cultivated extensive contacts in the U.S. and speaks English fluently. Last time he unleashed the U.S.-trained Georgian military on defenseless Ossetian and Abkhazian civilians, killing hundreds, he did so with a full expectation of aid from the Bush administration, which offered rhetorical support – but no air support. The Russians made short work of the would-be Napoleon of the Caucasus, but there are signs Saakashvili is again stirring, hoping to divert attention away from domestic protests against his authoritarian rule (put down with brutal force last year). Will Obama rein him in – or use the threat of renewed war in the region as yet another bargaining chip with the Kremlin?
U.S. relations with Russia have been horrendously bad ever since Putin threw out the oligarchs and decided not to take dictation from either Washington or London. The Obama administration has said they want to "reset" the relationship, but it’s all talk and no action. They are needling the Russian bear with the same pointed stick, demanding it jump through a whole series of hoops – and they will no doubt be very good at feigning shock when the bear strikes back.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Check out my review of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, in the latest issue of The American Conservative.