February 20, 2007


Russia's President Putin gave a speech the other day, complaining about U.S. indifference to international law and U.S. and European disrespect for Russia's national interest.

Max Boot didn't like the speech:
Putin's condemnation of the U.S.' "illegitimate" use of force was no more convincing, given the scorched-earth campaign he has carried out in Chechnya. While insisting that the U.S. needs U.N. sanction for its military actions — which, he failed to note, was granted in Afghanistan and Iraq — he argued that Russia needed no such approval in Chechnya because it was acting in "self-defense." (Try telling that to a Chechen.)


Putin did not win many friends in Munich with such remarks. He alienated the audience even more when he turned from criticizing the U.S. to deriding the innocuous Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which seeks to promote human rights and free elections, as a "vulgar instrument." In fact, Putin did the United States a favor by scaring the Europeans and showing why a transatlantic alliance remains necessary.
Daniel Larison, on the other hand, didn't think the speech was all that bad, and rather sees an unpleasant Russophobia lurking:
Mr. Putin’s speech is an early warning alarm and, I think, an attempt to make Washington see reason. That the speech is, of course, self-serving to some degree and coming from the mouth of an elected authoritarian populist with rather dubious moral authority is really neither here nor there. Putin was saying what most allied governments have been saying in less direct ways and what most friendly (or formerly friendly) nations have been thinking and saying about our government for years.

The question is not, as the incredibly overrated Tom Friedman puts it, “why do remarks like these play so well in Russia today?” (Anyone could answer that question, as Friedman does by discovering that Russians are not all together happy about being encircled and threatened by NATO expansion–you don’t say!) The question is: how, beyond the last round of NATO expansion in 2002, has Mr. Bush managed to so profoundly alienate the government that was the first to offer its support to us after 9/11, and how is it that the appropriate and mutually beneficial cooperation between our two countries has been so grievously jeopardised by six years of pointed confrontation and insults?
Larison goes so far as to suggest that some are "persecuting Putin," summing the matter up as follows:
It is in the context of such dangerous and provocative anti-Russian Western activism that Americans and Europeans need to view the inevitably heavily biased reporting, frequently excessive criticism and ideologically and politically driven commentary that seek to make Putin’s regime appear somehow uniquely abominable and seeks to make Russia, a natural ally against jihadis, once more into an implacable enemy. This does not require us to endorse all of the Putin regime’s actions, nor does it mean that Americans should ignore when legitimate American interests do conflict with those of Russia, as will sometimes happen, but it does require us to be wary about trusting the obsessive vilification of another nation and another government when tension and conflict between America and Russia serve the interests of neither great nation.
Calling this attitude "persecuting" the man is a bit hyperbolic, but our stance vis-à-vìs Russia has indeed been unwise. We don't need to see into Putin's soul to do business with him. Russia is now a regional power (in many regions) that happens to have a legacy of atomic weapons and lots of hydrocarbons. It's also recovering from the nightmare of communism and the grubby aftermath. Putin's régime is overcentralized, at times incompetent, and sometimes brutal. (All three are true of our country as well: think No Child Left Behind, Katrina, and Waco).

We share no common border and have no significant commercial rivalries. Russia is not threatening to gain control of all Eurasia or all Europe, as it once did.

Expanding NATO to Russia's borders and within its sphere of influence when NATO was ripe for dissolution and Russia ceased to be a major threat, overstating the scope and severity of human rights issues, and dissing Putin for an authoritarianism that's milder than Pinochet's, are all provocative acts. It's as if the Max Boots were nostalgic for the Cold War. If it's not a Chinese threat they imagine, it's a resurgent Russia that's in some ways an improvement over its former self, and in others a mere shadow of the former bear astride its hemisphere.

There's little point to these secular anathemas, and there would be even less if this country, notwithstanding the threat to think-tank funding, returned to its older tradition of keeping out of Old World quarrels and keeping our powder dry.

What a concept!

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