That America is in trouble, and headed for more of it, is becoming received wisdom across the political aisle. For many on the Right, the Obama presidency heralds a new political age which they don’t like, just as many on the Left believed that the presidency of George W. Bush indicated that the end of the American experiment was nigh.
While the right-wing media regularly includes warnings that Obama has ushered in politico-economic trends that bode ill for America’s future, their counterparts on the Left are beginning to admit their doubts about our whole enterprise. Today, over at Vox, Matt Yglesias confesses that American democracy may well be doomed after all.
Yglesias is hardly a fringe character, rather an embodiment of Millennial liberalism. Once a mover and shaker over at the influential (and notorious to conservatives) JournoList, Yglesias has undeniable cachet among Beltway influencers, so when he says the country is pretty much cooked, it matters.
As usual over at Vox, his argument has a lot of flashcard-friendly facts and figures to back it up, and his conclusion — that political paralysis rooted in deep partisanship is only getting worse and threatens America’s constitutional democracy — is difficult to refute entirely. That said, Yglesias’ prognostications about America’s future course, including that the United States may turn into a gigantic, nuclear-armed Honduras, seem far-fetched, notwithstanding the apparent desire of Vox writers and readers to invite all of Central America to live in this country.
Yglesias gives short shrift to notions of a military coup or even a second American Civil War, and I don’t think he’s correct here. While it is difficult for anybody who knows the Pentagon well to imagine American generals and admirals getting together to overthrow the civilian government — that would require obscene amounts of PowerPoint and might endanger top brass golden parachutes with Beltway Bandits — the notion of a Civil War 2.0, however terrifying it may be, needs to be faced squarely, if we wish to avoid that awful fate.
America in the 21st century runs little risk of becoming Honduras Grande, but if current politico-economic trends continue much longer, we might well wind up a lot like Yugoslavia. That statement is sure to be controversial, since few Americans, citizens of the global hegemon and to many of them a most exceptional country, like to be compared with a relatively small Balkan federation that collapsed into wars and genocide a generation ago.
Yet the collapse of Yugoslavia offers several cautionary tales to Americans today, and if they are wise they will heed them and set the United States on a correction course before it is too late. As one who witnessed the dreadful collapse of Yugoslavia and its terrible aftermaths — including the seemingly permanent impoverishment of Southeastern Europe, mired in crime, corruption, and extremism — I would very much like America to discover a far happier fate.
However, some of the parallels are eerie and troubling. The differences must be explained up-front. Yugoslavia at its collapse had less than one-tenth of America’s population now, and its system of government was a socialist dictatorship, albeit one of a relatively enlightened kind. Notwithstanding a very nasty secret police force, Yugoslavia as nurtured under the charismatic Tito was a good deal more pleasant place to live than anywhere in the Soviet Bloc. Yugoslavs were free to travel abroad and, after the early 1950s, the repressive state apparatus didn’t have to throw many dissidents in prison, as public shaming, including threats of unemployment and loss of housing, cowed most would-be complainers into towing the party line, at least in public.
The root of Yugoslavia’s collapse was economic, particularly its parlous state finances. During the Cold War, Tito, who broke with Stalin in 1948 and thereby shattered Communist unity in Eastern Europe, was able to get big Western loans, since NATO viewed Yugoslavia as a necessary anti-Soviet bulwark in Europe, and with these billions of dollars, at low interest rates, the country developed a wide array of industries under its unique market socialist model.
Unfortunately, the oil shocks of 1973 ultimately undid this Balkan ponzi scheme, and as the cost of borrowing foreign money became prohibitive, Yugoslavia’s economy began to creak. At root, the country’s current operations, including funding the bloated state sector, depended on borrowed foreign money that Yugoslavia could no longer afford.
After Tito’s death in 1980, amid Western fears that Yugoslavia might implode to Moscow’s benefit, NATO signaled to Belgrade that, if they got their fiscal house in order, the money might keep flowing. In response, the Communist Party ordered Sergej Krajgher, a party stalwart from Slovenia, to see what had to be done to repair the country’s mounting socio-economic mess.
After two years of study, Krajgher’s commission in 1983 released its report, which correctly assessed that Yugoslavia needed to get its economic house in order to avoid financial, and then political, collapse. Specifically, Krajgher recommended the sell-off of unprofitable state enterprises, allowing more market forces to work, and above all comprehensive fiscal reform to get Yugoslavia off the drug of foreign loans. This was all excellent advice.
Its effect, however, was zero. The report was ignored, and Communist officials never made any effort to seriously implement any of Krajgher’s solid recommendations. It was too politically painful to make cuts, so the government pretended there was no problem. Until it was too late.
Comparisons to Obama are unavoidable. Early in his first term, he empowered a bi-partisan board, known colloquially as the Simpson-Bowles commission, to investigate improving the long-term condition of America’s state finances. The commission’s findings were thorough and persuasive, and they offered a way out of the country’s fiscal morass. At a minimum, Simpson-Bowles set the terms for a necessary debate. But Obama inexplicably pretended that his own commission ever existed. No debate ensued, since discussing cuts of government benefits to voters is electorally toxic — Republicans are no more eager to talk about this pain than Democrats — and nothing happened.
America, possessing the global reserve currency, has a margin for fiscal error enjoyed by no other country, but at some point the game of borrowing vast amounts of foreign money to fund our government will end, and end badly. The U.S. national debt now exceeds $18 trillion, which given the fact that only a little more than 120 million Americans actually pay federal taxes, amounts to almost $150,000 of debt per taxpayer. To say nothing of ballooning state and local government indebtedness. Rhode Island, where I lived for many years, witnessing its love of other people’s money to pay for an unsustainable welfare state, is so deeply in debt that it’s as bad off as Greece, as even the mainstream media admits.
There is no reason to think this will end pleasantly, given the track record of every other country that has gotten itself deeply into long-term debt and dependency on borrowed foreign money to pay for current liabilities. Once doubts of any sort emerge about the U.S. dollar’s status as the global reserve currency, the rot will emerge rapidly and America’s fiscal nightmare will be here, with a vengeance. That reckoning can be delayed for years, even decades, but when it comes, as it eventually will, it will come suddenly, at which point there will be no palatable remedy.
Possessing only the weak dinar, Yugoslavia had no such margin for error or avoidance, and the party’s punting on economic reform meant that the fiscal collapse would come sooner than later. By the late 1980s, interest rates and unemployment were both sky-high and Belgrade was running out of hard (i.e. real) money. Repeated devaluations of the dinar did little good, and even a belated IMF effort in 1988 to float Yugoslavia a bit longer, in exchange for promises of real market reforms, could not stave off disaster. It was too late. Political dysfunction had become fatal, making economic reform impossible.
Worse, economic problems, including unemployment and inflation that impoverished Yugoslavs rapidly — by the time the country went over the cliff in 1991, real incomes were half what they had been a generation before — exacerbated the country’s serious ethnic grievances. When combined with economic emergency, Yugoslavia’s ethnic politics proved a lethal combination that led directly to wars and genocide.
Yugoslavia was a very diverse country, ethnically and religiously, and the divisions between groups were real and serious. Unlike 21st century Americans, Yugoslavs were under no illusions that “diversity is our greatest strength” — they knew the opposite was the truth — and the Communists went to great lengths to keep ethnic peace by banning what we would term “hate speech” while mandating that the official doctrine that Yugoslavia’s diverse peoples really loved each other deeply be placed at the level of quasi-religious dogma.
Rewriting history, to show certain ethnic groups as victims and others as perpetrators of race-based crimes, took its toll, since Yugoslavs knew this was too simple, and was being used as a political weapon by the authorities. Aggressive “affirmative action” in education and employment — Belgrade termed it the “ethnic key” — was another perennial sore-spot for many citizens, since ethnic status and ties often mattered more than competence. Needless to add, this hardly helped the economy either.
Perhaps worst of all, by preventing any honest discussion of ethnic matters, the Communists had a perverse knack of making each of Yugoslavia’s many ethnic groups feel that it was uniquely aggrieved. Thus any Serb or Croat or Albanian or Bosnian Muslim, could look at similar events and quietly determine that his group was really the persecuted one in the Communist-mandated racial games that were enforced by the authorities.
When the Communist monopoly on power began to wane in the mid-1980s, as across Eastern Europe, and the Yugoslav media began taking on taboo topics, nothing was more discussed than ethnic politics and their messy history. It quickly became a firestorm. To cite the most damaging example, around 1985 the Serbian media began reporting violent crimes committed against Serbs by Albanians in Kosovo, which was a majority-Albanian province that enjoyed self-government under Tito’s system.
While Albanians did commit crimes against Serbs, the opposite was also true, yet the Belgrade media focused on the former while ignoring the latter. Accounts of rapes of Serbian women — some real, many imagined — served to whip up nationalist fervor. The press, with Serbia’s Communist Party increasingly behind them, since they realized that nationalism was a powerful motivator for potential voters, indulged in regular accounts of lurid Albanian crimes against Serbs.
A classic case was that of Djordje Martinović, a Serb in Kosovo who in 1986 claimed he had been brutalized by Albanian thugs, including being anally raped with a bottle, in a horrible hate crime. The Serbian media went wild with the story, which inflamed rising nationalist passions. Albanian protests that the media was wrong made no headway with Serbs, who preferred what I have elsewhere termed The Narrative over facts. The subsequent revelation that Martinović had faked his attack, having injured himself in an act of self-pleasuring gone seriously wrong, got a lot less media attention than the initial story.
By then the damage was done, as anybody familiar with Yugoslavia’s tragic demise knows. A colorless Communist functionary on the make, Slobodan Milošević, realized that nationalism was the ticket to political success as Communism waned. He made the fate of Serbs in Kosovo, real and imagined, his major plank, and he exploited this toxic environment created by the media to whip up a frenzy that he could exploit, and he did.
By 1989, Milošević was the master of Serbia, and he promptly cancelled Kosovo’s autonomy, reducing the Albanians there to second-class status under the Serbs. This was payback for all the crimes perpetrated by Albanians against innocent Serbs. Of course, radicalization inevitably begets counter-radicalization, and before long Croats, Albanians, and all the non-Serbian groups in Yugoslavia were digging up their own nationalist grievances and skewed history to counter the Serbs. War and genocide were soon to follow, in a tragedy that was especially poignant because it was eminently avoidable.
Playing political games with race and ethnicity in any multinational society is a dangerous thing. Obama, by promising that he wanted to be president of all Americans, then governing as a highly partisan Democrat, has laid the groundwork for a hazardous future for the United States, hardly helped by his public indulging of black nationalism, particularly his incautious discussion of crimes both real and imagined against African Americans. However verboten discussion of white nationalism is at present among polite Americans, it is unavoidable that this will become an issue in the future, with potentially explosive consequences — to say nothing of the rise of Hispanic and Asian nationalisms too, as the United States becomes even more diverse than Yugoslavia was.
Managing this increasingly fissiparous country as economic prospects diminish will challenge the most gifted politicians. Indulging in ethnic resentments as a substitute for solutions to vexing politico-economic problems only makes things go from bad to worse, sometimes rapidly and painfully. With both our parties increasingly beholden to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street, average Americans of all backgrounds will not be happy that they are bequeathing a life of less affluence and opportunity to their children. In such a time of troubles, playing ethno-racial political games as a substitute for reform is deeply irresponsible.
It would be nice if Democrats and Republicans played better together, particularly on the budget and borrowing money. It would be especially nice if they seriously addressed issues of rising economic inequality and diminishing opportunities for average Americans. But it is imperative that they not fan the flames of ethnic and racial resentments if they wish to avoid a terrible outcome for our country.
The fate of Yugoslavia was anything but preordained. The United States, whatever its problems, is a far richer and better-run state than anything created by Tito. But the same threats lurk, particularly those of economic degradation caused by debt and made impossible to fix thanks to toxic racial politics. America need not become a vast Balkan horror show — I think it’s more likely in coming decades to become a huge nuclear-armed Brazil, with entrenched economic inequality, often among racial lines, that I find noxious and unworthy of our country — but the fate of Yugoslavia must be avoided at all costs. Our next Civil War would be much more vicious and protracted than the last one, have no illusions.
As the situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, with the Russian military and its “rebel” minions never having honored the Minsk-brokered “ceasefire” for even an hour, something like low-grade panic is setting in among NATO capitals. Western elites have a tough time sizing up Putin and his agenda realistically, for reasons I’ve elaborated, and the situation seems not to be improving.
German has a delightfully cynical line, die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt (hope dies last), that sums up much of the wishful thinking that currently holds sway in Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC. As the reality that Putin knows he is at war against Ukraine, and may seek a wider war against NATO too, is a prospect so terrifying that thousands of Western diplomats and “foreign policy experts” would rather not ponder it, so they don’t.
A classic example comes in a recent press report about how Western foreign ministries are striving to prevent Putin from doing more to destabilize Eastern Europe. Amidst much dithering about how to deter Putin — more sanctions? maybe some, but not too many, weapons for Ukraine? how about some really biting hashtags? — NATO leaders aren’t coming up with anything that can be termed a coherent policy, much less a strategy.
But the icing on the cake is this explanation from one of the anonymous DC officials who always provide the basis of such press accounts:
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has made military threats against Kiev, Riga, Tallinn, and even Warsaw. His air force has also waged a harassment campaign on the fringes of NATO airspace. But one of the US sources noted: “I think it’s all a bluff. He has enough people around him in the defense and foreign ministries who would tell him that [a military confrontation with NATO] is just going too far”.
In the first place, there is simply no evidence that Putin considers a military confrontation with NATO to be “going too far,” despite the fact that, in any military and economic sense, that is a true statement. The notion that Putin is simply bluffing, it’s all some sort of dangerous and expensive ruse, is the sort of nonsense that passes for wisdom in too many Western governments. When the alternative is too scary to contemplate, denial works for a time, until the Russian bear comes crashing through the front door, sharpened teeth and claws at the ready.
This persistent inability to not understand how the Kremlin works is a venerable tradition, thanks to the perennial sin of mirror imaging. Simply put, this is believing that other systems work more or less as yours does. Hence any Western diplomat falls back on assumptions that, really, Putin’s government functions like that of any NATO or EU state, albeit with an odd number of photo ops shirtless and cavorting with dangerous animals, plus executive meetings dominated by vodka shots rather than PowerPoint.
Unfortunately, this is simply not true. There is ample evidence that Putin today has a very small, incestuous circle of advisers, all of them from the “power ministries.” As I explained recently:
It’s increasingly clear that the security sector, what Russians term the special services, are running the show. They are Putin’s natural powerbase, his “comfort zone” in Western parlance, plus they are the guarantor of his maintaining power as the economic crisis worsens. Current reports indicate that Putin’s inner circle now is made up entirely of siloviki, to use the Russian term, men from the special services: National Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev, Federal Security Service (FSB) head Aleksandr Bortnikov, Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) head Mikhail Fradkov, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.
Patrushev headed the FSB from 1999, the beginning of Putin’s presidency, to 2008, and was a previously a career KGB officer, serving in Leningrad counterintelligence just like Putin: and just like Putin, he is a Chekist to his core. Current FSB director Bortnikov, who took over from Patrushev in 2008, is another career Chekist who joined the KGB after college and, yet again, comes out of the Leningrad office. Fradkov is not officially a Chekist by background, having spent the early years of his Kremlin career in foreign trade matters, but he was “close” to the KGB during that time, and he has headed the SVR, the successor to the KGB’s elite First Chief Directorate, since 2007; it says something about Putin’s confidence in him that Fradkov survived the 2010 debacle of the exposure of the SVR’s Illegals network in the United States, which was nearly as demoralizing to the SVR as the Snowden Operation has been for U.S. intelligence. The last, Shoygu, who has headed the powerful defense ministry since 2012, is not a military man by background, yet has longstanding ties to military intelligence (GRU).
Russia’s Foreign Ministry exists for show, it has no real impact on making Russian foreign policy, it simply mouths the line dictated by the siloviki who actually run Putin’s Russia. Monitoring the most recent disinformation emitted by Sergei Lavrov and other Foreign Ministry mouthpieces is morbidly entertaining, but anybody who takes this for the Kremlin’s actual engine of foreign policy-making is way off course.
There’s nothing new about this. During the Cold War, countless Western officials and experts listened carefully to every syllable uttered by Soviet diplomats, reading obscure Kremlin tea leaves in the hope of deciphering something important. It was all maskirovka, as we learned after the Soviet Union collapsed. From 1917 to 1991, it was party hacks, secret policemen, and generals who ran the USSR, in an awkward triumvirate. They paid no more attention to Soviet diplomats on important matters than Western governments would pay to their grounds-keeping staff.
Similarly, Cold War Western “experts” comforted themselves that, much angry Marxist-Leninist bluster from the Kremlin notwithstanding, deep down leaders in Moscow were “like us” and were basically the rational, well adjusted people that all Western leaders feel themselves to be. Again, they were wrong. In private, Soviet politicos, spies, and military types uttered the exact same trash-talk — harsh denunciations of the West based in Bolshevik fantasy ideology rather than politico-economic reality — that they stated in public. No system, no matter how policed, can exist in a totally bifurcated reality, with one side “just for show.” You can pull off Potemkin in a village, never in a whole country.
The awful truth is that, having been permitted to steal Crimea and a good chunk of Eastern Ukraine, without any reaction from the West that actually frightens him, Putin feels he has a green-light to keep pushing. He may push Europe and the world into a horrible war. Denying this, averting eyes, does not change any of it.
The Kremlin today is led by a former KGB colonel, a Chekist to his core, who hates the West and seeks to avenge his country’s 1991 humiliation through aggression and conquest. His advisers are men like himself, mired in KGB-derived conspiracy-thinking and driven by revenge and hate; that Putin and his inner circle may think they have divine sanction for their actions does not bode well for world peace.
Everybody mirror images — this is why Kremlin assessments of Western governments, which sound insane to us, invariably depict them as led by a shadowy, conspiratorial cabal of hard men with a clear and focused agenda, since this is how Russia actually works — but some kinds of mirror imaging are more dangerous than others. Not looking Putinism squarely in the eye, right now, runs the risk of horrors enveloping Europe, and the world, sooner than you think.
It is a bad thing for all of us that Russia, the world’s biggest country, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, is run by a resentful man, driven by hatreds, who seeks only the counsel of men exactly like himself in outlook and experience. It is even worse that Western governments persist in magical thinking about Russia, despite mountains of evidence about what is really going on in Moscow. NATO’s window to deter major war is closing quickly.
The issue of online trolls doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has been getting some mainstream media attention, finally. The reality that Russia buys, or at least rents, trolls by the battalion to harass, intimidate and make life unpleasant for anybody who opposes Moscow policy, while employing aggressive agitprop to further Putinist propaganda, isn’t exactly news, but it’s nevertheless welcome to see mainstream outlets doing some digging into what’s going on.
I’ve dealt with more than my share of Kremlin trolls ever since the Edward Snowden story broke in June 2013. As a major spokesman for the anti-Snowden viewpoint, as well as the only former NSA counterintelligence officer who’s talked publicly about this case at length, I’ve gotten my share of grief and then some from online Pals of Putin, with their usual modus operandi: smears, lies, slurs, and threats.
Some of these Kremlin clowns played a role in trying to get me fired from the Naval War College last summer and, more seriously, they issued threats of violence against me and my family, even posting my home address online. This is what the block function on Twitter is for and they haven’t silenced me yet, nor are they going to.
Of course, their antics continue. Over at Kremlin Trolls blog, authored by the estimable Andrew Weisburd — you should be following both — there was a revealing takedown of a recent online smear of me by someone who pretends to be an American and fanatical supporter of Ukraine…who s/he actually is, however, is an interesting question. Disinformation takes many forms in the Internet age.
Similarly, Russian Insider blog, which purports to be run by “a group of expats living in Russia who felt that coverage of Russia is biased and inaccurate,” but which faithfully follows the Kremlin line, in vehement form, on all issues, has deemed me worthy of smearing on a regular basis. Their latest active measure against The XX Committee is its usual mix of lies and hysteria. That a mere blogger is worthy of this much Kremlin attention says something about Putin’s Russia.
For all their nastiness, most Kremlin trolls are not especially competent, and some seem to be less than wholly literate. A recent example was provided by John Helmer, an Australian who blogs prolifically at Dances With Bears. Helmer worked for several governments, including the Carter administration, but is best known for his writings on Russia, where he has lived for years. He is reliably pro-Putin — this may have something to do with the fact that KGB officers have named him as one of their agents going back to the 1980’s — and has been involved in smears against other Americans who are public critics of Putin.
However, Helmer, who is not a young man, is not an especially competent disinformateur, as demonstrated by his recent effort to smear me. His jumping off point is my recent expose of Brenda Connors, the hilarious inept Naval War College professor who got her fifteen minutes of fame for being the lead on the Pentagon’s effort to assess Putin as autistic based on…well, nothing actually.
Before delving into pages of CIA-oriented conspiracy theorizing that would strain the brain of even a hardened Chekist, Helmer cites my piece on Connors:
A faculty member at the US Naval War College until last year reported anonymously in a US intelligence community website on February 6…
What part of this blog, where my name and bio are prominently posted, is “anonymous”? Moreover, this blog is mine and mine alone, and I can assure you that prominent people in the U.S. Intelligence Community have been, ahem, less than pleased about some of my criticisms of how they do business, particularly regarding the Snowden debacle.
It’s perhaps a positive sign that Kremlin trolls can’t be bothered to master even basic facts about their targets. But their smears do matter, they have the ability to silence voices that need to be heard as the West confronts Russia in, at best, Cold War 2.0, and perhaps something much worse, soon. Don’t let Putin’s trolls win, there’s a lot at stake here.
That the West is quaking down to its foundations at present seems broadly understood by many Westerners, based on numerous opinion polls. The population of the West, despite its vast wealth, is mired in self-doubt and worries about its future. Recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East are part of this concern. Resurgent Russia, led by the boastfully confident Vladimir Putin, is openly mocking ceasefires in Ukraine, which he agreed to with major NATO members, while the ink remains less than fully dry. Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues its murderous march across Iraq and Syria, undeterred by intermittent U.S.-led airstrikes, butchering and decapitating for the cameras now on the Mediterranean shore. Rome is preparing for war on Libya, a troubled state pushed past the point of coherence by botched NATO intervention in 2011, so grave does the threat appear to Italian eyes.
In contrast, President Obama sees little threat at all, or at least nothing that can be termed “Islamic.” Recent comments from the White House do not inspire confidence that Obama and his national security staff have taken the full measure of the threat emanating from the advancing Islamic State, ISIS for short. The mainstream media has come around to an understanding that ISIS, as its name implies, is grounded in a vehement ideology wrapped up in a literalist and extreme version of Sunni Islam. They are unquestionably violent extremists, as the White House has noted, but of a particular kind which is identifiably Islamic. That the Islamic State has nothing to do with “real” Islam is a epiphany that only overeducated Westerners can witness. This is more evidence that, to paraphrase Orwell, some ideas are so silly that you have to be an intellectual to believe them.
ISIS is so absurdly, sick-cartoonishly violent that they surpass the ability of post-modern Westerners, what I have referred to as the WEIRD contingent, to comprehend what’s going on. Having never been taught about the West’s long, often unpleasant history with Islam, except to emphasize Western misdeeds, grasping that ISIS is tapping into a virulent and violent strain of Islam that has deep historical roots is impossible. WEIRDos, led by Obama, know all about the Crusades, or at least think they do, but have never pondered Tours 732, Kosovo 1389, Constantinople 1453, much less Vienna 1527 and 1683. Does even one American in a thousand know how the “shores of Tripoli” wound up in the Marines’ Hymn?
Moreover, the testosterone-laden appeal of the bloody and hateful ISIS message to a disturbing number of young men (and women), including thousands of Westerners accustomed to comfort, is incomprehensible to WEIRDos. White House messaging that employment opportunities will fix this problem is not only untrue, it’s the opposite of the truth. Teenaged fanatics, many of them far from pious in their faith, are seeking to join ISIS precisely to reject the softness and decadence of the Western post-modern way of life, which they despise and quite literally wish to kill. To date, this warrior’s call to adventure appeals mainly to losers, criminals, and the psychologically unbalanced, but it may not remain confined to such déclassé elements.
Yet ISIS represents a second-tier threat to the West at present. If Obama should find the backbone to issue orders, U.S. airpower and special operations forces can decapitate the Islamic State in its heartland in a few months. While ISIS-inspired jihadists will create mayhem in Europe, and eventually America too, these will mostly be low-level attacks of the sort recently witnessed in Paris and Copenhagen: evil but limited. In the West to date, ISIS-inspired jihadists, many of them merely wannabes, are incapable of pulling off “big weddings” that will kill hundreds of innocents. Periodic incidents of homegrown terrorism may become simply “how we live now” in the West, something that will change lives and lifestyles but will not overturn civilization. There is no security solution to this challenge and a political fix seems impossible, since real issues cannot be discussed honestly, so increasing violent extremism in our midst looks like the West’s new normal.
Russia, however, is a different matter. The world’s biggest country, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, and led by a man seething with hatred and resentment against the West, represents a potentially existential threat to the Western way of life — and countless lives. While Vladimir Putin does not seek a nuclear war, he is willing to gamble with hard power, with all its attendant risks, in a fashion no Western leader has countenanced in decades. In recent months, Putin’s embrace of duplicitous diplomacy backed by Special War and periodic outbursts of conventional combat, most recently at Debaltseve, another stinging — because needless — defeat for Ukraine, have delivered victory after victory for the Kremlin.
Strategically speaking, none of this should be happening. Notwithstanding that Ukraine’s deeply flawed leadership, which has refrained from real mobilization much less reality-based war planning, has been a highly cooperative adversary for the Kremlin, Putin has been winning round after round of poker with Kyiv and NATO despite holding mediocre cards. Putin’s Russia, hobbled by sanctions and the collapse in oil prices, is no Soviet Union: in economic terms, it’s dwarfed by the European Union, while militarily, anything resembling a European war would be a disaster for Russia. Americans are advised to think of Putin’s Russia (143 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 14K) as basically Mexico (114 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 11K) with thousands of nukes and fiercely anti-Western leadership.
Yet Putin’s streak of wins cannot be construed as anything but impressive, particularly considering how weak his cards really are. With his recent Minsk escapade, where he got terrified German and French leaders to sign off on a “ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine which Russian-backed fighters never honored at all, instead opting to push harder — with weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and skilled commanders coming from Russia, mind you — Putin demonstrated his contempt for the West, as well as how he plans to establish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe, breaking NATO in the process, preferably without major war.
How important Putin’s grand strategic goal is to the Kremlin should not be underestimated. He aims to achieve what the mighty Soviet Union never could, winning Moscow’s control over Eastern Europe — and thereby pushing America out of Europe, at least de facto — without major war and extended occupation. Whether he can actually pull this off remains to be seen, but it’s not difficult to see why, surveying the last twelve months, Putin is brimming with self-confidence, while viewing the West with sneering contempt.
The risk to world peace at present, since Putin’s continuing to gamble with high stakes is now a given, is that Russia will eventually cross a NATO “redline.” It’s impossible to know if the Atlantic Alliance would really go to war over an aggressive Kremlin provocation against a Baltic republic, which is clearly an attractive option for Moscow now. If the West has a redline in Eastern Europe, where exactly it is seems to be unknown to Western leaders, except in a highly formal (and therefore meaningless) sense. Given Obama’s shaky track record with redlines, we should expect the Russians to keep pushing, and in so doing, they may go too far, causing the Third World War.
Or perhaps not. Given the dismal conduct of Western diplomacy over Ukraine, with bouts of weakness amidst bursts of sheer panic, it’s worth pondering if there is anything Europeans in 2015 will fight for, even their own homelands. Over the last generation, Europeans have become accustomed to their comfortable, post-modern lifestyle, with ample state support, where war is impossible, so defense budgets can be cut down to nearly nothing. This is indeed a lovely life — which is why I spend as many months of the year in my rustico, high in the Alps, as possible — yet it cannot last much longer without major changes. Demographics alone will undermine the post-modern European project, as too few children are being born to sustain such generous welfare states and their attendant dolce vita.
Even before demographic demise, the Russians are coming. The Kremlin, which is winning every diplomatic fight and battle in Ukraine, sees no reason to stop now. As Western sanctions inflict pain, doubling-down by Moscow seems a rational choice, as was evident months ago. Putin represents a drastically different vision of Europe’s future than what passes for received wisdom among Europe’s elites. Mired in old-think, including a downright nineteenth century take on force, war, and diplomacy, Putin represents an atavism, a crude, outmoded version of ourselves — the angry white male of liberal nightmares — that Western progressives believed had been killed off by the gender and social revolutions of the 1960’s.
Putin, a staunch traditionalist in matters of belief and social order, oozes contempt for the post-modern West, viewing it as feeble, feminine, and dying. He rejects the European post-Cold War consensus in toto, and seeks to remake the continent along Russian lines. He has promised Russians glory and order, not comfort and decadence. While he cannot succeed in the long run, for reasons I’ve already elaborated, he can create enormous damage along the way, as well as creating conditions which will mandate a return to traditional values in any countries that wish to survive in a Russian-dominated Europe.
Analogies to Adolf Hitler are hazardous, but some appear obvious in the case of Vladimir Putin. In the first place, Hitler was shaped profoundly by the collapse of Imperial Germany in 1918, just as Putin was by the demise of the USSR in 1991. Both men viewed the state they served ambivalently — Hitler wasn’t much of a monarchist and Putin wasn’t a diehard Marxist either — but defeat was a life-changing ordeal that created new political and social realities which, in time, Hitler and Putin exploited masterfully.
From 1918, Hitler took the lesson that Germany needed moral rearmament more than anything else since, in Nazi telling, collapse at the end of the Great War was caused by moral shortcomings more than military defeats. Thus Hitler’s famous line that, though he was a socialist, he had no need to nationalize German factories because “I shall nationalize the people.” Similarly, Putin considers that the sudden implosion of the USSR was not due to economic or military weakness, rather to loss of faith in the Soviet system. Such a withering away of national morale, and therefore of the state itself, is something Putin will not have happen on his watch. Hence the emphasis on nationalism, unity, propaganda, and religious imagery to bind citizens to the state — which makes a better motivator of average Russians than Marxism-Leninism ever was — as in venerable Muscovite tradition.
Also like Hitler did in the mid-1930’s, Putin in a few months has managed to overturn European diplomacy, through clever and cautious use of force, remaking it in his own, tough image (though Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC, haven’t quite realized this yet). By re-writing the rule-book of international relations, recasting it in terms of force and will, Hitler and Putin alike created a new diplomatic reality, despite their own weakness, that bears little resemblance to the happy never-never-land of conferences, summits, heated debates over beef subsidies, and cocktail parties that polite Europeans thought constituted statecraft. That naive vision has been steamrolled by the Kremlin over the past year, as surely as Ukrainian volunteers have been crushed under Russian tank treads.
At a certain level, what Putin represents to Western post-moderns is so terrifying that they simply deny reality, individually and collectively. Of course, continuing to deny what Putin is, and what his Russia wants, and is willing to kill and die for, will only encourage more Kremlin aggression and game-playing with nuclear weapons, so a strong dose of reality would be welcome in NATO capitals, and soon, if we wish to deter Putin while he still can be deterred.
However, I am decreasingly optimistic that Western leaders will rise to the occasion in time. I have been sharply critical of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s candy entrepreneur turned war president, for his diffident leadership as Putin devours his country, one bite at a time. In good post-modern European fashion, Poroshenko has emphasized hashtags, peace vigils, and tough talk (not action), rather than national mobilization and coherent strategy-making, which is why Ukraine is losing badly. Yet NATO deserves sharper criticism still, since their military and economic power dwarfs Ukraine’s, while Western leaders seem every bit as mired in fantasy thinking and hope-as-strategy when it comes to Putin as anybody in Kyiv.
The essential incomprehensibility of Putin’s Russia, which after 1991 was supposed to have become “like us” in matters economic, political, social and sexual, albeit at a languid Russian pace, looms large in the minds of Westerners today, who utter nervous laughter about Putin and his shirtless photo-ops with dangerous animals, rather than pondering what this says about Russia. Some are slowly noticing that twenty-first century Russia has embraced values which are not merely unlike ours, they are the actually the opposite of them.
The WEIRD take on Putin has been perfectly captured by a piece in The New York Times Magazine, authored by just the self-absorbed, nebbishy sort who both writes and reads the Grey Lady. The author, a Russian Jew who came to America as a child, covers his subject with roughly the same dispassion as a Palestinian would write about Israelis. To learn what makes Putin’s Russia tick, the author submitted himself to a week of non-stop Russian TV, while holed up in a swanky Manhattan hotel, fed with room service finery to counteract all the Kremlin agitprop.
Lots Seinfeld-y inside jokes about calling therapists ensue, amidst constant jibes about how latently homosexual Putin and his testosterone-driven Russia really are. What comes through clearly, however, is that popular culture under Putin has created a mindset that is nationalist and firmly anti-Western in virtually every way; at times, it drips with hatred towards the West, seeing nefarious plots against Russia everywhere. That Russians are a bunch of uncouth idiots is made obvious. But the crux of the matter, as revealed in the piece’s title, “Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth,” is that Russia has simply opted out of the post-modern Western way of life, emphasizing outmoded values such as masculinity, faith, plus traditional sex and gender roles, in a thoroughly atavistic manner.
Anybody who has met actual Russians knows how little they, even the cultured ones, have been touched by post-modern Western mores on race, gender, and sexuality. They remain comfortable with the tough, ugly, dog-eat-dog world we have. I have tried on multiple occasions to explain “trigger warnings” to educated Russians, but they never believe me and burst out laughing. What causes this — Communism? Byzantinism? Tsarism? something in Russian water and/or DNA? — is debatable but that Russians simply live in a different mental universe than twenty-first century Westerners do is not.
Besides, Russia’s return to atavism is more disturbing to Westerners than any ISIS madness. At a deep, if unstated level, Muslims acting like barbarians has been part of our script for so long that it fails to stir our fears except when it comes close, as in Paris recently. The only thing that’s shocking is how the madmen are capturing it all on YouTube now. But Russians are Europeans of a sort, they look rather like us, but they certainly don’t think and act like us, and this is disconcerting to Europeans, and many Americans, at a level that cannot be easily expressed. The white caveman of progressive nightmares is back, and his name is Vladimir Putin.
A big part of why the West cannot seem to grapple meaningfully with the Russian threat, despite the fact that in any strategic sense NATO is holding most of the cards in this high-stakes game, is because he challenges not just what we have, but who we are. Putin and Putinism represent a direct challenge to the post-modern way of life that has become normative, especially among educated Westerners since the 1960’s. A worldview that prefers soft, feminine values to tougher masculine ones, that finds patriotism risible, that believes there is nothing worth dying for, has little to say when the monsters we firmly believed were safely behind the fortress walls, lurking hungrily, turn out to be on our doorstep, and the front door is unlocked.
Europeans who wish to resist Putinism will need to become a bit like the Russians, reemphasizing the utility of force in international affairs, and that reassessment brings social and gender implications that post-moderns will find uncomfortable. It should not be excluded that some Europeans actively prefer Moscow’s vision of the future, even if they don’t like Russians, to what Brussels can offer now. Greece may only be the beginning of a disturbing trend. Small, if ardent, numbers of Europeans will be enticed by the mad jihad offered by ISIS, but far larger numbers of disaffected Westerners may find Putin’s worldview enticing, particularly as he moves from victory to victory.
The moral outweighs the physical in war, as sages have counseled for millennia, and today Putin is drinking the elixir of easy triumphs over his feeble foes. This aura is intoxicating to many even outside Russia. If the West wishes to deter Putin before he unleashes continental war, by accident or by design, it needs to examine what it has become and how it can realistically defend its way of life. Only then will it be sensible to discuss strategies to deter and, if necessary, defeat this resurgent Russia.
Bad news keeps piling up at the White House’s doorstep on the pressing matter of the Islamic State. Obama’s persistent inability to tie the word “Islamic” to anything connected to terrorism, even when vile acts are committed by murderers boasting of their hardline Islamic beliefs, has not calmed the American public. Comments this week by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf that, when it comes to the Islamic State, “we cannot win this war by killing them,” and that more employment opportunities are what’s really needed to blunt Islamic extremism, have been laughed off by many Americans, and deservedly so.
It’s no surprise that the public’s confidence in Obama’s war against the Islamic State, called ISIS by many in the West, for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (i.e. the Levant), is waning. A new CNN poll shows a sharp drop, with 57 percent of Americans disapproving of how the president is handling the ISIS threat, a fall of eight points since September. Now, more than six months after Obama authorized U.S. Central Command to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the president has asked Congress to sign off. Since it took the administration over two months to even find a name for this war—it’s Operation Inherent Resolve, in case you wondered—it’s not surprising that the White House has dragged its feet with Congress, too.
Get the rest at The Federalist …
It’s been a tough week for anyone seeking to defend President Obama’s record, particularly in foreign policy, against rising accusations of fecklessness. Seven days ago, the White House unveiled its overdue National Security Strategy, five years after its last edition, to understated fanfare, with National Security Adviser Susan Rice mostly complaining that nobody understands how great things are going globally — minor incidents like the rise of the Islamic State and the aggressive war waged by Russia against Ukraine notwithstanding — and that national security is, you know, a tough job.
The mantra attached to the new NSS is Strategic Patience, which was met with guffaws, since it seems to be more a rationalization of Obama’s (in)actions over the last six years than any bona fide strategy. Mostly, it appears to be “don’t do stupid shit,” the administration previous foreign policy mantra, dressed up in grad school IR cliches.
To be fair, the caliber of NSS’s has been in steady decline for more than twenty years, across administrations, and the shortcomings of Strategic Patience pale, media-wise, compared to the needless debacle made this week by Obama when he stated in an extended interview with the obsequious Ezra Klein of Vox, that the four Jews recently murdered in a Parisian kosher deli by a homegrown jihadist fanatic were “some folks” killed “randomly.” Given that even those only passingly acquainted with Salafi jihadism know that it targets Jews 24/7, this was a puzzling statement, one that was made considerably worse by silly follow-ups by administration spokespeople which indicated that, six years in, this White House has yet to master basic message discipline.
The less I say about Obama’s absurd video clip on healthcare for BuzzFeed, with the president mugging for the cameras — all that was missing was Pyjama’s Boy’s onesie — while the world burns, perhaps the better. I am confident that clip has been much watched in world capitals, above all Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran.
Amidst all this silliness, the substance of the new NSS has gotten a bit lost. Usually, this is no hazard, since every NSS contains an enormous amount of fluff, posturing and puffery, bound together with happytalk, and not much actual strategy. Yet the tone of this NSS, with its positive rejection of military force for much of anything, ought to trouble anyone who deals with the world as it actually is, rather than how it appears from the faculty lounge.
I come to my concern from a slightly strange position. As someone who welcomed this administration’s promises, followed by intermittent efforts, to dial back the needless aggression of Obama’s predecessor, it’s troubling to see that this White House has made a cardinal vice out of one of its key virtues. I have written about the limits of military force as an all-purpose-tool in 21st century foreign policy, emphasizing that post-modern rules of war place serious restiction on the use of force by any civilized country. And I have repeatedly lambasted neocons who, usually from the safety of comfy DC think-tanks or the FoxNews studio, counsel endless war, seemingly for its own sake — when this is actually a road to America’s fiscal, political, and moral ruin.
Nevertheless, as Obama’s smirky fecklessness in dealing with mounting crises has only gained steam, the worse these crises get, I am reluctantly forced to conclude that Senator John McCain, for all his bombast, has many valid points to make in foreign and defense policy. At this juncture, McCain’s fire-breathing counsel on issues such as the Islamic State and Russia is much closer to a reality-based view than anything emanating from this White House.
The new NSS makes clear that war is off the table for Obama in almost any situation. This has been noted in a perceptive column in The Washington Post by James Jeffery, who describes the president’s “troubling worldview,” and his critique merits an extended quotation:
The Obama administration sent to Congress last week its second report on national security strategy. These updates are mainly a dry inventory of our aspirations, what’s happening in the world and what the United States can do in response, rather than a true strategy. That was the case for this one as well, but bits of it reveal much about how President Obama views the world. Combined with his recent interview by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, his State of the Union address last month and his speech last May at West Point, we can glean a good summary of the president’s basic principles for security policy. Unfortunately, that summary is troubling.
Although Obama’s goals are consistent with mainstream U.S. foreign policy since the onset of the Cold War, his dismissive approach to military force represents a clear departure from that consensus. But that’s nothing new. What’s new is that Obama is strongly reaffirming this approach despite 12 months dominated by military threats to global security order — from Russia, the Islamic State, Iran and China. Yet the two-page summary of major global developments in the introduction of the national security strategy (NSS) included only a brief mention of Russia’s threat and nothing on the others.
It’s hard to miss that, in the very long Vox interview that got Obama into hot water over “random” terrorism in Paris, the president mentioned Vladimir Putin exactly once, more or less in passing. Jeffery observes that Obama’s worldview includes four important themes:
First, those who use military force are destined for the ash heap of history because force is inherently counterproductive … Second, if the United States acts militarily, it inevitably runs a serious risk of overcommitment and disaster … Third, there is “no military solution” to anything. No statement is reiterated by this administration more frequently whenever a crisis emerges, presented as an immutable law that applies not just to us but also to the tyrants and terrorists … Fourth, when required, and absent the most compelling security need, military action should be employed through coalitions and after applying diplomatic, economic and other tools, with legality and legitimacy as the guiding principles.
Jeffery notes that Obama’s core principles possess a certain internal logic — But do they accurately reflect how the world works in 2015? Jeffery, like many others, observes that this White House seems unable to assess global trends, particularly involving things like major military threats such as the Islamic State and a resurgent and rampaging Russia, with anything resembling balance. Instead, there seems to be much wishful thinking and running out the clock until January 2017, when this global mess will become someone else’s problem. As Jeffery cogently concludes:
The president might respond, as he said at West Point, that not every problem is a nail susceptible to solution with a military hammer, and that a strong economy and diplomacy are also important to security.
He’s right, but some problems are indeed nails. Almost certainly the next administration, whoever leads it, won’t miss this point. But it is a long time until 2017.
If a week is long time in politics, per the old wag, one year and eleven months is an eternity in foreign policy. I am pessimistic that this White House, besotted with myths about power, can rise out of its self-indulgent torpor to meet the challenges we now face on multiple fronts. James Jeffery has made some excellent points that merit serious discussion inside the Beltway, and by all Americans who care about their country and the world.
And who is James Jeffery? A militant neocon and high-priced defense consultant? A general or admiral put out to pasture who wants more war, perhaps? Actually, he’s a retired diplomat with a distinguished record of service. He also served the Obama administration as ambassador to Iraq, a severely challenging assignment. So, folks, we’ve reached the point where esteemed diplomats are firing off warning flares in the mainstream media that the Obama White House is dangerously deluded, valuing hopeful diplomacy over the hard facts of power in the world. This hardly ever happens. Jeffery’s column is roughly equivalent to John McCain appearing in tie-die publicly while praising Code Pink.
The real point is that the world today is a dangerous place again, filled with mounting geopolitical hazards, and Obama’s worldview, which downgrades military power to a level unprecedented in recent American history, actually makes the world an even more dangerous place still. There is no doubt that undervaluing of military power by Europeans is a key reason why leaders like Merkel and Hollande are so impotent before Putin, despite the fact that the Kremlin is actually the weakling in the confrontation over Ukraine. If such naive views become normative in Washington, DC, we ought to expect American foreign policy to become just as pathetically feckless as Western Europe’s. Those who do not like us or wish freedom well — and, despite what this White House tells you, those dragons do lurk beyond the gate, hungrily — will inherit the power that the West abandons. More war and worse will result, with haste.
This morning brought the terrible news of the murder of three young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The victims, Deah Shaddy Barakat (23), Yusor Mohammad (21), and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (19) — tragically, the first two were newlyweds — were all students at the University of North Carolina. They are reported to have been killed by gunshots to the head, in what sounds like an execution-style murder.
Police already have their supposed killer in custody, Craig Stephen Hicks (46), of Chapel Hill. Since the victims were Muslims, Twitter immediately exploded with outrage and, of course, a hashtag: #MuslimLivesMatter. My Twitter feed filled with rants that nobody cares about Muslim dead and where is the coverage? — when, of course, I saw little but media coverage of this horrific crime. Predictably, the Angry Muslim Brigade was out in force online, insisting that this is a clear case of Christian terrorism, while Islamic State barbarism says nothing about Islam, because they are not actually Muslim (really).
Everybody sentient knows what’s going on here. Our mainstream media loves The Narrative, as I’ve discussed before, and facts are entirely secondary in these cases. Victims of certain ethnic or religious backgrounds — particularly if they can be shown to have been victimized by the wrong kind of person, politically speaking — meet the needs of The Narrative; exceptions do not and are to be ignored when not actively suppressed.
Hicks looked promising as a culprit, as a white Southerner — pictures soon emerged of him riding an ATV, as if on cue — and immediately media figures were asking why nobody was talking about this “Islamophobic white terrorist” when, of course, everybody was talking about him. He could not be an MSM hate figure at the level of, say, Southern frat boys, but Hicks looked good enough for use in The Narrative.
However, doubts quickly emerged as Hicks turns out to be not a Christian fundamentalist, but an atheist of an angry sort, based on his online postings. His hatred seems to have been omnidirectional, aimed at all religions. His politics look like those of many normal progressives, actually. This turn of events is inconvenient for The Narrative and we can expect little more MSM coverage of Hicks’ motivations and beliefs. A National Conversation on violent atheism is not inbound.
It is interesting to compare today’s outrage with media reactions to the recent murder of Zemir Begic, a 32 year-old Bosnian Muslim immigrant who was beaten to death with hammers on the streets of St. Louis by black and Hispanic killers. Despite the fact that Begic seemed to have been targeted because he was Bosnian, i.e. white, the media showed so little interest in the story that the media began asking why they were showing so little interest, particularly when compared to the non-stop coverage of the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, only a few miles from where Begic was butchered. On cue, St. Louis authorities suggested that the attack on Begic was “random” — a word that seems to pop up a lot in certain cases, even by President Obama — a case of “wrong place, wrong time,” per a police spokesman.
Today, we are left with a terrible triple-homicide that very well may be a hate crime. We don’t know much about Hicks’ motivations to kill three innocent people yet, but we can assume the police will find that out, and we can hope the media reports it fairly.
It’s important that the “terrorism” label not be applied to crimes without some evidence. I recently argued that the media needs to raise the bar on the use of the term “genocide,” and terrorism is another term we ought not cheapen through overuse. Every crime, even every hate crime, is not terrorism.
In the real world, the line between terrorism and mere murder can be murky enough. In a case I cited in yesterday’s column, back in early 2007, an 18 year-old Muslim killed five people and wounded four more in a spree killing at a Salt Lake City mall. Sulejman Talović, who hailed from Bosnia, was killed by police gunfire, so he could not explain his motivations. Talović’s family (of course) insisted that their son’s acts had nothing to do with his Muslim beliefs — while indirectly blaming the U.S. Government for the mass murder — while the anti-jihad contingent (of course) insisted this was a case of homegrown jihad. The FBI ruled out terrorism in this case, which was controversial to some. What exactly motivated Talović to kill remains murky, and presumably will in perpetuity.
In real life, a lot of cases are like Talović’s. It can be difficult to establish firm motives, particularly when the killer is dead. Given the emotions surrounding terrorism, it would be wise of the media to not jump to rapid conclusions for which there is no evidence, or in the Hicks case, the evidence to date seems contrary to MSM assumptions. Fanning hysteria for the sake of ratings and The Narrative is not a public service.
UPDATE (1015 EST, 11 Feb): The Chapel Hill Police Department said Wednesday morning, “Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking … Hicks is cooperating with investigators and more information may be released at a later time.”