America’s conduct of foreign relations remains enthralled to Neocon ideology. Only when this false religion is dispatched can the U.S. begin to address lost opportunities with Russia…and with many other powers as well.
America’s Neocon Mainstream
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
It is a tall order to explain in brief why and how the Neoconservative movement has captured the high ground in the American foreign policy establishment so that its anti-Kremlin and more broadly anti-Russian propaganda is repeated daily by the mass media with barely a peep of protest in the land. A book is the more appropriate medium for the purpose. Accordingly what I propose to do here is to present some key talking points which distill arguments I have made in more complete and substantiated form elsewhere.
While the Neoconservative label is today most commonly associated in the public mind with Republicans and with an aggressive, militarized pursuit of American foreign policy objectives across the globe, Russia was a key factor shaping the Neoconservative movement from the very beginning. The movement was born in the late 1970s, early 1980s among alienated former Leftists who were disillusioned with Soviet Communism and ardently criticized the Realpolitik policy of détente with the USSR begun by President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and continued under Gerald Ford. They rejected merely managing relations with the Communist homeland and called instead for action to overturn Communism and bring freedom to the ‘captive nations’ of Eastern Europe.
Americans in both parties shared a pre-disposition to listen to their critique of détente and were skeptical about its practical benefits. Moreover, their insistence on a values-based conduct of foreign policy tapped into a traditional current of American political discourse going back to the Founding Fathers.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 touched off a triumphalist mood in America at large, where the negotiated understandings between Reagan and Gorbachev and the Kremlin’s freely chosen decision to part with empire were barely understood in the public, while the political class scrambled to claim the honors of ‘victory.’ The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 was conflated with the liberation of Eastern Europe and was viewed as further vindication of a foreign policy based on clear principles.
The first major work of political science to explain what was happening in historical-philosophical terms and to set out roadmaps for the future of a post-Cold War world was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992), which brilliantly harnessed the new triumphalism to Neoconservative principles with their Positivist certitude about mankind’s eventual destiny. Others in the movement carried the torch further, insisting that with this knowledge of the future the pace of change could be hastened. In a world where, it was now asserted, only democratically governed nations can live in peace, America’s security would be ensured through democracy promotion and the removal of all vestiges of autocracy around the globe. In this form the thinking became the common property of Democrats and Republicans alike.
With Europe in safe hands at the end of the 1990s, the Neocons turned their attention to the Middle East, and calls went out to resume unfinished business of regime change in Iraq, which, it was said, would bring human progress and freedoms to the hapless region.
Meanwhile, the latent Russophobe prejudices of the Neoconservatives and their fellow-thinkers lay dormant. To be sure, U.S. foreign policy objectives diverged from those of the Russian Federation already as early as 1994, when Washington quietly overlooked Russia’s expectation of an invitation to join NATO and chose instead to extend the Alliance to the former subject member states of the Warsaw Pact without its founder and leading spirit. Russia was in economic disarray and politically feeble under Boris Yeltsin, so that its interests and demands barely figured in American consciousness. Indeed following the Russian default of 1998, the American establishment assumed its erstwhile foe was finished as a geopolitical force.
Russia’s economic turnaround which began soon after the election of President Vladimir Putin and the step-by-step consolidation of the Kremlin’s position as the dominant political force in the country were as unwelcome in the United States as they were unanticipated. Nonetheless, in the period immediately following 9/11, there was a tangible warming of state-to-state relations due to the spontaneous and substantial assistance which Russia provided by opening its backyard, Central Asia, to American bases.
To be sure, the seeming rapport of the two presidents did not last long. George Bush failed to reciprocate in kind and quashed the Russians’ hopes for a new security arrangement in Europe bringing them in from the cold. Instead the United States proceeded unilaterally to scrap the ABM Treaty while NATO expansion proceeded apace, moving into the Baltics, i.e. into former Soviet space, violating yet again commitments made to Gorbachev not to take advantage of the Russian withdrawal.
Against this background as a spurned suitor, Russia joined Belgium, France and Germany in vociferously objecting to the coming US invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Their position on the UN Security Council denied the cover of international law to the U.S., necessitating resort to a less than convincing ‘coalition of the willing.’ The unbridled unilateralism which had taken hold of US foreign policy set the stage for the country’s shame and loss of credibility globally when its invasion was followed by a scandal-beleaguered and largely unsuccessful occupation of Iraq.
American fury at perceived French perfidy from before the launch of the attack on Saddam Hussein, the boycott of French cheeses and wines, the renaming of French fries, was intense but quickly dissipated when Jacques Chirac backtracked and made his peace with Washington. In the case of Russia, however, the perceived insubordination to the world’s pecking order, the moral posturing before a global audience by a revisionist power, incited a long-lasting and deep current of resentment in the American foreign policy establishment. Neocons, who had been the cheerleaders of George W. Bush’s Iraqi invasion in the first place, now took the lead in retaliation. Russia would be cast as a recidivist tyrannical state, with which democracies could not, by definition, engage in strategic partnerships.
A key document in the emerging propaganda war was the publication in September 2004 of an Open Letter to the Heads of State and Government of the European Union and NATO authored by Robert Kagan and William Kristol and appearing on the letterhead of the Project for a New American Century, the Neocon mainstay dating from the late 1990s. Nominally occasioned by the Beslan tragedy and the Kremlin’s own war on terrorism at home, the thrust of the Open Letter was an indictment of the Putin regime, which was castigated for backsliding from the mythical democratic achievements of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and for an imperial revival in Russia’s behavior towards its neighbors. Among the signatories from the Republican Right, we find here the intellectual fathers of the Iraqi campaign Randy Scheunemann and Francis Fukuyama, as well as the future presidential candidate, Senator John McCain. And there is an equally important contingent of Democratic politicians, diplomats and thinkers who held high office in the Clinton administration and/or have since then been prominent in the administration of Barack Obama, among them Joe Biden, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Richard Morningstar, Ivo Daalder and Michael McFaul. The letter was intended to highlight the international dimension of the condemnation of Russia and respected freedom fighters Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Vytautas Landsbergis of Lithuania, and Lech Walesa of Poland also signed. And there are such leading Western European politicians as Bernard Kouchner of France and Carl Bildt of Sweden.
Over the course of the nine years since then, this formula of soliciting bipartisan United States sign-up together with big name East European freedom fighters and West European statesmen has been used with great skill by the Neoconservative intellectual leadership to arrange highly mediatized anti-Kremlin events. Indeed, over time, many of the same names figure in their public petitions or meetings. The most recent iteration was the gathering in Washington on 4 March 2013, the anniversary of Russia’s last presidential elections, to promote the notion of ‘no business as usual’ with an illegitimate RF Government. The venue, a Senate office building, and the main hosts, the US-Government funded ‘NGO’ Freedom House, were well calculated to provide a bipartisan halo over the event, while the co-sponsor, the Foreign Policy Initiative, is a successor organization to the PNAC, with the same founders, Kagan and Kristol. In this case, the role of senior West European statesman was played by Guy Verhofstadt, chairman of the ALDE (neo)-Liberal bloc in the European Parliament and a strong ally of the Magnitsky Bill authors and supporters who were also speakers. The role of Eastern freedom fighters was assumed by a delegation from Moscow including Mikhail Kasyanov, former Russian premier and leader in the PARNAS opposition group that is one of ALDE’s local partners in Russia.
In between 2004 and 2013, there have been a number of public relations blows directed against Vladimir Putin and the Russian Government that have been orchestrated at moments associated with notable Russian acts of insubordination to American global hegemony. The Neocon toolkit is varied, including release to the media of fraudulent documents purporting to show the outrage of respected foreign politicians over Kremlin misbehavior.
One such case is worthy of note because it was carried in the May/June 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, America’s most prestigious and widely read journal in the field. The nominal author of the article ‘Containing Russia’ was the leader of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, though textual analysis makes plain what the magazine’s editors surely knew at the time: that it was ghostwritten by persons with a turn of mind that is inconceivable in someone of Tymoshenko’s education and life experience. The piece threw every accusation about Russian villainy, corruption and degradation from the Neocon handbook at Mr. Putin’s Kremlin. And the article just happened to appear several months after Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary speech at the Munich Security Conference of February 2007, in which he delivered his discursive and extemporaneous critique of America’s policies towards Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, an address that left its American attendees, including Senator John McCain, dumbfounded by its frankness and severity.
A new major anti-Kremlin offensive came in the wake of the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008, during which American-Russian relations hit a low point not seen since the worst days of the Cold War. Here, Democrats and Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder in their condemnation, with Russian military action denounced first as wanton aggression and then, as the facts of the casus belli became better known to international investigators, for excessive use of force against a puny foe. American media were closed to counter arguments in defense of the Russian side, apart from the perplexed coverage of their favorite Metropolitan Opera conductor Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky in a concert held in Southern Ossetia shortly after its liberation by Russian forces. Among the loudest denouncers of Russia was one of the cohort of West European sympathizers of the Neocons cited above, Carl Bildt. The Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs issued a pungent sound bite for the press, comparing the Russian entry into Georgian territory with Hitler’s march into the Sudetenland.
Still another wave of Neocon inspired and/or led anti-Russian propaganda followed President Obama’s launch of the ‘reset’ policy and his constructive summit with President Dmitry Medvedev in London in April 2009. An extraordinary item from this campaign was the Open Letter to President Obama signed by Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and the other major names from among the East European liberation movements of the 1980s.
This appeal to the American President to ensure greater U.S. attention to the security of their region had a number of explicitly Russophobe points, including insistence that Russia’s policy towards their countries is revisionist and threatening. Russia was said to be using overt and covert economic warfare in pursuit of its aims. The text of the Open Letter reveals a perspective coming from outside the region and well calculated to the susceptibilities of the American psyche. Indeed, as was later revealed by the journal The National Interest (The Nixon Center), the document was written by ghostwriters on commission from the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, which was at the time headed by Neocon Robert Kagan’s comrade-in-arms, Ron Asmus. The New York Times and other mainstream media carried it bona fide and the American public received it as a cri de coeur of freedom fighters.
I mention these dirty tricks to highlight the Neocons’ overriding principle of ‘the end justifies the means.’ Double standards and cynical distortions are apparent in most criticism of Kremlin policies they have fed to the media. Meanwhile, the Neocon brain trust brandishes their academic credentials as doctors of political science and humanities to enhance their authority, luring their would-be debating partners into what is a hopeless poker match with card cheats.
The individual Neocon thinkers whom I have cited are merely the most visible and egregious offenders against truth. Despite fine words about independence of spirit, America’s universities and the intellectual agora were swept up by Neoconservative principles and triumphalism from the 1990s along with the general public. A politically engaged professorate, the legacy of the 1960s revolution in American higher education, turned area studies away from fact-based knowledge of the world into something supposedly more relevant. Pro-democracy activism, shorthand for meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, has been the guiding principle in the training of an entire generation of specialists on Eastern Europe and Russia. In turn, the graduates of these programs moved into the leading U.S. diplomatic posts, think tanks and university professorships in the first decade of the new millennium. Even cursory perusal of the public lectures and conferences on present-day Russia featured at American universities reveals they are almost exclusively showcasing seditious Russian opposition personalities who are presented as the freedom fighters of our day.
During the 2012 American presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney made what was widely lampooned as a serious gaffe when he remarked that Russia is America’s number one geopolitical opponent, or, as the press rushed to clarify in plain English, number one enemy. In fact his apt observation erred only in failing to pay obeisance to political correctness. There can be no denying that ever since it registered its strong opposition to American plans to invade Iraq in 2003, Russia has fairly regularly been obstructing U.S.-led initiatives to remake the world in its image. The very latest case has been over the conflict in Syria, which is quickly becoming the Spanish Civil War of our day.
Need it be this way? Of course not!
However, for a more constructive relationship with Russia to come about, a first and essential step is for Americans to acknowledge the grip which Neoconservative thinking has had on the country’s foreign policy establishment these past 20 years. The fundamental premises of international relations which have been taken on faith for too long must be openly debated. Only then can we begin to address lost opportunities with Russia…and with many other powers as well.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.