Monday, May 16

Is it un-American to develop reality-based foreign relations?

Historian Mark Safranski, whose evil twin dabbles in the attempt to develop a rational set of rules for assessing threats to the US, shows a street fighting side in his bare-knuckle attack on Washington's Get Putin gang:
...Dick Morris, a former adviser to a Senate majority leader, a President and lately,Viktor Yushchenko, the new president of Ukraine, writes in the influential Capitol Hill paper Roll Call of a "Czar Putin" under whom "... the old Soviet Union will be back on the road to regional domination and the old ambitions of global power will return."

The otherwise sensible National Center For Public Policy Research with solidly Reaganite credentials, maintains a satellite operation called Center for the Future of Russia that is little more than a comical propaganda sheet for the Oligarchs (which makes one wonder if any unusually large checks have floated the National Center's way of late)...

Putin is not the enemy of the United States and he is a determined reformer who is by all reports, honest. Can that be said of Khordokovsky, Berezovsky, Gusinsky and the other Oligarchs who have looted Russia of hundreds of billions of dollars with the help of...crime lords and ex-Communist fixers? These characters do not have clean enough hands for any respectable American conservative to imagine they represent the free market or for any American liberal to pretend that these looters are democrats. In Chicago, we have a term for " businessmen" like the Oligarchs: " Mobbed Up"

These are ruthless men with very, very, large bank accounts and sinister motives who are trying hard to get the ear of official Washington because they would like to see the Bush administration begin to undermine Putin...
Whoever said foreign policy is dry stuff? I have only two quibbles. First, the oligarchs have long since gotten the ear of official Washington; the oligarchs are as much a creation of official Washington (during Clinton's era) as of Boris Yeltsin's clan. Putin was Washington's pet as long as he did what the oligarchs wanted, which was allow them to conduct business as usual.

My other quibble is Mark's statement that Putin is, "...censoring the [Russian] press through pressure, confiscation, intimidation and legal harassment."

The issue of press censorship in Russia is as complex as the influence of the oligarchs and their various foreign (non-Russian) backers on Russian media and the concept of "paid-for press" in Russia. The issue is further complicated for Americans because of the vastly different perceptions that Russians and Americans hold about the concept of censorship. In his analysis Perestroika 20 years later Peter Lavelle writes:
Unfortunately, under Yeltsin, most [of] the country's electronic media turned into a ghastly means for a paid-for-press to strike political enemies. Yeltsin was returned to office for a second term in 1996 because the free media he helped to create had lost much of its relevance.

For Putin, glasnost ("openness" or transparency) serves the purposes of the state--this comes nothing near supporting a Western concept of freedom of speech. It does not mean complete censorship. The almost shrill claims of the Western press about the end of freedom of speech in Russia are premature and exaggerated. Even with the Kremlin's desire to tame and intimidate the media into self-censorship, it is not hard to find print media and Internet content completely out of sync with the new Kremlin line."
But to get a handle on the debate, one needs to understand the Russian perception of censorship. In Lost in Translation: Russia's Political Lexicon Lavelle lists political terms dear to the hearts of Americans and shows how differently Russians interpret the very same terms. Under Censorship he explains:
This is the right and responsibility of the authorities to determine the quality and condition of the public sphere. Censorship has a large following [in Russia], hoping to see the end of paid-for political articles in the media, ending the transmission of pornographic images during primetime television broadcasts, and protecting what are believed to be national values.
Lavelle ends by noting:
"...if the West desires to win the hearts and minds of Russians concerning its own changing political lexicon to create a liberal democracy in its own vision in Russia, it should consider how the its lexicon gives every reason for Russians to resist and reinterpret the same lexicon.
I think it might come as a surprise to many to learn that we have a huge problem right here in the USA with "paid-for political articles in the media." It's just that the problem is not noticeable because the pay is one step removed from the actual media outlets.

Oligarchs (or anyone else, for that matter) with the big bucks to buy in as major donors to respected policy institutes or universities, or to start policy institutes, or hire big-name public relations firms with access to major media, have a direct line to the American public and with attendant influence.

Indeed, that's a big reason why the American public was unaware of the gathering threat from Arab terrorism. Rich Arabs who supported al Qaeda, and with the money to lavish on policy institutes ("think tanks") and public relations campaigns, used their access to the American press to tamp down questions about the rising tide of terrorist acts and divert attention from violent Muslim extremism.

One would think the American press learned their lesson after 9/11, but the same pattern is playing out with the Get Putin movement. I don't think it's McCarthyism for an American reporter to ask a source for a list of their donors and to mention it in the report if the source has financial ties to an Oligarch (particularly those with known ties to organized crime).

And it's time for members of the Get Putin movement to realize that in Russia, much censorship comes not from the government but from mobsters settling scores. For Russians to wrest control of their society from the mobsters and the oligarchs will take more than urging more freedom of speech on them.

The above quibbles aside, I am glad that Mark Safranski has found time away from the esoterics of Rule Set theory to deploy his knowledge of Russia. This is helping his fellow Americans (and one hopes this includes Americans in Washington) make sense out of modern Russia.

The question is how many in Washington are interested in making sense out of Russia, or any other foreign country. American policy has struck out on such a new direction and on so many fronts that Pundita suspects cognitive weariness is setting in. Since 9/11 official Washington has been on a steep learning curve about many subjects. ("What the hell is the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni?" "Are Kurds Arabs?") I suspect weariness is causing some to set up cognitive base camp around the simple, easy-to-grasp notion that all workable foreign policy comes from the barrel of a gun.

Actually, all workable foreign policy is backed up by the barrel of a gun, but the "workable" part requires that policy not get lost in translation. For that, policymakers need to acquire understanding of subtext--what the other side means when they say something. Avoidance of that necessary step brings negative consequences--as Safranksi notes when he reminds the Get Putin gang of what's waiting in the wings, if "Putin's replacement proves to be a hapless stooge and Russia goes off the rails in the direction of a failed state armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons..."

In the face of confusion it's tempting to fall back on what one knows best. But it would be a very bad idea for Washington to attempt to resolve cognitive dissonance by re-starting the familiar groove of the Cold War.


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