Russia is the Anglo-American media’s favorite bogeyman these days, and, no, it has little to do with the vicious anti-gay laws they’ve passed, or their reluctance to cooperate with our meddling in Syria: after all, Qatar, with whom we’re cooperating in sending aid to the Syrian "rebels," executes gays, as does Saudi Arabia, and you won’t hear US diplomats (or media types) making a fuss about that. These "issues," along with recent Russian actions – kicking out American government-aided "pro-democracy" groups, and the ban on American adoption of Russian orphans – are all peripheral, at best, to the main question, which can be summed up in two words: Edward Snowden.
This is not the conventional view, by any means: according to our media, and all the "experts," Russia’s granting political asylum to Snowden was just another way for bad boy Putin to get under America’s skin and deliver a (well-deserved) fillip to the Lords of the West. Former journalist (and now a candidate for Canada’s parliament) Chrystia Freeland, appearing on MSNBC the other day, averred that offering Snowden asylum was all about Putin "building up an ultra-nationalist intolerant constituency" within Russia. Buzzfeed’s Miriam Elder chimed in, agreeing with Freeland that “we ought to be worried” and adding that Russia is "an authoritarian regime."
This is nonsense: For all the bloviating about Russian "authoritarianism" and "ultra-nationalism," the irony is that Putin did not dare turn over Snowden to the US because, for the Russian people, the young whistle-blower had become a symbol of freedom from government surveillance and authority. Ezra Klein, the alleged "policy wonk," who was filling in for Chris Hayes that night, was practically rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of a "new cold war: he remarked during the lead in that there "wasn’t much upside" for Putin agreeing to shelter Snowden from Obama’s wrath, but this assumes Putin’s position is solid because he really is an "authoritarian" who can crush all dissent without any blowback. Yet there was and is an upside: bowing to the libertarian impulses of the Russian public, which rightly sees Snowden as a symbol of their own aspirations.
When Snowden first came to Russia, his presence was treated as an annoyance by Putin rather than an opportunity to snub the Americans. They just wanted him to go away. It was only later, when Snowden became a hero to the Russian people – for reasons any supposedly "authoritarian" regime would do well to fear – that US efforts to get him back were denied and asylum was granted. In short, the popular Russian reaction to Snowden’s presence was the same as that of the Chinese: the Russians consider him a hero, just as the people of Hong Kong did when he arrived. While Putin is hardly the Russian equivalent of Thomas Jefferson, even a tyrant must make some concessions to public opinion.
So Freeland is right: this is about what’s happening inside Russia, but it has zero to do with "whipping up" Putin’s alleged "ultra-nationalist power base," as she claims. Indeed, it is quite the opposite – it’s all about acknowledging and mollifying the Russian peoples’ admiration for a figure who has become a symbol of the universal desire for freedom. But then again, when listening to our Approved Pundits pontificating on the Boob Tube, it’s always best to simply invert what they’re saying if you want to get anywhere near the truth.
It really is quite amazing to see the revival of anti-Russian sentiment coming, this time around, from the ostensible "left." If you thought Russia-baiting on the right during the cold war era was evidence of political paranoia, then the version coming from today’s "liberals" is even crazier: asked to explain why Putin would grant asylum to Snowden, Elder averred that "Russia has been trying to get into a fight with the US" – an amazing statement, given the passage of the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on specific individuals within the Russian government for alleged "human rights abuses." The Magnitsky Act was taken by the Kremlin as a symbolic declaration of war against Putin’s Russia, and it was certainly meant as such. In this context, to claim Putin is looking for a fight is distinctly odd. But, then again, do you really expect Deep Geopolitical Analysis from the "foreign affairs editor" of Buzzfeed?
Elder really outdid herself in pushing the Obama administration line – which sounds, these days, like something out of the Weekly Standard: according to her, "Putin is getting more and more paranoid" – you know, like Stalin, who famously executed his own doctors because he thought they were plotting against him. All the cold war mythology comes flooding right back once Moscow looks at Washington cross-eyed: and Snowden, of course, was the tipping point.
This administration’s reaction to the granting of asylum to Snowden could charitably be called juvenile, a public display of foot-stamping unworthy of the world’s last remaining superpower. With such issues as the reduction of nuclear stockpiles – not to mention the vitally important question of how to contain those "loose nukes" floating around the former Soviet Union – still unresolved, the Obamaites are willing to throw all that overboard in favor of pursuing their purely domestic political interests – i.e. quelling the civil libertarian revolt now taking place in Congress against the Surveillance State.
To be clear: a normally complacent and complicit Congress is simply responding to the popular outcry, the sound and fury of which threatens to bring what Snowden calls the "architecture of oppression" down on this President’s head. Indeed, with the majority of Democrats in the House defying their leadership and voting to defund NSA spying, the Obama cult is cracking in the face of a rebellion within their own party.
Russia has come a long way indeed since the days of the Gulag, but to listen to Freeland, Elder, and Lawrence O’Donnell – who went off on the New Republic‘s Julia Ioffe for straying from the Party Line that same night on MSNBC – you’d think Putin is Stalin reincarnated. Remember how we were hearing the same nonsense coming from the neocons in the early days of the Iraq war, when Putin refused to get on board with the invasion? Richard Perle demanded Russia’s exclusion from the G-8, and hardly a day went by without some neocon or other denouncing the Russians for "sliding back into totalitarianism" because they jailed some thieving oligarch.
Running against the neocons, candidate Obama pledged a "reset" of Russo-American relations – albeit not without engaging in a little Russia-bashing over Georgia – but that was abruptly abandoned as soon as it became clear the Kremlin wasn’t about to hand Snowden over to the tender mercies of a Manning-style imprisonment.
The above demonstrates, once again, how my theory of international relations – "libertarian realism" – works in practice. Like any good theory, it can be summed up in a few sentences: a nation’s foreign policy is entirely determined by the single overriding interest of any and all ruling elites, whether they got into a position of power democratically or otherwise: the retention and expansion of their own power.
Never mind all the serious issues that need to be addressed in Washington’s relationship with the Kremlin – the planned summit is off because Putin has threatened the President’s political position at home.
Foreign policy? No such thing: all politics is local, and all policy is domestic, i.e. aimed at the home front. This is especially true here in America at a time like this, when the authority, and, indeed, the very legitimacy of the State is being challenged by an insurgency of dissidents on both sides of the left/right spectrum.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.