Delusions die hard. The obsession of American foreign policy after the fall of communism was pro-Western democracy in Russia, and the foreign policy establishment has never forgiven Vladimir Putin for returning Russia to the sort of authoritarian governance it has endured for all but a few brief years of its history.
The obsession is back with Joe Biden – and, with it, the neoconservatives who dominated the failed administration of George W Bush.
For several reasons, President Biden’s March 16 denunciation of Putin as a “killer” without a soul ranks among the dumbest utterances ever by an American leader – and that’s a crowded field. To begin with, heads of state do not insult each other this way, except in wartime.
Secondly, the Biden administration proclaims its concern about competition from China, but American pressure has pushed Russia into a reluctant but resilient alliance with the Middle Kingdom.
Third, Washington will need Moscow’s tacit cooperation to revive the Iran nuclear deal, a key Biden foreign policy objective, and calling Putin out hardly furthers this objective.
Fourth – and most important – Western Europe is determined to improve its relations with Russia. Biden’s outburst will persuade Paris and Berlin that this administration is as loopy as the last one.
The “Russia question” appears to have surfaced in response to a March 16 US intelligence community assessment that “Russian President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy, and the Democratic Party.”
The 15-page public document is fluff. We heard it all before in December 2020, when fifty former intelligence officials denounced news reports of Hunter Biden’s corrupt ties to Ukrainian oligarchs as Russian disinformation.
The New York Post claimed to have gotten hold of a laptop with smoking-gun emails to and from Biden’s son. The voters never were allowed to consider the evidence, because the rest of the media suppressed the report and Twitter blocked reposting of the Post expose. In a December 4 column, I called this the “Treason of the spooks.”
By way of tying up loose ends, the intelligence community has now delivered an “assessment” claiming that “a key element of Moscow’s strategy was its use of people linked to Russian intelligence to launder influence narratives—including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden—through US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration.”
Those are weasel words. The Post published the text of Hunter Biden emails that, strictly speaking, were “unsubstantiated” to the extent that the geek squad had not proven their provenance and the younger Biden hadn’t owned up to their authenticity. But that does not prove they were false, much less justify employing extraordinary means to suppress the reports.
Apart from Biden’s ABC interview, the nomination of Victoria Nuland as undersecretary of state for political affairs has sent an unmistakable signal to Moscow and, more importantly, to America’s European allies.
In early 2014 Nuland was taped on a cell phone call with America’s ambassador to the Ukraine ordering the composition of the next Ukrainian government after the Maidan coup, in the tone of a colonial viceroy.
Told that there might be some difficulties, Nuland explained that the UN was being enlisted in support and said, “That would be great, I think, and help glue this thing.” She added, “And, you know, fuck the EU.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the time denounced the remark as “unacceptable.” That sort of faux pas normally would rate being assigned a diplomatic mission to the South Pole, but such is Washington’s ideological fervor that Nuland survived and resurfaced.
Nuland is a neoconservative, a former deputy national security adviser to then-vice president Dick Cheney, as well as the spouse of Robert Kagan, one of the most persistent advocates of global transformation via the projection of American power.
In 2014, she believed that the American-backed Maidan rebellion in Ukraine could be repeated in Russia. Regime change in Russia has been the fixed idea of the American neocons and large parts of the intelligence community since Putin took over from the corrupt, ineffectual and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin in 1999.
Moscow (and Paris and Berlin) will read the reinstatement of Nuland as well as Biden’s public denunciation of Putin as signs that Washington really believes in regime change in Moscow.
Putin has his internal problems, to be sure, but the party most likely to supersede him is not pro-American democrats but, rather, “Eurasianist” elements of the military and security forces who think that Putin has been too soft on the West.
The European response to Washington’s new approach to Russia will be to reinforce Putin. On February 4, French President Emmanuel Macron once again called for dialogue rather than confrontation with Russia. In 2019, he declared that “the European continent will never be stable, will never be secure, if we do not ease and clarify our relations with Russia.”
Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the Munich Security Conference in 2020 that “more constructive” relations with Russia were Germany’s top foreign policy priority, despite important differences. He added that conflicts such as Syria cannot be resolved without Moscow. Germany and Russia will complete the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline by September, defying American sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
Marx said on the occasion of Napoleon III’s 1851 coup that great historical events occur twice, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. The neoconservatives may be back in business under the Biden administration, but they lack the wherewithal at home and abroad to do very much damage.
At the height of their influence during the George W Bush administration, the belief that America’s chief export should be democracy held sway in Washington, and its ideologues ruled the Republicans with the party discipline of a Trotskyite sect.
Their ideology is a sort of right-wing Marxism. Being determines consciousness, taught Marx, and ideology arises from the social structure. For Marx, that meant that communism would create a New Man free of the vices of capitalism; for the neoconservatives, it meant that the mere forms of democratic governance would create democrats.
America’s allies laughed at them. Germany’s foreign minister at the time was Joschka Fischer, now an elder statesman of the Green Party.
A couple of years ago he told me, “It was a matter of great good fortune that I started my career on the extreme left of politics. When I came to Washington as foreign minister during the [George W Bush] administration and met the neoconservatives, I instantly recognized them as the old comrades! I got the book by Richard Perle and David Frum, An End to Evil, and took Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution from my bookshelf, and compared them page by page. Except for some changes in terminology, they were the same book.”
The neo-conservatives persuaded Bush and his successor Barack Obama to spend over $6 trillion on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. According to a recent report from the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University the total spending was $6.4 trillion and the study also finds that more than 801,000 people have died as a direct result of fighting.
Meanwhile America lost industrial jobs at the fastest rate in its history, and America’s trade deficit ballooned to $600 billion a year. It failed to export democracy, but also stopped exporting anything else. It all came to a horrible end in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.
America had a freer hand in 2001 when George W Bush took office than any power since Rome; Russia had gone bankrupt in July 2008 and China still was a small dark cloud on the strategic horizon. In those days one spoke of America as a “hyperpower” rather than a “superpower.”
And America dumbed it away in a dozen years in its quixotic resolve to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world,” as Bush declared in his second Inaugural Address (ghostwritten by neocon ideologues Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer).
Although the neoconservatives for the most part abominated Donald Trump, they were responsible for his improbable march to the presidency. Between 2000 and 2009, US manufacturing employment fell to 11 million from 17 million.
Trump’s tirade against “endless wars” set him apart from all the other Republican candidates, who dragged the Bush legacy behind them like the chains on Marley’s ghost, and his appeal to the gutted industrial towns of the upper Midwest secured his majority in the Electoral College.
With the diminution of American power, the neoconservatives have become less a menace than an annoyance. America doesn’t have another $5 trillion to throw away on what Trump called endless wars; it has to borrow almost that much every year to cover federal expenditures, including the income subsidies that are holding up the US economy by its collar.
The American population cheered George W Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq in a grim national mood following the attack on the World Trade Center two years earlier, but has no stomach for foreign wars today. China stood aside at the UN Security Council on the Iraq issue; today its military power rivals America’s, at least in the Pacific.
Just what do the Louis Napoleons of the US national security establishment have in mind? Victoria Nuland, that is, Robert Kagan, wrote in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs:
The time has come to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility, that they have to think beyond the protection of the homeland. They need to understand that the purpose of NATO and other alliances is to defend not against direct threats to US interests but against a breakdown of the order that best serves those interests. They need to be told honestly that the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative.
A failure to be square with the American people has led the country to its current predicament, with a confused and angry public convinced that its leaders are betraying American interests for their own nefarious, “globalist” purposes. The antidote to this is not scaring the hell out of them about China and other threats but trying to explain, again, why the world order they created still matters. This is a job for Joe Biden and his new administration.
There is no way to parse out of Kagan’s peroration what sort of policy he has in mind. As matters stand, Joe Biden will stand godfather to a Chinese-Russian-European coalescence that will dominate Eurasia and the world economy.