[For brief comment on Vladimir Putin’s op-ed, click here. For brief comment on his op-ed as international precedent, click here. For distinctions among propaganda, argument and fact, click here. For a recent essay on Russia’s responsibilities in Syria, click here. This essay is, in some ways, a continuation.
Introduction: our blunders
The dark horse
Conclusion: opportunity in crisis
Introduction: our blunders
What were our biggest foreign-policy blunders of the last century? There are several candidates, but two stand out. Let’s look at the list.
World War I was one of the most pointless wars
in human history. [search in linked source for “not so”] It was an orgy of imperialism and national pride, in which tens of millions of young men died for no plausible reason that anyone can discern in retrospect. Its excesses, including poison gas, are things our species has been backing away from ever since. But we did help our allies France and Britain (and Russia, too, before the Bolshevik Revolution). And the tragic decision to punish the Germans collectively for losing was not ours
. Our own president then—another professor, like our current one—argued vehemently against it, to no avail.
The greatest war in history followed, as night the day. And it was one of the few we really had
to fight. Hitler and Imperial Japan threatened to roll human civilization and the sweetness of human life back centuries.
Our Korean war may have been costly, but look at South Korea today. Anyone who owns a Korean smart phone or LCD TV, who drives a Hyundai or Kia, or who admires the Korean alphabet
, has to be glad we made the sacrifice.
The tragedy of the Korean peninsula’s division is almost entirely the fault of Mao’s China. It wanted a buffer state against Western interference, and it destroyed half of a people to get it. Now China must bear most of the consequences of having a rogue nuclear power right on its border, and the ever-present threat of a plague of impoverished refugees.
This was China’s
blunder, not ours. To his credit, its current leader, Xi Jinping, seems tacitly to recognize that fact. The Little Kim’s risky tantrums stopped altogether shortly after Xi consolidated his power over the huge Chinese Empire. Now there is a faint chance of eventual reunification.
Vietnam is high on the list of our own national blunders. Like Robert E. Lee in our Civil War, we fought on the wrong side. We had gotten our start as a nation by breaking away from a colonial power, Britain. Yet when Vietnam sought to break from its old colonial master, France, we blindly supported our European ally, not our ideals. We ended up losing 50,000 Americans for a corrupt, cruel and inept puppet government on the wrong side of history—all because the word “Communism” spooked us. (Korea was entirely different; we fought to preserve a modern state from unprovoked invasion by a puppet of China, which has become one of the most pathological and abjectly miserable political creations on Earth.)
In terms of lives lost and results achieved, Vietnam was probably our single greatest foreign policy disaster. Its symbols were two iconic images: a South Vietnamese general summarily executing
a prisoner with a pistol on video, and the last helicopter fleeing our embassy
in what was then Saigon, with a long line of disappointed would-be refugees fruitlessly waiting. These images—metaphors for the entire war—make us hang our heads in shame. And they should
Gulf I may not have been an absolute necessity, but it had some good results. It contained Saddam. It restored Kuwait’s sovereignty and oil fields (after curing Saddam’s deliberate sabotage). It signaled the entire world that we would throw our military might, whenever necessary, into keeping the world’s oil wells open for fair, nondiscriminatory business, and thus keep the global economy running. And by following the Colin Powell’s wise and circumspect advice
not to invade Baghdad [search in linked source for “Powell right”], we gave Gulf I the highest results-to-cost ratio of any war in our history. It was also the shortest major war in our history: less than two months
Dubya’s invading and occupying Iraq (including Baghdad) a decade later was an unmistakable blunder in conception. We didn’t need to topple or kill Saddam. Our “no fly” zone from Gulf I already had contained and neutered him, insofar as concerned international mischief, for over a decade. He had no weapons of mass destruction, so our primary reason for going to war was bogus.
Yet the jury is still out on results. We did get rid of Saddam. We allowed the Iraqi people to deliver his just desserts, albeit crudely. We restored majority rule in Iraq, avoiding the minority-driven ethnic cleansing and partial genocide that is now going on in Syria
, or that South Africa might have seen without Nelson Mandela. We introduced free elections into Iraq, plus the new idea of solving solving sectarian discord and inter-factional conflict with electoral campaigns and agreements, rather than bullets and bombs.
There are still plenty of people in Iraq who prefer bombs, most of them foreigners. But Iraq on its worst day is nothing like Syria. Nouri Al-Maliki at his worst has trouble compromising, especially with Sunnis, but he’s nothing like Bashar Al-Assad. How can you tell? Because over 180,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Iraq
. They voted with their feet. Nobody in his right mind is fleeing Iraq for Syria.
As in Iraq, our invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was an horrendous blunder in conception. We invaded and occupied an entire nation just to stop a few hundred terrorists. We’re now doing much better with proportional, targeted use of force
: drones, ninjas and other special operations.
But as in Iraq, the jury is still out on results. Hamid Karzai is corrupt and inept and sometimes cluless, but he’s no Bashar Al-Assad. At his worst, he’s better than the Taliban and the various brutal warlords who cut Afghanistan into pieces before his rule. Under our tutelage, Afghans have studied the benefits of voting, religious tolerance, schooling girls (and boys in real
schools, not madrassas!) and joining the modern global economy. After we leave, putting those fire-hose lessons into practice will be up to them.
Should we have gotten into these wars for the reasons we did? Probably not. Were they pointless excises in meaningless slaughter, like World War I or Syria’s Civil War today? Also probably not. We won’t know the long-term results of our costly and bloody efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan until long after I am dead. So we (or at least folks my age) should probably reserve judgment. Good things sometimes come from projects badly conceived and even (as in Iraq) horribly mismanaged
So was Vietnam our single greatest foreign-policy blunder? Maybe not.
Not all foreign-policy blunders involve war, or at least live, hot war. The Cold War was almost as pointless as World War I. We and the Soviet Russians had no reason to become implacable enemies. We had been allies in World War II and had achieved mutual victory with mutual aid. We live on opposite sides of the globe. We had and have no disputes over boundaries or natural resources. Where we come close to each other, in Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the Russians had never even thought
of invading. They had sold it to us over a century before and stood by their sale.
Sure, Stalin’s paranoia and Russians’ punch-drunkenness after the costliest war in their history made them afraid, and us afraid in return. But cooler heads and wiser policies eventually prevailed. Our own George Kennan developed the policies of containment and deterrence, which eventually worked without war.
But we shouldn’t pat ourselves alone on the back. In October 1962, we humans came within hours
, if not minutes, of species self-extinction. Who averted our species’ untimely end? Three men
: Soviet General Secretary Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, an obscure (until recently) Soviet flotilla commander named Vasiliy Aleksandrovich Arkhipov, and our own President John F. Kennedy.
Arhkipov decided, as the chief of three responsible Soviet officers on the spot, not
to unleash nuclear torpedoes on our Atlantic fleet then blockading Cuba. He did so under impossible conditions of heat, fatigue, stress and lack of instructions from Moscow. Khrushchev not only made a deal with Kennedy to avert a nuclear holocaust. Unbeknownst to us (and most Russians), he had revealed, deep in the Soviet Plenum, the horrors and bestiality of Stalin’s rule and Terror. He gave Soviet Russia the very first push out on the long road toward self-healing and revival, with the results we see today. Putin’s Russia is far from an ideal nation, let alone a democracy. But it’s infinitely better than Stalin’s Soviet Russia, both to people inside it and in foreign policy.
So of the three men whose cool and mature judgment saved our species from self-extinction, two were Soviet Russians. We Yanks should never forget that. And we should give the Russians more respect.
Russians are not like us and don’t share all our values. But they live in a much more dangerous neighborhood than we, across which invading armies have been marching for millennia. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, they have mostly been a stabilizing influence in that blood-drenched space. They are a wise and wary people, with much tragedy in their history, and they had the good sense to abandon Communism on their own initiative.
We can deal with them, on Syria and other matters, if we just stop looking down our noses at them. We should never condescend to anyone
before standing in their historical shoes. And as the youngest, newest and callowest major power, if also the strongest, we have a lot of history and humility still to learn.
The dark horse
So does this list exhaust our foreign-policy blunders? Not yet. There’s one, smaller cold war that’s still going on right now. And we, not Stalin’s paranoia, propaganda and prisons, bear primary blame for it. It’s the one with Iran.
There is no question who started it. We did
. Back in 1953, Iran was our ally in the big
Cold War and a fully democratic nation. It had a duly elected prime minister named Mohammed Mossadegh. He had the temerity to nationalize Iran’s foreign oil companies. So we and our CIA, with connivance from the Brits, instigated a coup, deposed him and installed the Shah. There followed 25 years of increasingly brutal dictatorship, by a puppet government (of ours) that Iranians grew to know and hate.
Now imagine how you might feel if you were an informed Iranian of my age today. You lived the best years of your youth under the heel of a vile tyranny because your democratic leader tried to nationalize foreign oil companies. And we Yanks were responsible for the change.
Yet that’s not all. You might look at Saudi Arabia today. And what would you see? A nation that did exactly that same thing—nationalize its foreign oil companies
—just about eight years later. And four decades later you saw the President of the United States (Dubya) walking hand in hand
with the late Saudi King Abdullah.
So Iran got the imposed tyrant and his brutal secret police, the Savak. Saudi Arabia, which did exactly the same thing, got the gold and (much later) the hand of our president. Do you begin to see why rational Iranians might feel unfairly treated?
They don’t call us the “Great Satan” because the Qur’an says so. Our nation wasn’t around when it was written. They hate us for our own bad and stupid acts.
But that’s still
not all. In 1979, Iran had the temerity to overthrow the tyrant we and the Brits had installed.
Iran’s Islamic Revolution was really none of our business, although it removed a hated tyrant we had installed. But Iran did make one mistake. It took our diplomats, their staff and other Yankee visitors hostage, and held them for 444 days.
Iran did not torture or behead them, as Al Qaeda might have done. Instead, it eventually let them go. All were unharmed, although a few had medical issues exacerbated by their long, tense confinement.
For this single sin, we have sought to punish Iran ever since. In 1980, while the Islamic Revolution was still resolving, we incited Saddam, with our materiel support, to attack Iran without provocation. The resulting eight-year war killed an estimated half-million Iranians
(one million on both
sides) and accomplished nothing else. The two countries’ mutual border is almost exactly where it was when the war started. The resulting pointless slaughter bore a striking resemblance to World War I.
didn’t attack Iran. Saddam did. But he did it with our encouragement and support. We didn’t like the leader of either country much, so we helped set up a war between them that would drain them both dry. We collectively punished the people of both countries for the acts of their leaders—the very same thing that Woodrow Wilson had argued vainly against
after World War I, and that we had shunned after World War II
. That was a sin, for which we are now paying with the irrational enmity we deserve.
Israel is paying, too. As I have argued
, the only plausible reasons for Iran’s irrational enmity toward Israel are its hatred for us, Israel’s sponsor, and its desire to reconcile with the Sunni Arabic world and its terrorists. Those are not good enough reasons to start a war. But for Iran, they’re good enough to finance and aid terrorism that kills schoolchildren.
Sins grow and fester until confessed and forgiven. Six years ago, long before the current nuclear issue arose, I argued
that we should apologize to Iran, just as Colin Powell apologized to China
when our surveillance plane downed its hotshot pilot. [search in linked source for “uniform”] The only difference I can see is that China is bigger and more powerful than Iran. But our sin against China (if a sin at all, and not a mere accident) was nothing compared to our sins toward Iran. Even if you multiply the magnitude of the sin by the power and population of its victim, Iran is the more justly aggrieved.
An apology costs nothing and detracts nothing from our military readiness or capability. We should give one simply because we did wrong, and because we think of ourselves as good people. But our right wing won’t let us. It wants us to be “strong” and “proud,” never to admit error, and to meet all enmity with force. That’s not being strong. That’s being a bully.
In any event, we must reconcile with Iran soon. The Iranians we educated during the Cold War are now coming into their primes, including positions of leadership inside Iran. Soon they will start to retire and die. Our vast community of Jewish
Iranian expatriates here, mostly in Los Angeles, is estranged from the “old country” by religion, national enmity, and a desire to be patriotic Americans. We need to make amends with Iran while it still has many people who recall from personal experience what we Yanks were like in our best years.
As a college student in the sixties, I knew one such Iranian. His name was Parviz Amin. He was smart, engaging, funny and a fine human being. His only vice was chasing after multiple American girls when he wasn’t studying. Everyone liked him. There was nothing about his culture or his personality worthy of the enmity between our nations today.
Another Iranian approached me on the Internet a few years ago. (I will withhold his name to spare him any possible embarrassment or misunderstanding.) He wanted a copy of my licensing treatise
, which he had trouble getting in Iran. I looked up our boycott regulations, which don’t ban educational materials, and sent him one for free. He was immensely grateful and kept me informed of his eventual doctoral degree and career path as a licensing expert. Today he is a presence on social media, constantly reaching out to us Yanks and others outside Iran.
This is my impression of Iranians. They are a capable, energetic commercial people, much like us. Notwithstanding their leaders’ often intemperate statements, they are not bellicose. They have not been an expansionist power since the old Persian Empire centuries ago. The only recent war in which they have been involved was the one which we instigated Saddam to make on them. (Their Islamic Revolution was too bloodless and quick to be considered a war.)
For huge blunders with disastrous human consequences and zero good results, nothing can match our misadventure in Vietnam. But for sheer stupidity and uncharacteristic ill will, our ill-treatment of Iran over half a century comes close.
We need to think hard about how to fix the wrongs we have done. It takes two to tango, and two to reconcile.
Conclusion: opportunity in crisis
Why write all this now? Because of the Syrian crisis.
The Chinese word for “crisis” has two characters: one for “danger” and the other for “opportunity.” So far, everyone has focused on the danger. But there are opportunities, too.
The first opportunity is Russia’s initiative to put Assad’s chemical weapons under international control and destroy them. It is hardly a done deal, but it’s an immensely promising proposal. If it works, the international community will have put its full force behind the ban on chemical weapons, with Russia and China aboard. All the world’s major powers would be voting clearly for civilization and against bestiality.
The process would inevitably involve Iran, which is Syria’s closest patron and neighbor. (Russia has no common border with Syria.) If Iran’s new, moderate government works with Russia to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons, it will show the world that Iran is a responsible and civilized nation. Paranoia toward Iran in the West will wane. At the same time, Iran could protect itself from those weapons falling into the hands of Sunni terrorists who might some day use them against Iran or its allies.
The next step might be Russia guaranteeing a nuclear response to any nuclear attack on Iran. That guarantee might convince Iran that it doesn’t really need nuclear weapons. Iran is big enough and has a strong enough military (with relatively recent combat experience) to repel any conventional attack from neighbors. We
are not about to attack Iran, as anyone who understands our recent history knows. Verifiable Iranian renunciation of nuclear weapons would end the boycott.
The final step might be us reconciling with Iran and working hard to restrain the Saudis’ and Gulf Kindoms’ financing of Sunni terrorism. If that happened, there would be no visible reason for Iran to persecute Israel, and lots of reasons to leave resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to a final diplomatic push, with all sides leaning on its allies (including us leaning hard on Israel).
Is all this an optimistic fantasy? I don’t think so. The world’s major powers, and the UN, now have an extraordinary collection of capable, thoughtful, and well-intentioned leaders. Just to list their names (in alphabetical order) inspires optimism: Abe, Ban, Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, Obama, Putin, and Xi. They have different attitudes toward democracy, but there is not a stupid or evil person among them. Not a single one even hints
of war, let alone conquest, as a national desideratum, let alone a goal.
These are well-educated, clever, wise and quintessentially civilized leaders. They all have difficult problems with divisive domestic politics. But they all also have much freer hands in foreign policy. If they focus on the world, rather than their divided domestic polities, they might make enormous progress for our entire species. They might, in a mere decade or two, make the world a place in which international cooperation replaces enmity for the long haul.
The other reason for optimism is the Islamic world’s own spontaneous rejection of terrorism. While the rest of us fear
terrorism most, the vast majority of its victims are and mostly have been Muslims.
Now we all know they don’t like it. Like most people, they don’t enjoy seeing their spouses, children, parents and friends blown up in places of worship, marketplaces, weddings and funerals. They also don’t like extremist religion that fosters or encourages terrorism and treads on their own personal liberty and independence. Like everyone else, they don’t want to be told what to think and how to act.
That is, perhaps, the only clear message emerging right now from the whole Middle East. The great mass of ordinary people there doesn’t like terrorism or the people who perpetrate, support, endorse or justify it.
Egyptians are willing to tolerate, even invite, a continuation of harsh military rule to protect themselves from terrorism and theocracy. They want to be Muslims the same way the French are Catholics and most of us Yanks are Christians: lightly, gently and each in his or her own way.
Education helps, by letting people understand that there is wisdom in more than one book. And as we learn more about Egypt in this crisis, the more we are learning how educated, thoughtful and civilized Egyptians can be. They are harsh toward the Muslim Brotherhood not because they are cruel, but because they think that Islamists and their terrorist allies threaten their civilization more than the Egyptian army. That much is clear.
Looking beyond Egypt only confirms this view. Tunisians are now skeptical of their elected Islamist leaders, and city folk stopped Turkey’s Erdogan from confiscating a popular park. Even Assad claims he is fighting terrorists, and there is some evidence of that, although the 100,000 people killed in his quest to keep power couldn’t possibly all be terrorists.
All this gives the lie to the West’s paranoid fantasies. Ordinary Muslims don’t like terrorism any more than anyone else. While repressed and oppressed by tyrants, they were passive about it. The tyrant had assumed all power and control over their lives, so they thought it his job to stop terrorism, too.
But now that the Arab Spring has released them from tyranny and encouraged them to take control of their lives, they are voting, fighting and struggling against terrorism and theocracy with a vengeance. In fact, they are doing it with such zeal and vehemence that some of us in the West think they are going too far.
As Mark Twain might say, reports of a “clash of civilizations” or the demise of Western civilization are greatly exaggerated. Or as our own President might say, there is no “Western civilization,” “Eastern civilization,” or “Islamic civilization.” There is only human civilization. And wherever it resides, it doesn’t like terrorism.
The five big problems facing humanity today are: (1) terrorism, (2) the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, (3) global warming, (4) the population bomb, and (5) bankers destroying well-functioning economies in heedless attempts to enrich themselves. The Syrian crisis holds no chance to resolve all five. But it does hold out the hope of substantial progress on the first two.
As for us, we ought to stop calling ourselves “exceptional.” That’s just a more subtle way of saying we’re better than others.
As the list of our big blunders in this essay suggests, since World War II we have often been “exceptional” in acting before thinking, not to mention knowing. But there’s a bigger problem with our self-congratulation than that. “Deutschland über alles
” was not a motto that led to peace, harmony and tranquility.
We should think of ourselves as “exceptional” only in private, and only after we have apologized to Iran (at least implicitly) and begun to work hard to clean up the messes we ourselves have helped make. Iran’s isolation from most civilized society is one of them. You cannot convince a people to take responsibility by ostracizing and demonizing them, especially when their bad acts are direct results of your own.
The world’s unusual group of wise, competent leaders—including Iran’s new, moderate ones—now has a chance to change all this. They should grab that chance with both hands and run with it as far as they can. And we, the people, wherever we live, should put aside our tribal pride and support them enthusiastically.
Short Update on Putin’s Op-Ed.
Careful readers will note that this post was published the day before Putin’s now-famous op-ed in the New York Times
. I had no advance notice that that op-ed was coming. I do not agree with several important things in it, especially his baseless assertion that rebels were responsible for the recent chemical attack.
But for different reasons than Putin, I stand by my assertion (and Putin’s) that the notion of American “exceptionalism” is dangerous. For us, it motivates nationalism—a form of tribalism—and carelessness in foreign affairs. You have no less obligation to be careful, to think things through, and to show empathy and compassion for others because you think yourself “exceptional,” i.e., superior to others. In fact, you have more. As for dealing with
others, it’s a very poor way to persuade them by starting with the notion that “we’re better, smarter, more moral, and/or stronger than you.”
No business person or diplomat would ever try that approach in personal negotiation. So why should we do it as a nation? And why should the President have mentioned it at the very end of his short address to the nation? Surely he, a master of politics and timing, knew he was speaking to multiple audiences.
Nearly every major power is “exceptional” in some way. Russia itself is “exceptional” in having suffered so massively in the Great War, having given up Communism decisively of its own initiative (unlike China, including the name), and having dissolved its Soviet Empire (not entirely unlike the British earlier) with almost no bloodshed, while maintaining complete control of its nuclear weapons.
Nearly every major power, including us, is also “exceptional” in having done some pretty bad and stupid things. For Russia, they include crushing Eastern Europe and the Baltics and invading Afghanistan during the Cold War. For us, they include Vietnam and our half-century grudge against Iran (outlined above).
Construed as something positive, the notion of American “exceptionalism” is at best a badge of unrealized intent and a half-truth, at worst an invitation to laziness and self-delusion. I persist in believing that it is about as helpful to international relations and clear thinking as was “Deutschland über alles
For a superb paragraph-by-paragraph fact-check and analysis of Putin’s op-ed, read Max Fisher’s piece
in the Washington Post
, with most of which I agree. The only important thing I would add is that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has become, under our occupation, anything like the charnel house that Syria has become under Russia’s wing, as outlined for Iraq above. Refugees are still pouring into Iraq from Syria, not vice versa
. Afghanistan is too far away, but no doubt Syrian refugees fleeing ubiquitous violence would go there if they could.
Putin’s Ploy: Leaders Speaking to Other Peoples
As the brief comment above
suggests, international affairs are not capable of resolution with mindless slogans like American “exceptionalism.” Such bumper stickers are poor substitutes for thinking.
On the Russian side, the notion of restoring Russia’s nineteeth- or twentieth-century “imperial greatness” is equally unhelpful. Russia voluntarily and wisely abandoned its Soviet Empire in 1991, over two decades ago.
It lagged Britain by most of a century. But better late than never. Today Russia is forging a new political and economic reality with independent sovereign states, its former vassals. Backsliding is neither possible nor desirable.
We cannot forge a peaceful and prosperous world with slogans or glances backward. Today, every serious issue in international affairs demands careful and sustained case-by-case attention, based on the best knowledge of actual facts that modern technology and societal organization can provide.
The universal goals, as well as the needed process, are now becoming clear. They are: promoting stability, avoiding war, suppressing atrocities, and protecting and advancing our common, global economy. In the nuclear age—and five years after a global near-depression caused mainly by us Yanks and our banks—our species can aim for no less.
It is in this light that we should assess Vladimir Putin’s recent attempt to sway our Yankee political opinion with his op-ed piece in the New York Times
Many Yanks may object to an authoritarian leader like Putin, of a prickly sometime-partner, sometime-rival like Russia, instructing and lecturing the American public. They might object even more if they recall that Putin recently cashiered many Russian civil-society NGO’s, claiming they were foreign attempts to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs.
But I don’t mind the hypocrisy, in part because it’s so obvious. When the chips are down, as Russia appears to think they are in Syria, Putin takes an opportunity to put his case directly to the American people. So does Bashar Al-Assad, using the medium of his recent hour-long interview with Charlie Rose.
There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, there are several distinct benefits.
First and foremost, these events give the lie to the paeans to unfettered national “sovereignty” that we constantly hear from authoritarian nations like Russia, China and North Korea.
Unfettered national sovereignty is fine in normal times and for normal issues. No one outside wants—or should want—to intervene in Russia’s or China’s handling of its central banking, industrial policy, pension or health-care system, social safety net, national minorities (peacefully!), or even military development and supply (short of obvious preparation for aggressive war).
But when a nation begins to threaten its neighbors or slaughter its own people, let alone with weapons of mass destruction, national sovereignty must yield to our common human values, still under development but now beginning to resolve.
Genocide is not business as usual, even if only partial or attempted, as in Bosnia and Kosovo two decades ago and Syria today
. Nor is a destabilizing military buildup, such as Iran’s putative development of nuclear weapons. Extraordinary circumstances like these are exceptions to the rule of respect for national sovereignty. They permit, if not invite, interference and intervention on behalf of all our species.
No one thinks, for example, that international attempts to halt expansion of The Little Kim’s small nuclear arsenal are illegitimate. What applies to little powers should apply to big ones, too.
In making his appeal in the New York Times
, Vladimir Putin tacitly recognized this point. His primary argument was that we Yanks claim to have a nation ruled by law, and that a strike at Syria unauthorized by the UN would be unlawful. There is force to that argument, and many here at home have also made it. It is no less forceful or valid for Putin’s having repeated it. And Putin’s appeal to our legal side implicitly acknowledged our respect for the rule of law—one of our admirable national attributes. (Whether law trumps humanitarian and moral concerns in this instance is another matter.)
But in making his argument directly to the American people, Putin has tacitly admitted that “interference” in the decision-making of other nations is justified under extraordinary circumstances, such as Syria poses today. His hypocrisy cannot stand. He, like every other sentient, modern world leader, recognizes that it is better to try to sway a foreign power than to fight it, whether directly or by proxy.
The second benefit of a ploy like Putin’s is that it lets us peer directly into the mind and character of an important foreign leader. We get to see a little bit of what Putin thinks is important, and what he thinks is important to us. We thus learn a little about him, about Russia, and about how we look to him and other Russians. All that is useful information.
Six years ago, I harshly criticized
Charlie Rose for haranguing, rather than interviewing, Iran’s Ahmadinejad. Instead of getting us inside this loopy leader’s mind, Rose made a fool of himself and, indirectly, of our elite media and our culture.
This time he did much better. Despite his age, jet lag and obvious fatigue, he let Assad do most of the talking. The result was a unique glimpse into the mind of a smooth and brilliant psychopath.
The overwhelming and consistent impression from the Assad interview was of his conflating himself completely with the Syrian state. You could almost hear him saying, with Louis XIV of France, “L'État, c'est moi
We all know what happened to Louis. And we can speculate that Putin missed the point because, for all his considerable talent and innovation (see below), that may be how he thinks of himself in relation to Russia. Why else would he jigger Russian laws so obviously to stay in power?
So we got vital information from Putin’s op-ed. And we got more real information about Assad and his thinking from that single interview than we did about our presidential candidates from all our so-called presidential “debates” last summer, with their phony scandals, focus on irrelevancies, and clueless moderators. This was good.
Finally, the effects back in Russia of Putin’s foray in our press are still unknown. You could tell how much Putin controls television (not the press!) in Russia by what he tried to accomplish here. He tried to get us Yanks to believe that the rebels used the chemical weapons. And he tried to sell us the false comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan, on the one hand, and Syria on the other, which I refute for Iraq above
But our Yankee media are not controlled by Putin, and we are resistant to propaganda. Right here at home, we have the most powerful propaganda machines in human history: Fox and our political ad manipulators. Thanks to Aussie Rupert Murdoch and our own Supreme Court’s Citizens United
decision, these organs of propaganda are better funded and more sophisticated than the Nazi or Soviet propaganda machines ever were.
So most of us have been or are becoming immune. Armed with that immunity from constant exposure, we Yanks are simply not going to believe Putin’s lies about the rebels, or his false comparison. When Russians back home see how we react, which they can do easily through the Internet, they may become more skeptical, too.
Today we live in globalized world, knit together by air travel, massive seaborne trade, global economic ties, and the Internet. There are no private fora any more. When Putin says something important in Russia, our media report it here. Vice versa
for President Obama. So we might as well get used to getting the information (even along with propaganda) directly from the horse’s mouth.
Our society will stay in the vanguard in this regard. With all our warts, we Yanks still have the world’s most open society, and the world’s most permissive media. No one controls our
part of the Internet, except for child pornography and other gross crimes.
If he had the time, Putin could write a column in English and post it on the Internet for our perusal every day. Thousands, if not millions, of Americans would read it. Certainly people in all of our foreign-policy think-tanks would.
Some day, every major power will be like that. Direct communications from foreign leaders will become routine, if not everyday, occurrences.
For all his machismo and wistful glances back at Imperial Russia, Vladimir Putin is an extraordinarily innovative ruler. In his first tenure as President of Russia, he arranged a nationwide telethon, throughout all of Russia’s eleven time zones, to speak directly to Russia’s people. No leader in Russian history had ever done that. Now he is reaching out, however awkwardly, to our people and citing our own traditions, in an attempt to press his point of view.
Like Ronald Reagan here, Putin is Russia’s “great communicator.” His writing or speaking to us can do no harm and might do some good. And his effort has placed him squarely behind the sensible notion that, when things get really messy or dangerous, there is nothing wrong with trying to “interfere” in another country’s decision-making process. Isn’t that what diplomacy does?
P.S. Propaganda, Argument and Fact
For students and young people who may be reading this essay, I want to clarify an important distinction. The distinction is vital both to international relations and to breaking our political gridlock at home.
When Putin tries to persuade us that it’s better not to remove Assad from power, or that we Yanks shouldn’t call ourselves “exceptional,” that’s an opinion
. It’s not propaganda.
We may disagree. But we can’t call it “false” in any meaningful sense, because that’s apparently what Putin sincerely believes. There is nothing wrong with an opinion sincerely and accurately expressed, whether it comes from one of our own politicians or the leader of a foreign power.
Whatever reasoning Putin (or anyone else) states to justify and support his opinion is argument
. That, too, is not propaganda, as long as it is based on accurate, or at least plausible, statements of fact. When opinion and argument supporting it shade into propaganda is when they try to get us to believe so-called “facts” that just are not so.
For example, there is virtually no credible evidence that Syrian rebels were responsible for the chemical weapons attacks of August 21. The sarin-containing artillery shells came from an Assad-controlled suburb of Damascus and landed in a rebel-controlled area. They were of sophisticated design and construction, of the same type used by Assad’s forces in other contexts. The rebels simply don’t have the industrial infrastructure to make such shells, or the equipment to launch them. And there is no evidence that anyone who does could have have given, or did give, the rebels such weapons. Finally, although we Yanks want to keep the details secret to preserve our intelligence-gathering capability, we overheard Assad’s own officers discussing the attack beforehand.
If this were a court of law, and not just international opinion, the evidence against Assad’s regime would be enough even to satisfy our Yankee “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal trials. We would call it “overwhelming circumstantial evidence.” We would credit it because direct
evidence, such as a confession, would be very hard to get. As we know from recent history, Assad had every practical and political reason to deny even his possession
of chemical weapons, let alone their use. He did so until the very moment when he agreed to surrender them for destruction.
There is virtually no evidence
on other side—only argument
that the rebels had used chemical weapons before. And even that argument is shaky. It’s based primarily on lack
of reliable intelligence about those small earlier attacks, rather than any positive knowledge of rebel use.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan was one of our wisest and most insightful politicians. He once said, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.” That insight applies to everyone, from candidates for mayor to leaders of great foreign powers like Vladimir Putin.
When a writer states his opinion and supports it with arguments based on fact, that is legitimate and proper, no matter how strongly you, I, or anyone may disagree. But when he tries to get us to believe things that just are not so, or that just did not happen, that is propaganda.
Skillful propagandists try to get people to believe false “facts” in all sorts of ways. Most often, they appeal to emotion, not reason. They excite nationalism, racial and ethnic identification, religion, and other sorts of tribal pride. They exploit irrational “peeves,” like the distaste that many Yanks have for China, Iran, Russia and Muslims generally. They try to incite fear, greed and hate.
We Yanks have no shortage of propagandists ourselves. The Madison Avenue folk who create political ads for money are among the most skilled propagandists in human history. They try to incite the most basic human emotions—fear, greed and hate—with visual images and sound bites that strike deep in listeners’ memories and emotions.
So-called “pundits” at Fox at somewhat less skilled, but they make it up in volume, by constant repetition. And they have two advantages over the ad people. They have much more time, especially in propagandizing couch potatoes who leave their TV on, glued to Fox, all day. Second, they make their propaganda entertaining with their shouting, sarcasm and other verbal and visual antics.
The crucial distinction here is between opinion and the argument that supports it, on the one hand, and facts on the other. Proving facts requires evidence
. Stating opinions and making argument don’t, although both work better with supporting evidence.
An example may be helpful. It is no secret that former Vice President Dick Cheney has tried to justify our invasion and occupation of Iraq since before they began. Many times, he insisted that Saddam had had important contacts with Al Qaeda before 9/11. He kept repeating that assertion every chance he got.
Eventually, the US intelligence community and every reputable major newspaper in our nation refuted this so-called “fact.” But a year later, about a third of Americans still believed it, according to our polls.
propaganda! Through constant repetition of falsehood, Cheney had convinced a substantial minority of Americans of something that just was not so. Their belief strongly influenced their opinions about the war that has cost us so much in blood and treasure.
The Nazis invented the propaganda technique of repeating falsehoods as if they were true. They called it “the big lie.” Actual experiments showed they could get people to believe big lies if authority figures repeated them often enough.
Putin may have been trying to do the same thing in insisting that the rebels used the sarin. He’s a very smart guy, and Russia has excellent intelligence. The KGB and its successors probably have better human
intelligence than we, although we may have the edge in technological eavesdropping.
So it’s doubtful that Putin believed what he said. He has access to much the same information that we do. Yet whether or not he did believe, the technique of repeating a lie or doubtful intelligence over and over again is a classic technique of propagandists.
The gold coin of persuasion is credibility. Every time you lie or stretch the truth, you lose credibility. That’s why our President is so understated. He was trained at our nation’s top school of persuasion, Harvard Law School, which teaches every lawyer to preserve his or her credibility like the rarest treasure. (I know. I went there, too.)
Putin made a serious rookie error in trying to put over a fairly obvious lie—that the rebels used the sarin. His attempt to convince us of that falsehood badly damaged his credibility for the rest of his message, much of which was well directed. For a man so smart to have made such a rookie blunder could only have come from his experience in Russia, where he controls the electronic media and can get most people to believe whatever he says.
This point is another reason for encouraging direct communication between leaders of major powers and other powers’ people. Foreigners are inherently much less credulous toward even a great leader’s pronouncements than his or her own people. The discipline of maintaining credibility in order to convince foreigners is a good one. It will encourage a global standard for credibility and thus more effective and fruitful international dialogue.
When I was a kid, I attended what was then one of the best public high schools in the United States: University High School in Los Angeles, right near UCLA. In my social-studies course, we had a two-week unit on propaganda and how to identify it.
I don’t know whether we still have such instruction in our high schools today, but we should. It would help citizens understand when Putin is properly arguing and trying to convince us, and when he is propagandizing us. And it might even help save our democracy at home.