Yesterday, while perusing the daily digest of Russia-related news and opinion to which former U.S. diplomats and businessmen based in Washington, D.C. are the principal subscribers, I came across a passage in the latest opinion piece by American historian, professor emeritus of Boston University, Andrew Bacevich:
I do not mean to minimize the thuggishness of Russia’s president or the barbarism of the Russian forces that have invaded Ukraine. Both deserve our condemnation.
“Thuggishness” of Putin? “Barbarism” of Russian forces amidst reports in The Financial Times yesterday that less than 400 Ukrainian civilians had thus far died in the war as it passed into its eleventh day, whereas by this point in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians had been wantonly slaughtered by the incoming waves of American troops destroying everything in their path to Baghdad. These generalizations about Russia’s President and his forces could just as easily have been issued by Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld in their glory days, those unprosecuted, untouched war criminals.
In the past, going back more than a dozen years, I fairly regularly read Bacevich’s books, which he published at two year intervals, on how the United States errs in its wars of choice and I even put out reviews of a couple of his books. I was generally complimentary though I questioned his views on causality and the motor driving the U.S. fighting machine. I knew then that his strength was strategic and tactical analysis of military affairs, coming from his own life experience, not politics or economics as such. His interest in and knowledge of things Russian was always weak. Then it did not matter; today it is of paramount importance to anyone who opens his mouth from a public platform.
Since Bacevich does not know much about Russia on his own, I assume he has been drawing upon the broad knowledge of Anatol Lieven, the recently recruited Senior Fellow to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, of which Bacevich is President and Chairman of the Board.
Anatol Lieven bears a family name with great resonance to Russianists. His older brother Dominic is the world’s leading historian of Imperial Russia. He has written invaluable volumes on the tsarist bureaucracy and its leading families, on how the Russians defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée thanks to logistical superiority, vast numbers of horses, better discipline and élan rather than thanks to Father Winter, as has been supposed till now. These books were all extensively researched in Russian and Western archives, and he was the first to draw upon both sources this way.
However, Anatol is not Dominic. His profession is journalism, notwithstanding his Ph.D. in political science, and as is customary in journalism he has written about a great many things, including as war correspondent for major media in Afghanistan and elsewhere. His Wikipedia entry lists nine “areas of expertise and interest.” Among them is Russia and the Former Soviet Union, but that does not prepare him for the role of Russia expert that he now assumes. At the American Committee for US-Russia Accord, Lieven has been assigned pride of place, as a replacement for Professor Stephen Cohen, who passed away in September 2020, leaving an intellectual hole in the organization which none of the founders could fill on their own.
Anatol Lieven is also no Steve Cohen. Here is where we get to the point I highlight in the title of this essay: the distinction between sheep and goats. Cohen was a goat; Lieven is a sheep. And whatever I am saying about Lieven could just as easily be said about a host of worthies who get prime real estate in the publishing world to opine on the issues of our day. Just to take a name out of a hat, I can point to the recent writings of one E. Wayne Merry, former State Department official whose recently issued op-ed piece “The consequence of being clueless in Ukraine” in The Hill sounds as if he was looking in the mirror when he was writing. His likening Vladimir Putin to Nicholas II, and the current military operation in Ukraine to the Russo-Japanese War is ignorant drivel.
In fact, my “sheep” are the vast majority of American and European academics who dance from foot to foot when passing through the minefield of Russian matters.
It is a constant feature among academic (and not only academic) lecturers to organize their talks about the 3 points of this or 4 points of that. It is understandable; this is a trick of mnemonics. It is also a constant when academic historians or political scientists approach controversial issues yet want to appear fair minded that they declare both parties to an issue as sharing the blame. This is precisely where Anatol Lieven comes into the picture. In all of his writings, Russia is doing something illegal or vicious, even if there are, shall we say, extenuating circumstances, not to mention precedents in Western behavior which are still more illegal and vicious. And these casual insertions, like the sentences I quoted from Bacevich above, amount to taking the knee.
Besides the mindset of university dons to go for the middle ground, there is the greater factor of saying nothing which might cost them the respect and society of their peers, who are in very great proportion anti-Russian, in line with the general public thanks to the Information War. Still worse, since tenured positions are getting rare as hen’s teeth, they can be simply dismissed for speaking without self-censorship and without due attention to the consensus views. This is particularly so in the highly politicized and divided USA, where anti-culture and wokism have established tyrannical control over what can be taught, what can be said that carries over into all subjects, not just race relations.
So Lieven is watching his P’s and Q’s, and Bacevich is getting bad advice on an issue which should be central to the work of the Quincy Institute.
All of this is not to say that there are no outstanding professors and think tank researchers who speak out, write openly against the present mass hysteria relating to Russia and try to bring sanity and realism to bear on policy by Speaking Truth to Power. The outstanding living exemplar is Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. His “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” published in the September-October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine was a tour de force and the act of a very brave man.
But when he wrote that piece, Mearsheimer was already battle-tested. In August 2007, he and Harvard professor Stephen Walt coauthored The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. For this book, both faced condemnation from peers and the threat of being drummed out of university life. They survived, licked their wounds and resumed brilliant careers.
Now, when American intellectual society and policy makers need Mearsheimer most, he has stayed true to his North Star and is speaking out, writing in the same vein, explaining why the blame for the epic confrontation we see around us lies predominantly with the United States. His latest interview in The New Yorker is well worth reading: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john-mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine I also heartily recommend the video of Mearsheimer’s discussion of the same issues with veteran peace activist, former CIA analyst and intelligence briefer of American presidents, Ray McGovern: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppD_bhWODDc&t=2344s
Till his untimely death, the most widely known voice for reason in our approach to Russia, in our policy on European security was Professor Stephen Cohen, whom I got to know fairly well from our daily correspondence when setting up and then running The American Committee for East West Accord, on which I had multiple directorships to his chairmanship.
During the three years of our closest friendship, Cohen was living a tormented life because of the ostracism and flashes of hatred to which he was subjected by members of his own profession solely due to his being open-minded about Russia when most others were wallowing in Russophobia.
Whereas in the late 1990s, Cohen was the toast of the town, was the expert whom American television channels went to for featured interviews to comment on developments in Moscow, as from 2014 he was blacklisted in a way very reminiscent of McCarthyism at its height. This was so even though Cohen always held back a bit, did not lay all his cards on the table, so as to avoid providing still more grist to his detractors.
Nonetheless, even if he was excluded from major media, in his final years Cohen maintained an audience that numbered in hundreds of thousands if not millions via his weekly radio chats dealing with the New Cold War. From transcripts of these programs, he assembled his final book, War with Russia? which was also his freest expression of his inner convictions, holding nothing back. I believe the medium of the spoken word helped greatly to shape the message of this book, which will constitute his legacy to American society.
Cohen was well aware of the cowardice of students and colleagues when facing possible censure of the mob rule that is the reality of university departments. He told me that he was especially tolerant of young faculty who had families to look after. He forgave them their silence on the issues of war and peace.
I am not so tolerant as was Cohen. Those who must bite their tongues or lie to their colleagues and students to hold their jobs would do much better to turn to driving taxis or whatever and retain their self-respect.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022