Putin’s Orthodox Jihad

Yesterday Russia announced a revised military doctrine, signed by President Vladimir Putin, that names NATO as the Kremlin’s main adversary and clarifies that Russia’s military reserves the right to respond to conventional threats with both nuclear and conventional weapons. This is no big change, since it only amplifies existing doctrine, but its explicit emphasis on NATO as the primary threat to Russia’s security has raised Western eyebrows, as intended. Anyone who thought the West, led by the United States, could lay waste to Russia’s economy through sanctions brought about by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, without significant pushback from Moscow, is too naive to deal in such important affairs. The new year promises to be a busy one, with myriad forms of retaliation emanating from Moscow, some possibly very unpleasant, as I recently explained.

My explanation back in March, on the heels of Russia’s theft of Crimea, that we are in Cold War 2.0, whether we like it or not, was dismissed as alarmist by those not well acquainted with Putin and his system, but has been borne out by events over the last nine months. One reason oft-cited by skeptics regarding the state of relations between Russia and the West is the supposed absence of an ideological component to the rivalry, which is a necessary precondition for any reborn Cold War. President Barack Obama has been one of the leading proponents of this hopeful view, stating: “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”

As I explained back in April, this view is wrong, and has only gotten wronger over the last several months. In fact, Putin should be seen as the leader of what I termed the Anti-WEIRD Coalition, the vanguard of the diverse movement that is opposed to Western post-modernism in its political and social forms — and particularly to its spread by governments, corporations, NGOs, or the bayonets of the U.S. military. While this should not be seen as any formal alliance, nor is it likely to become one, there exists an agglomeration of countries that are opposed to what the West, and especially America, represent on the world stage, and this was the year that Putin unambiguously took its helm.

What motivates this is a complex question. Putin is a complex character himself, with his worldview being profoundly shaped by his long service as a Soviet secret policeman; he exudes what Russians term Chekism — conspiracy-based thinking that sees plots abounding and is reflexively anti-Western, with heavy doses of machismo and KGB tough-talk. Hence persistent Western efforts to view Putin as any Western sort of democratic politician, albeit one with a strange affectation for judo and odd bare-chested photo-ops with scary wild animals, invariably miss the mark.

This year ending also saw the mask drop regarding Putin’s ideology beyond his bone-deep Chekism. In his fire-breathing speech to the Duma in March when he announced Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin included not just venerable KGB classics like warnings about the Western Fifth Column and “national traitors,” but also paeans to explicit Russian ethnic nationalism buttressed by Orthodox mysticism, with citations of saints from millennia past. This was the culmination of years of increasingly unsubtle hints from Putin and his inner circle that what ideologically motivates this Kremlin is the KGB cult unified with Russian Orthodoxy. Behind the Chekist sword and shield lurks the Third Rome, forming a potent and, to many Russians, plausible worldview. That this take on the planet and its politics is intensely anti-Western needs to be stated clearly.

But what of Putin’s actual beliefs? This knotty question is, strictly speaking, unanswerable, since only he knows his own soul. Putin’s powerful Chekism is beyond doubt, while many Westerners are skeptical that he is any sort of Orthodox believer. According to his own account, Putin’s father was a militant Communist while his mother was a faithful, if quiet, Orthodox believer; one wonders what holidays were like in the Putin household. He was baptized in secret as a child but was not any sort of engaged believer during his KGB service — that would have been impossible, not least due to the KGB’s role in persecuting religion — but by his own account, late in the Soviet period, Putin reconciled his Chekism with his faith by making the sign of the cross over his KGB credentials. By the late 1990’s, Putin was wearing his baptismal cross openly, for all bare-chested photo ops.

The turn to faith in middle-age, after some sort of life crisis, is a staple of conversion and reversion stories. In his last years in power, Saddam Hussein began talking a lot about Islam openly, which was dismissed as political theater in the West, but in retrospect seems to have been at least somewhat sincere. Did Putin opt for Orthodoxy after a mid-life crisis? I am an Orthodox believer myself and, having carefully watched many video clips of Putin in church and at religious events, I can state without reservation that Putin knows what to do. His religious act — kissing icons, lighting candles, interacting with clerics — is flawless, so Putin is either a sincere Orthodox or he has devoted serious study to looking and acting like one.

Whether this faith is genuine or a well-honed pose, Putin’s potent fusion of KGB values and Orthodoxy has been building for years, though few Westerners have noticed. Early in Putin’s years in the Kremlin, the younger generation of Federal Security Service (FSB) officers embraced a nascent ideology they termed “the system” (sistema), which was a sort of elitist Chekism — toughness free of corruption and based in patriotism — updated for the new 21st century. However, this could have limited appeal to the masses, so its place was gradually taken by a doctrine termed “spiritual security.” This involved the ideological fusion of the FSB and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), culminating in the 2002 dedication of an Orthodox church at the Lubyanka, the FSB — and former KGB’s — notorious Moscow headquarters. It suddenly became fashionable for senior FSB officers to have conversion experiences, while “spiritual security” offered Putin’s Russia a way to defend itself against what it has long seen as the encroachment of decadent post-modern Western values. Just how seriously Putin took all this was his statement that Russia’s “spiritual shield” was as important to her security as her nuclear shield.

Nearly all Western experts, being mostly secularists when not atheists, paid no attention to these clear indications of where Putin was taking Russia, while the view of the few who did notice was colored by the perception that this simply had to be a put-up job by the Kremlin. But what if it is not? Skeptics are correct to note that Chekists have had a toxic and convoluted relationship with the ROC ever since Stalin, that failed Orthodox seminarian, resurrected the remnants of the Church, what little had survived vicious Bolshevik persecution, during the darkest days of the Great Patriotic War to buttress the regime with faith and patriotism — all tightly controlled by the secret police. There was the rub. Under the Soviets, all senior ROC appointments were subject to Chekist review, while nobody became a bishop without the KGB having some kompromat on him. This was understood by all, including the fact that a distressing number of ROC senior clerics were actual KGB agents. It’s not surprising that Putin omits from his CV that he worked for a time in the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, which supervised religious bodies, leading some to speculate that Putin’s relationship with certain ROC bishops extends deep into the late Soviet period.

The ROC is not Russia’s state religion, as Putin and top bishops have been at pains to state, but it cannot be denied that the Moscow Patriarchate’s close ties to the Kremlin grant it a very special relationship with Putinism. Whether this actually is symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church which is something of an Orthodox ideal, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state, remains to be seen, but Orthodoxy has become the close political and ideological partner of the Kremlin in recent years, a preferred vehicle for explicit anti-Western propaganda.

ROC agitprop, which has Kremlin endorsement, depicts a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style, while ROC spokesmen constantly denounce feminism and the LGBT movement as Satanic creations of the West that aim to destroy faith, family, and nation. It is in this context that Putin’s comments at last year’s Valdai Club event ought to be seen:

Another serious challenge to Russia’s identity is linked to events taking place in the world. Here there are both foreign policy and moral aspects. We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual. They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.

The excesses of political correctness have reached the point where people are seriously talking about registering political parties whose aim is to promote pedophilia. People in many European countries are embarrassed or afraid to talk about their religious affiliations. Holidays are abolished or even called something different; their essence is hidden away, as is their moral foundation. And people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis.

This week the ideological ante was upped by the Kremlin with the comments of Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, a media gadfly cleric, who gave a very long newspaper interview in which he castigated, among other things, radical Islam, usury, and the West generally, but it was his comments on the current conflict with America that got all the attention. Chaplin minced no words, proclaiming that Russia’s God-given goal today is halting the global “American project.” As he explained:

It is no coincidence that we have often, at the price of our own lives … stopped all global projects that disagreed with our conscience, with our vision of history and, I would say, with God’s own truth .. Such was Napoleon’s project, such was Hitler’s project. We will stop the American project too.”

Chaplin added the usual tropes about Western decadence compared to Russian spiritual strength, waxing nationalist and Orthodox in a manner much like Putin has done many times. This interview was viewed as strange by most Westerners, but it must be realized that Chaplin, for all his inflammatory statements, is hardly some lone cleric talking crazy. He is the official spokesman of the Moscow Patriarchate who has a very close relationship with Patriarch Kirill; he appears in the media regularly and has received a raft of decorations from the ROC and the Russian state.

The forty-six year old Chaplin regularly makes statements that reflect a patriotic and religiously hardline stance on, well, everything. To cite only a few of his utterances to the media, Chaplin recently denounced a Hobbit movie promotion in Moscow as a Satanic symbol that would bring evil to the city; he stated that the Pussy Riot case was proof that “The West gives its support to divide the people of Russia”; he advocated a national dress code for Russia, citing rising immorality (“It is wrong to think that women should decide themselves what they can wear in public places or at work … If a woman dresses like a prostitute, her colleagues must have the right to tell her that.”); and he has been particularly vocal in his opposition to Western-backed homosexuality: “it is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation. By the way, it is no accident that the propaganda of this sin is targeted at young people and sometimes at children. It deprives people of eternal bliss.”

Chaplin’s biggest theme is that the decadent, post-modern West, led by the frankly Satanic United States — whose separation of church and state, per Chaplin, constitutes “a monstrous phenomenon that has occurred only in Western civilization and will kill the West, both politically and morally” — has no future. According to the ROC, speaking through its spokesman, the triumph of same-sex marriage means that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse, and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved, to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.”

While it is tempting to dismiss such talk as ravings, even when they come from the official spokesman of Putin’s own church, they have deep resonance with more serious thinkers whom Putin admires. Ivan Ilyin, a Russian philosopher who fled the Bolsheviks and died in Swiss exile, was reburied at Moscow’s famous Donskoy monastery in 2005 with public fanfare; Putin personally paid for Ilyin’s new headstone. Despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not enough Westerners have paid attention.

They should. A devout Orthodox, Ilyin espoused a unique vision, a Slavophile take on modernity and Russia’s predicament under the militant atheists. He espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Of greatest relevance today, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Ilyin’s take on responsibility for Bolshevism — and its cure — merits examination, as he explained:

The West exported this anti-Christian virus to Russia … Having lost our bond with God and the Christian Tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism … In order to overcome the global moral crisis, we have to return to eternal moral values, that is faith, love, freedom, conscience, family, motherland and nation, but above all faith and love.

Although Ilyin died sixty years ago, he remains to his admirers “the prophet of the new Orthodox Russia which is being born and which alone can give the contemporary world a viable future, providing that it is given time to grow to fruition in contemporary Russia.” As Ilyin wrote to a friend near the end of his life, when the fall of Communism was still decades off:

What are we to do, squeezed between Catholics, Freemasons and Bolsheviks? I answer: Stand firm, standing up with your left hand, which goes from the heart, for Christ the Lord, for His undivided tunic, and, with your right hand, fight to the end for Orthodoxy and Orthodox Russia. And, above all, vigilantly watch those groups which are preparing for Antichrist. All of this – even if we are threatened by apparent complete powerlessness and total solitude.

The sort of uncompromising faith Ilyin stood for, which bears little similarity to Western Christianity much less to post-modern notions of “tolerance,” is made abundantly clear in his numerous writings and speeches. Of particular interest is a speech Ilyin gave in 1925, extolling Lavr Kornilov, a White Russian general who fell in the struggle against Bolshevism (and, not coincidentally, exactly the sort of Orthodox-believing yet non-noble White counter-revolutionary figure much admired by Putin). Ilyin defined what Russia and Orthodoxy now needed: “This idea is more than a single man, more than a feat of one hero. This idea is great as Russia and the sacred as her religion. This is the idea of the Orthodox sword.” He cited the fatal shortcomings of pre-revolutionary Russia as “limp sentimentality, spiritual nihilism and moral pedantry,” and to counter those Russia needed a strong dose of fighting faith. As Ilyin explained:

In calling to love our enemies, Christ had in mind personal enemies of man, not God’s enemies, and not blaspheming molesters, for them drowning with a millstone around their neck was recommended. Urging to forgive injuries, Christ was referring to personal insults to a person, not all possible crimes; no one has the right to forgive the offenses suffered by others or provide for the villains to offend the weak, corrupt children, desecrate churches and destroy the Fatherland. So therefore a Christian is called not only to forgive offenses, but to fight the enemies of God’s work on earth. The evangelical commandment of “non-resistance to evil” teaches humility and generosity in personal matters, and not limpness of will, not cowardice, not treachery and not obedience to evildoers.

This is the vision — uncompromising faith and patriotism, without any sentimentality or weakness — that animates Russia’s holy warriors today, from Fr. Chaplin, and perhaps Vladimir Putin too, on down. Russian Orthodoxy’s church militant is a special breed that tends to mystify Westerners. Certainly the West finds the motley crew of Kremlin-backed Orthodox adventurers and mercenaries battling in the Donbass to be equal parts comical and sinister, yet they have an ideology which they hardly hide. As an Orthodox priest ministering to Russian fighters in Donetsk explained a few months ago — a bearded cleric and tough veteran of the Soviet Afghan war, he is a creature straight out of Ilyin’s dreams — what they are battling against is not the Ukrainian government, nor American neoconservatives, rather the Devil himself. The goal of Moscow’s enemy, as he elaborated, is perfectly clear to the eyes of faith:

The establishment of planetary Satanic rule. What’s occurring here is the very beginning of a global war. Not for resources or territory, that’s secondary. This is a war for the destruction of true Christianity, Orthodoxy. The worldview of the wealthiest men who own almost all the material goods in the world is Satanism. Having summoned the elements of the First and Second World Wars and a Third Information War, and having laid hundreds of millions of the slain at the altar of their father, Satan, they have initiated the Fourth World War. They are intentionally hastening the reign of Antichrist.

As with Vsevolod Chaplin, it’s tempting to dismiss all this as the ravings of a lone nut, but these are no longer fringe views in Putin’s Russia.  Jihad is not a word to be used lightly, given its sinister connotations to the West after 9/11, but this bears more than a little resemblance to Holy War in a Russian and Orthodox variant. Whether Putin really believes all this may be immaterial, since his regime has created and nurtured a virulent ideology, an explosive amalgam of xenophobia, Chekism and militant Orthodoxy which justifies the Kremlin’s actions and explains why the West must be opposed at all costs. Given the economic crisis that Russia now finds itself in, thanks to Western sanctions, during the long and cold winter now starting, we ought to expect more, not fewer, Russians turning to this worldview which resonates with their nation’s history and explains the root of their suffering.

We perhaps should be grateful that the Orthodox Jihad rejects suicide bombings. In the 1930’s, Romania’s fascist Legionary Movement, led by the charismatic Orthodox revolutionary Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, toyed with what terrorism mavens today might term “martyrdom operations,” but these never really caught on. Orthodoxy frowns on suicide, even in a just cause. That, at least, is the good news.

The bad news, however, is that Putin’s uncompromising worldview has more than a few admirers in the West, far beyond the Orthodox realm. Many who reject Moscow’s quasi-religious mysticism nevertheless admire its willingness to take on America directly and offer a counterpoint to armed post-modernism in world affairs. As I’ve previously explained, many European far-right parties have quite a crush on the man in the Kremlin, perhaps due to the money he gives them, but the sincerity of some of the admiration is not in question. In France, Marine Le Pen is leading her National Front to ever-greater heights of political power, and her affection for Putin is unconcealed. “In Russia today there is a mix of exalting nationalism, exalting the church and Christian values,” explained a French politico: “They are now replacing the red star with the cross, and they are representing themselves as the ultimate barrier against the Islamization of the continent.” Since it is far from impossible that Le Pen will be president of France someday, the implications of all this for NATO and the West merit serious consideration.

It would be supremely ironic if the last defender of Europe and European values comes from the East, from a Kremlin controlled by a former KGB officer who mourns the collapse of the Soviet Union yet has rediscovered traditional faith and family values. As discontentment with American-led Europe spreads, the Russian option may look plausible to more Europeans, worried about immigration, identity, and the collapse of their values and economies, than Americans might imagine. Ivan Ilyin, however, might not be surprised by this strange turn of events in the slightest.

Beware Putin’s Special War in 2015

December 2014 is the month Putin’s Russia was plunged into undeniable crisis. Between the dramatic drop in oil prices and the collapse of the ruble, under Western sanctions pressure, Russians are going into the new year in a dramatically different, and lessened, economic situation than the one they enjoyed at the beginning of the year now ending.

This will bring myriad hardships to Russians, particularly because even Moscow is admitting that low oil prices may be the “new normal” until the 2030’s. Caveats abound here. The vast majority of Russians don’t travel abroad, much less have vacation properties in Europe, nor do they have hard-currency mortgages (the ruble now having returned to its Soviet-era pariah status). Moreover, the average Russian has a physical and mental toughness about getting by in tough times — it is an unmistakable point of national pride — that Westerners cannot really fathom. In no case now does Russia face the sort of complete economic collapse that it endured in the 1990’s, when the Soviet implosion pushed poor Russians to the edge of survival (were not so many Russians but one generation removed from the farm, and therefore had access to their own food supply, famine might well have happened under Yeltsin). Life in Yeltsin’s Russia, particularly beyond the bright lights of Moscow and St. Petersburg, where few Westerners visit, was harsh and frankly dismal.

Nevertheless, the economic undoing of Putinism over the last weeks, brought about by Western sanctions in response to Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine which began in early 2014, heralds major changes for the Kremlin, and not just in its domestic affairs. While Russia has far deeper hard currency reserves than it possessed in 1998, the last time the ruble’s bottom fell out, and it’s clear that Moscow will try to prevent banks from failing, there should be little optimism among Putin’s inner circle. Russia now faces a protracted and serious financial-cum-economic crisis that will get much worse before it gets better. Since much of Putin’s popularity has derived from the impressive economic growth his fifteen years in the Kremlin have brought, a rise in living standards that has benefited average Russians as well as oligarchs, the political implications of this collapse for Russia’s president are grave.

But are they enough to get Putin to cease his aggression and, in the long run, perhaps even leave office? Western politicians, eager to avoid armed confrontation with Russia, have assumed that enough sanctions-related pain will force Putin’s hand and get him to back off in Ukraine and elsewhere. This was always a questionable assumption. In the first place, sanctions tend to work as intended mostly against countries that strongly dislike being a global pariah, like apartheid-era South Africa, whose English-speaking white elites hated how they suddenly were no longer welcome in the posh parts of London. There is no evidence that Putin and most average Russians find being despised by the West particularly objectionable; on the contrary, many seem to revel in it.

Then there is the touchy fact that sanctions sometimes work not at all as intended. Using economic warfare to break a country’s will, which entails real hardship for average citizens, can cause more aggression rather than cease it. The classic example is Imperial Japan, which faced grim economic realities once U.S.-led oil sanctions took effect in retaliation for Tokyo’s aggressive and nasty war in China. Lacking indigenous petroleum, Japan was wholly dependent on imports that Washington, DC, blocked with sanctions. These placed Japan on what strategists would term “death ground,” since without imported oil its economy and its military could not function. Moreover, the sanctions were seen — correctly — by Tokyo as a sign that the United States and its allies did not want Japan to dominate the Western Pacific region, which constituted an intolerable affront to Japanese pride. The closest place to get the oil Japan needed was the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, and Tokyo resolved to seize the oil there by force. To do that, Japan first had to drive the Royal Navy out of Singapore and the U.S. Navy out of the Philippines, and to enable that they had to disable America’s Pacific Fleet, which was ported in Pearl Harbor…and the rest of the story you know.

Japan in 1941 believed it was already facing defeat through oppressive sanctions, so engaging in actual war seemed like a logical choice. The total defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945 indicates that Tokyo’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor was madcap, but had things worked out differently at, say, Midway in June 1942, such choices might look very different to historians today. When sitting on promotion boards for battle-tried colonels hoping for selection to general in his army, something he enjoyed, Napoleon liked to ask of a candidate, pointedly: “Yes, but is he lucky?” Japan was not at all lucky in the war it started in December 1941, but its defeat was hardly preordained, and the salient point is that Tokyo felt that the Americans really started that war with their harsh sanctions.

Might Putin do the same and decide that since Russia is facing defeat at the hands of Western sanctions, which represent a kind of war, why not opt for actual war, in which Moscow at least has a chance of victory? It’s too early to determine that, but 2015 will be the year such grave decisions are made. To date, there are no indications that Putin intends to back down in Ukraine, or anywhere, thanks to Western sanctions. It’s important to note that Putin’s narrative, which he has elaborated on several occasions and is accepted by most Russians, is straightforward: He has done nothing illegal in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, he is only protecting Russia and ethnic Russians, which is a legitimate national interest. Moreover, it is the height of cheek for the Americans, who after all invade countries all over the world in the name of “freedom,” to call Moscow’s legitimate actions on Russia’s borders “aggression.” Russia will defend itself against this rancid hypocrisy and will resist the West’s warlike sanctions, which are intended to punish Russia for defending itself and its rightful interests.

Putin’s public statements this month make clear that backing down now is not in the cards. At a press conference last week, he pointedly blamed the financial crisis on the West (“The current situation was obviously provoked primarily by external factors.”) while promising the economy will eventually improve. (Close observers will note that Putin cited “The main achievement of the year in the social sphere is of course positive demographics.”) The usual KGB-style tough talk, however, was on display, as a British journalist explained:

He brooked no compromise on the annexation of Crimea, and renewed his lambasting of the West’s policies since the fall of the Berlin Wall, accusing it of putting up new “virtual walls” and wanting to “chain” the Russian bear. He said that even if the bear were to “sit tight… supping berries and honey” and “abandon its hunting instincts”, the West would still “seek to chain us… then rip out our teeth and claws”. The bear, he said, had no intention of being turned into a “soft toy”. It would defend its sovereignty.

On the weekend, specifically on 20 December, a holiday that honors Russia’s “special services” — this was the day in 1917 that the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, was founded by “Iron Feliks” Dzierżyński; in a normal country this would be a day of national mourning not celebration — Putin addressed Russia’s security posture, noting this year’s spike in espionage against the country. He proudly asserted that Russian counterintelligence, Putin’s former employers, had uncovered 230 foreign spies operating in the country during 2014. He minced no words about this threat:

Frank statements are being made to the effect that Russia should pay dearly for its independent stance, for its support for its compatriots, for Crimea and Sevastopol – for merely existing, it sometimes seems. Clearly, no one has ever succeeded in scaring, suppressing or isolating Russia and never will. Such attempts have been made regularly, over the centuries, as I have said publicly on numerous occasions, and in the 20th century it happened several times: in the 1920s, the 1940s and later. It did not work then and it will not work now. Meanwhile, we have to be prepared to experience certain difficulties and always rebuff any threats to our sovereignty, stability and the unity of our society.

This is not a man who is about to back down; doubling-down seems decidedly more likely. To be fair to Putin, Russia is a democracy of sorts, and popular opinion matters. He has dangerously stoked nationalist fires throughout the year now ending, regularly citing alleged Ukrainian Nazis eager to commit genocide against innocent Russians, so it’s difficult to see how he can turn those passions off with a switch, not least because beating the nationalist drum, while making the diplomatic equivalent of obscene gestures at the West, is popular with the Russian masses.

Neither does Western behavior always help matters. It seems not to have occurred to many Western politicians that gleeful public statements about how sanctions will cripple Russia might make Russians view these devastating acts as tantamount to war waged against them. President Obama, too, has not always been wise in his comments. In the first place he has not explained why a half-century of sanctions on tiny and impoverished Cuba failed to work — hence his opening to Havana last week — but sanctions on vast and largely self-sufficient Russia should be expected to deliver as advertised. Last weekend, Obama’s comments on his adversary in the Kremlin took a strange turn:

There was a spate of stories about how he is the chess master and outmaneuvering the West and outmaneuvering Mr. Obama and this and that and the other. And right now, he’s presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis and a huge economic contraction. That doesn’t sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America.

Obama’s offensive defensiveness here speaks volumes — the self-reference in the third person is revealing — and will be read in Moscow as weakness mingled with taunting. If this is what prep school Ivy League lawyers think passes for tough talk in Chicago, the Chekists in the Kremlin, who are actual hard men with much blood on their hands, will be happy to give lessons to faux-macho poseurs in the West Wing, and in 2015 they will.

I don’t know if there will be war — real war — between Russia and the West in the new year. Surely such a possibility cannot be ruled out, not least because NATO has signally failed to implement the modest deterrence posture in Eastern Europe that I recommended six months ago, eschewing actual defense in favor of some showy yet small-scale exercises without strategic impact. It’s not surprising that some NATO frontline states are planning for possible invasion and occupation by Russia, since their faith in the staying power of the Atlantic Alliance, particularly in Obama’s resolve, is increasingly in doubt.

It is unlikely that Putin will soon choose overt aggression against a NATO country with the intent of causing major war, but such a conflict may result anyway in 2015. Rising Kremlin military and espionage operations in Northern Europe are a cause for concern, while Kremlin provocations against Estonia, that tiny country being a particular bugbear for Putin, indicate where the next Russian “microaggression” — here meaning an engineered “misunderstanding” at a border town to test Alliance resolve — may perhaps fall. It’s a tricky game deciding where Obama’s “redlines” are, particularly because the president himself seems not to know in Syria, Ukraine, or anywhere, so it’s dangerously easy to envision a scenario where the angry gamblers in Moscow roll the dice one time too many, forcing NATO’s hand, without realizing it until it’s too late. War can happen by a kind of accident, with a risky Kremlin operational game gone wrong, and since NATO is not seriously prepared to resist Russian aggression on its eastern frontier, in 2015 it just might.

What I am absolutely certain of, however, is that the new year will bring the West more of what I’ve termed Special War emanating from the East. Moscow is far from ready to wage sustained conventional war against NATO, not least because the oil-plus-ruble collapse will delay its long-overdue military modernization program, but it is eminently prepared to engage in the witches’ brew of espionage, subversion, and terrorism that makes up Special War. Here the West must be vigilant, since Kremlin Special War can do real damage, and represents something that NATO is poorly conditioned to recognize, much less defeat and deter.

First, espionage, which is a long-standing Russian core competency. Kremlin intelligence operations against the West are not only rising in number and intensity — even the media has belatedly noticed that Moscow’s special services are as active against us as they ever were during the Cold War — but in aggressiveness as well. Putin takes a deep and personal interest in the activities of Russia’s intelligence agencies, which formed his unmistakably Chekist personality, and he has given them wide latitude to “get tough.” Just as in Israel, though not at all in the United States, Russian spies know that “the top” has their back if an operation goes wrong, as some inevitably will; Moscow prefers a bias for action, not inaction, in its huge espionage arm. Moreover, the persistent inability of Westerners to see Russian espionage as the serious threat to our secrets and safety that it is — here the blindness of even some NATO governments to the painful reality of the Snowden Operation does not encourage — gives the Kremlin a latitude to wage Special War against the West that it does not deserve.

Which leads to the matter of subversion, a term which has fallen out of favor since the Cold War but which needs a rebirth as soon as possible. Russian intelligence and its helpers have a sophisticated doctrine, honed over decades, to wage what we would term Political Warfare against their enemies. To further the Kremlin’s aims, they cultivate Western politicos, activists and journalists to disseminate pro-Russian views on a wide range of issues; much of this is now conducted online. These Western partners range from being full-fledged agents of the Russian special services to mere pro-Putin influencers, not always entirely wittingly. Nevertheless, this Kremlin brand of espionage-based psychological operations — the proper term is Active Measures, which has no doctrinal NATO equivalent — can achieve devastating results through lies, half-truths, and forgeries. Russia takes advantage of Western gullibility, niceness, and unwillingness to accept just how dishonest the enemy is, sometimes to strategic effect. Subversion is back, with online disinformation as its main weapon, and the sooner we accept this the West can begin to counter Russian agitprop that aims to psychologically and politically disarm and divide NATO without fighting.

On the political front, Putin holds quite a few European cards. The Kremlin has successfully established important, multilayered agent-of-influence networks in NATO countries, as I’ve explained previously, and the current political ferment in Europe offers Putin an inroads there that Russia has not enjoyed since the early years of the Cold War. Moscow has long supported far Left parties and activists in the West, but in recent years they have made major inroads on the far Right as well, whose star is ascendant in many European Union states, thanks to hot-tempered debates about immigration and national identity. Simply put, if the EU fails to deal with such issues in an effective way, and soon, it will surrender them to the far Right, i.e. Putin’s allies, in a manner that will have strategic results that will benefit Moscow in important ways.

Last, there’s terrorism. In the 21st century this takes many forms, from blowing up bombs to raiding computer networks. It’s remarkable how few Westerners seem to notice that the sudden and devastating “cyber-vandalism” (to cite Obama) against Sony hits the presses just as Russia’s economy buckles under sanctions. Russian acumen at cyber-terrorism is not exactly news — just ask Georgia and Estonia — but it has yet to be employed against major NATO countries in a strategic fashion. Yet this should be anticipated as an ancillary to other warlike secret Russian operations against NATO and the EU. Moreover, the difficulty of establishing firm attribution in cyber-espionage and cyber-terrorism means that many acts that remain officially unresolved — meaning what Western governments are willing to say publicly — actually have the fingerprint of Russian intelligence on them. And more is coming.

The notion that an angry Russia would employ actual terrorism, meaning killers and bombers, against the West sounds fanciful to some but it ought not, given decades of Russian activities in this arena. The Soviet intelligence services engaged a wide range of foreign terrorist groups beginning in the 1960’s, and terrorists as diverse as the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction, and the PLO, among many others, obtained aid and training from the KGB and GRU, the Kremlin’s military intelligence arm, as well as from East Bloc sister services. Among major transnational terrorist groups in the late Cold War, only the PFLP-GC was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kremlin, while the Soviets were content to give aid, comfort, and cover to the PLO and let it kill innocents as it pleased, as long as the KGB’s fingerprint remained difficult to detect. (As a senior KGB officer who dealt with the PLO in the 1970’s replied, when I asked him why the Kremlin never told Arafat’s Fatah terrorists what to attack, “Why give them orders? Everything they do is good!”) It should be noted that the idea the KGB and its East Bloc partners gave assistance to terrorists in the 1970’s and 1980’s was derided at the time as a “conspiracy theory” by nearly all Western “terrorism experts,” yet turned out to be entirely true, we learned, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Hence Moscow’s present-day murky links to international terrorism, even al-Qa’ida, merit close examination.

Moscow need not employ cut-outs and false-flags to conduct terrorism abroad, it has plenty of in-house talent in those areas, which fall under the rubric of what Russian spies term “wetwork.” In recent years, Putin has not been shy about wetwork abroad, even when the Kremlin’s footprint is obvious. The 2006 London murder of the defector Sasha Litvinenko, the infamous radioactive tea assassination, was transparently the work of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s biggest intelligence agency and Putin’s power-base. Two years earlier, GRU assassins blew up Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, exiled leader of the Chechen resistance, with a bomb placed in his vehicle; the device exploded on the streets of Doha, Qatar, killing Yandarbiyev and two of his bodyguards. GRU was sloppy, however, and Qatari authorities quickly arrested the two bombers. At trial, they admitted Moscow had sent them to Doha to assassinate the Chechen leader, yet they were returned to Russian custody in early 2005 amid promises they would serve their jail sentence for murder in Russia. In best Putin fashion, the GRU officers served not a day in a Russian jail, instead getting a heroes’ welcome home, including decorations for their good work abroad, then disappeared from public view.

Contrary to myth, the Cold War KGB and GRU were decidedly cautious about wetwork in the West. Assassinations of “state enemies” abroad were commonplace in Stalin’s time, but they waned in the 1950’s after several embarrassing missteps, including the defection of one would-be KGB assassin to the Americans. The 1959 assassination of Stepan Bandera, the top Ukrainian nationalist, in Munich with cyanide was the last operation of its kind, as the KGB’s footprint on the crime was obvious and embarrassing to the Kremlin. After that, the Chekists became notably cautious about wetwork in the West, not least because such an operation gone wrong would lead to the expulsion of many undercover Soviet intelligence officers, undoing years of hard espionage work.

While KGB and GRU maintained significant wetwork capabilities, they were used very sparingly down to the end of the Cold War. Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB from 1967 to 1982, was notably cautious in such matters, quashing numerous proposals to assassinate defectors and dissidents in the West. When the Bulgarian DS, a close partner agency, asked for Soviet help to murder a troublesome defector, Andropov told the KGB to help but to steer very clear of the killing itself. The Soviets gave the Bulgarians a special new weapon, an umbrella that fired a micro-pellet filled with highly toxic ricin, which the DS used to assassinate Georgi Markov in London in October 1978 — a crime that British investigators correctly pinned on the DS, though the case, never prosecuted, officially remains open. Yet the Soviets had nothing to do with the killing itself, per Andropov’s orders.

In contrast, Putin shows none of Andropov’s caution. He has been willing to send Russian spies abroad to kill people that the Kremlin does not like, and as Russia finds itself increasingly in a corner and willing to lash out at the West, this ought to concern all Western governments. Increased espionage and subversion against NATO and the EU, directed by Russian special services, should be considered a given. The West would also be wise to anticipate Russian terrorism, the ugly side of the Kremlin’s Special War, as Putin seeks ways to punish the people whom he blames for his increasingly dire politico-economic predicament.

Everything from cyber-attacks to bombings to assassinations of prominent Westerners should be considered eminently possible. The good news is that vigilant Western counterintelligence, employed in a joint and strategic fashion, can blunt Russia’s well-honed Special War acumen and will prevent terrorism by the Kremlin and its friends and various false-flags. By blunting espionage, you also cut short things much worse. The bad news is that NATO and the EU remain seriously deficient in counterintelligence, beyond the merely tactical realm, and are not yet ready to take on the Russians in this most important game. Money, motivation and cultural change inside U.S. and Western security services are needed urgently to develop serious counterintelligence vision and competence.

The new year will be filled with many Kremlin operational games of various kinds. Expect regular media reports of “unattributed” cyber attacks, “unexplained” acts of sabotage, “unresolved” online scandals, and “mysterious” terrorist incidents across the West. This can be stopped, and must be; there is little time to waste. I will be spending 2015 doing my part to assist the West as it learns to wage Special War against the number-one-ranked team in the game. I used to be a player, now I’m just a consultant.

CIA Torture: An Insider’s View

The global commentariat is aflutter in the aftermath of yesterday’s release of what Twitter has termed #TortureReport by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI, pronounced “sissy,” to DC insiders). If you’re living in a cave like a member of Al-Qa’ida and somehow have missed this story, you can find all of the massive original report, plus rebuttals, here.

Up front, allow me to get my own story, and therefore biases, out there. I spent close to a decade in the Intelligence Community (IC), with the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer. I served in joint assignments with CIA and spent considerable time trying to help Langley, specifically on counterintelligence matters. I count several CIA officers, present and former, some high-ranking, among my close friends. I also think CIA is a mismanaged agency that needs serious reform.

Happily, I had no involvement with CIA’s “torture” program; though I was aware of its existence early on, I had nothing to do with waterboarding and worse. I was involved in certain activities in the months after 9/11 that probably would not pass smell tests in today’s calmer times, but there are quite a few IC people in the same boat.

It is perilously easy, more than thirteen years after the terrible attacks on New York and the Pentagon, to forget the hothouse atmosphere across the IC in late 2001, when fears of more, and worse, terrorism against our homeland were a constant concern. It is this decontextualization by the just-released SSCI report, the prosecutorial judging of people who sought to do good by defending fellow citizens, however misguidedly, that I find most objectionable.

For much of the IC, the months after 9/11 were a blur. I spent more time at the office, or on the road, than at home; my recollections of that era — easily the most exciting time of my life, when all of Uncle Sam’s spooks thought our personal contributions, each day, might make the difference between a “nuclear 9/11” happening or not — are therefore impressionistic, with occasional vivid recall of specific operations. I never had Dick Cheney call me, or anyone close to me, screaming into the phone to “get tough.” This was unnecessary: we all knew what the stakes were.

I provided counsel to senior leadership at Guantanamo Bay, the dreaded GTMO, on how to deal with interrogations. From what I saw, their operation was a shitshow — a characterization top IC officials agreed with, off-record. They knew it was all going wrong, but they wanted to prevent terrorism. They listened to, and rejected, my counsel, which was to get serious and professionalize their approach, without delay. Specifically, they needed to adopt something like the Israeli model.

How Israeli intelligence, specifically their domestic security service, SHABAK, approaches interrogation, is much misunderstood. While SHABAK can employ what outsiders would term torture on occasion, those conditions are tightly controlled by legal authorities: this prevents abuses and, critically, allows interrogators to know they will not face prosecution or banishment, years later, for doing what they were told was legal.

But what makes SHABAK interrogators effective is not the threat of physical pressure, rather their professional competence. The most junior Israeli interrogators have completed a rigorous three-year program in psychology and Arabic before they meet their first subject. When I told U.S. senior officers this was the way to go, they gasped and explained this was impossible. Meaning, this was not how the IC likes to do business. (They particularly objected to my mantra: “Interrogation through a translator isn’t interrogation.”) Instead, Americans opted for an ad hoc, somewhat fly-by-night interrogation program, lacking in expertise or language skills, and botched the job — to the surprise only of those who have never seen U.S. intelligence in action.

It’s fair to point out that SHABAK has a far simpler problem set, focusing mainly on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, while U.S. spies have global responsibilities and targets; it’s likewise fair to note that our IC has personnel and resources that Israeli spooks can only dream of. Failure here was a choice, perhaps a preordained one.

Let there be no misunderstanding. While CIA officials are now insisting, contra the SSCI report, that the special interrogation program was a success, having prevented terrorism — and there is no doubt their claims are largely correct, in a technical sense — from any big picture view, it was a disaster, having delivered minimal gains at vast and enduring political cost.

Knowing the CIA and the IC, I’m not sure any other outcome was likely here. The salient fact is that, on 9/11, CIA lacked interrogators. That was a messy line of work the Agency had happily run away from after Vietnam, so in 2001 there were no serving officers who had a clue what to do. Indeed, coercive interrogation went deeply against the culture of CIA case officers, for whom getting friendly, if (hopefully) not too friendly, with sources is a requirement. As a result, CIA fobbed this nasty mission off on Agency security types lacking understanding of operations (in an eerie replay of the botched Nosenko affair of the 1960’s), much less of Arabs, and dumped the rest of the mess on a motley crew of contractors who never had any business falling into this most sensitive line of work. Whether you think CIA use of torture was right or wrong, there can be no debate, based on what the public now knows, that this program was badly mismanaged and doomed to failure from day one. As is so often the case, noble IC intentions collided with the wall of incompetence and wishful thinking, and eventually ample CYA.

That said, it is perilously easy to find fault here with people who did their best under most difficult circumstances. I find it noxious that much of the emotional hand-wringing about this comes from people, many of them in Congress, who were happy to sign off on such matters when the danger of terrorism was acute, yet are now happy to throw spooks under the bus when times and administrations have changed.

What Democrats on the SSCI have done this week is highly damaging, not to mention gratuitous, and will have lasting impacts on the IC and our national security. It is at the least highly curious that Democrats on the SSCI, as a parting shot before control of the Senate changes hands shortly, released a report that had existed, in several forms, for years. Much of the “torture” details have been known to the public since 2006, almost a decade ago, while revealing details of how foreign intelligence agencies assisted the IC after 9/11 is nothing short of stupid.

After the 9/11 attacks, many foreign partners assisted us in our covert fight against terrorism, with the understanding that it would be kept tightly secret. “May we read about you in the newspapers” is a MOSSAD joke-cum-curse for good reason. Now that the SSCI majority has betrayed that trust, I can see no reason why any foreign intelligence agency should believe American promises ever again. Coming on the heels of the Snowden debacle, which rightly raised serious questions about the IC’s ability to keep secrets, this is a grave problem. Without close foreign intelligence partnerships, based on mutual trust and discretion, our ability to protect our country and our interests will be seriously and lastingly degraded.

It is never a healthy thing in a democracy when naked partisan politics intrudes on the intelligence business, which is a sacred trust that ought to be above the partisan food-fight. Yet that is precisely what the SSCI Democrats have done here. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this release was a spiteful reaction to their recent midterm election losses. What else can be said when the Democrats made no effort to include CIA or IC viewpoints in their vast and scathing reports, which run to over seven thousand pages.

Senior IC officials have reacted with vitriol to the Democrats’ action, particularly Mike Hayden, who served as director of both NSA and CIA. The wisest response, however, has been Bob Kerrey’s. A former Democratic Senator and Governor, Kerrey served on the SSCI for eight years and knows the issues intimately. I’ve long admired Kerrey, a centrist who always tried to do what was right for the country, not just his party; his patriot credentials, as a former Navy SEAL who lost a leg in Vietnam, winning the Medal of Honor in the process, are above question. Kerrey makes many wise statements, you should read his whole op-ed, but this is central to his argument:

I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it. The Republicans checked out early when they determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it.

There’s the rub. The SSCI majority report is in no way an effort to establish truths, much less to reform what clearly needs reform. Rather, it is a prosecutorial brief intended to cause pain to the committee’s incoming majority. This intrusion of overt partisanship into the intelligence business is a terrible precedent in our democracy.

There are few precedents for what has just happened. Some will cite the mid-1970’s efforts by Congress to investigate IC errors and worse, most famously the Church Committee. This, after all, led to the current Congressional oversight system, as well as most of the legal norms under which American intelligence operates down to the present day. But the analogy is flawed, as the Church Committee revealed IC programs, of dubious provenance and legality, which Congress knew nothing about. In contrast, the SSCI majority this week chose to release the details of Top Secret programs which they had known about for many years.

The only area where the analogy with the 1970’s is operative, regrettably, is in the realm of unintended consequences. While the Church hearings led to much-needed reforms of the IC, it also led to a bloodbath at CIA, including the firing of many valuable officers; worse, it caused the establishment of a clear delineation between foreign and domestic intelligence, more than exists in reality — so clear, in fact, that it was termed The Wall. This was The Wall whose prevention of cooperation between the FBI, CIA and NSA was the single greatest cause of the failure to prevent 9/11.

CIA isn’t going anywhere. It will weather these bureaucratic storms, as it always has. The first mission of any bureaucracy, of course, is survival. Sadly, there will be no real reforms, even though these are plainly needed. Just as the Snowden Operation made serious NSA reform impossible, since it brought the taint of treason and Moscow, the introduction of naked partisanship into the discussion of CIA torture means that Agency and IC reform is stillborn. Having branded themselves as the party of calling out CIA misdeeds, the Democrats have marginalized any credentials they have won on national security, and the Republicans, seeking payback for what the SSCI just did, will no doubt block needed reforms as “unpatriotic.”

Thus will CIA remain, largely unreformed. Its foreign partnerships have taken a serious blow, and any operational bias for action, strongly encouraged after 9/11, has evaporated, perhaps for decades. Who, after all, wants to take risks when you might be exposed by an angry Congress a few years down the road? Getting your intelligence services to be risk-averse and ineffective, acting like a very secretive and expensive Department of Motor Vehicles, is an eminently achievable goal, and will be the lasting legacy of the Democrats on the SSCI. Be sure to remember this after the next terrorist “big wedding,” which is sure to come eventually, when Congress seeks scalps to blame for the disaster.

As the world revels in blaming CIA with torture in lurid detail, we can expect outrage and perhaps prosecutions of American intelligence officers and their foreign partners. Lawfare is now a thriving global industry. The damage to our security and our allies will be lasting. To be clear, I am as disgusted as anybody by what the SSCI has disclosed to the world. My position, which I elaborated long ago, is that torture can be quite effective, but nevertheless is something no civilized country ought to employ. Period. Where easy moralizers see a simple tale of Hitlerian evil in CIA activities after 9/11, I see instead a sad, predictable story of incompetence and severe bureaucratic dysfunction that cries out for reform. A reform that Senate Democrats have now made impossible — until after the next 9/11.

P.S. It has been much noted that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) agreed with the majority on the SSCI. As well he ought to, since as someone who suffered torture for years as a POW in Hanoi, he is understandably touchy on this topic. That said, it’s fair to note that most of the people now praising McCain as the world’s moral avatar on torture generally consider him to be a deranged warmonger, and I suspect less than one percent of his cheerleaders today voted for him in 2008. Partisanship is ruining the Republic.

P.P.S. I’ve never been clear on the morality whereby invading countries, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them civilians, is ok, while using drones to kill thousands more civilians in several countries is quite acceptable, but torturing a few people, mainly terrorists, is officially The Worst Thing Ever…but that’s probably just me.

The Cancer of Advocacy Journalism

Over the last week, the American media has begun, belatedly, to examine a story in Rolling Stone magazine last month which asserted that a horrific gang rape occurred at the University of Virginia, at a named fraternity. The story was light on specifics, not naming the victim or the perpetrators except in vague terms, but its depiction of gang rape was vivid and hard to forget.

I have no expertise in such matters, but my old counterintelligence sense told me that a lot of this account didn’t add up and much of it simply didn’t make much sense. Others clearly felt the same way and a small amount of fact-checking — which was never done by Rolling Stone — revealed that the story, as reported, simply could not have happened. While it is certainly possible that “Jackie” was raped at UVA, her nightmarish story, as reported by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, cannot be true.

The UVA rape saga has caused some overdue introspection in certain quarters, since the false accusation of rape, indeed a terrifying gang rape, is a most serious matter. If I were the fraternity in question, whose reputation has been destroyed before the world, I would have platoons of lawyers deploying with haste.

Some are rightly asking questions about what else ideologically-minded journalists like Sabrina Rubin Erdely have faked; that would be good to know. But in truth the problem of journalists dispensing with fact-checking and the barest professional norms to advance a story they want to be true is nothing new. Indeed, this phenomenon, properly termed advocacy journalism, has been cancerous for over two decades and is only now getting the scrutiny it deserves.

I first encountered advocacy journalism back in the 1990’s in the Balkans. The Bosnian War of 1992-95, in particular, was a proving ground of this dangerous nonsense, as I recounted in my book Unholy Terror. While that conflict got a vast amount of Western media coverage — hundreds of times more than, say, Algeria’s civil war, which happened at the same time and killed many more innocent people — the truth is that almost all the Western journalists who signed up for what locals derisively termed the “Sarajevo safari” knew nothing about the country and did not speak the language.

Worse, most of these journalists quickly signed on for a simple, good-versus-evil narrative of Bosnia’s complex and messy war that portrayed Muslims as innocent victims and Serbs (and, later, Croats) as genocidal barbarians with whom there could be no parley. This perspective was so overly simple as to be cartoonish. Accepting it required a suspension of any journalistic norms such as confirming sources and stories, but many Western journalists in Bosnia were perfectly happy to do that.

They became advocates, some unapologetically so. Actually looking at the Bosnian war with a critical eye would have revealed uncomfortable and inconvenient facts that did not fit The Narrative. Such as the fact that the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo committed war crimes too. That it even perpetrated war crimes against fellow Muslims when Western journalists were watching, to gain political points. Most consequentially, the Sarajevo government was in bed with Iranian intelligence and Salafi jihadists like Osama Bin Laden (who, like thousands of his fellow foreign mujahidin who fought in the Balkans, received a Bosnian passport for his service to Sarajevo).

All these were things that Western journalists could have covered, since the facts were available, but they averted eyes from issues that might upset The Narrative they had created and sought to continue.

Some of this was careerism, since the Bosnian war made good copy, but many of the journalists who covered the conflict were true believers, some of them openly so. Ed Vulliamy, who won numerous awards for his coverage of Bosnia, admitted his role in trying to get NATO intervention, even at the expense of accurate reporting, describing journalistic neutrality as “ridiculous,” asserting, “We have to take sides,” memorably adding, “If the professional ethics say I can’t take sides, screw the ethics.” CNN’s ubiquitous Christian Amanpour admitted that she in no way covered Bosnia objectively, serving instead as a mouthpiece of the Sarajevo government, because doing anything else would have made her “an accomplice to genocide.”

What made the The Narrative plausible is that, like any good disinformation, it was partially true. Tens of thousands of Muslim civilians died in the Bosnian war, and some were murdered barbarically. Although Western journalists vastly inflated those deaths, some did happen. Yet keeping The Narrative intact meant presenting Bosnia’s Muslims as virtuous “designer victims” in whom there was no guile or fault, and that was something nobody who understood Bosnia the actual country accepted. The result was Western media coverage that was deeply unbalanced and at times simply untrue, and this inspired Western policies towards that tragic country that unsurprisingly led to long-term poverty and failure.

To cite one example among many there, in the late fall of 1992 The New York Times reported a sensational story filled with horror. A twenty-one year old Bosnian Serb soldier, Borislav Herak, recounted to John Burns, a seasoned correspondent, how he had been involved in the rape and murder of Muslim civilians on a grand scale. The story he told was lurid and detailed and makes the Rolling Stone account of “Jackie” seem like a holiday.

Overnight, it became a global sensation, putting flesh and first-hand detail for the first time on horrific, if murky, accounts of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia that the Western media had been reporting for months. It won Burns a Pulitzer Prize and the Herak saga became iconic among Western journalists, the kind of scoop that platoons of them sought to get for themselves in the bloody hills of Bosnia.

Unfortunately, there were clear signs from the outset that Herak was not telling the truth. In the first place, the young man told his story from Muslim captivity, and there was evidence he had been tortured. A few years later, once the war was over, Herak finally told the truth, that he had been coerced to tell Burns what Western journalists wanted to hear. “I was forced to speak against myself and my comrades,” he explained in 1996, but by then it was old news; Western minds had been made up long before.

More troubling is the fact that Herak’s initial account included things that it’s hard to believe any Western journalist could have accepted with a straight face. In particular, Herak claimed to have witnessed Canadian General Lewis MacKenzie, the UN peacekeeping commander in Bosnia at the time, participate in rapes of Muslim women on multiple occasions. This assertion, for which there was never any evidence, was muted by the Western media since it made Herak look like the unreliable witness he was, and possibly insane to boot. Why, then, any other of Herak’s lurid claims ought to have been accepted at face value seems not to have occurred to reporters.

Western media misrepresentations in Bosnia — this went well beyond bias and amounted to a sort of nihilism — had a pernicious effect on Western responses to that awful conflict, and they have lasting impacts today, over two decades later. Advocacy journalism infected foreign reporting in the 1990’s, and more recently this cancer has spread to all forms of American journalism, which is a development that ought to concern all of us.

To be fair to Sabrina Rubin Erdely, whose regular reporting on sexual assault must now be fact-checked, belatedly, her exaggerations and possible fabrications are no worse than the feted media frenzy surrounding the Snowden Operation, which I’ve written a great deal about. Pulitzer Prizes likewise fell on those who reported stolen NSA information in a manner so one-sided and devoid of any context as to be lies: or, more properly, disinformation. This, while not new, is worse than it was during the Cold War, and seems to be the new normal in too much American journalism, which ought to be kept in mind as Rolling Stone is, rightly, raked over the coals for its UVA reporting.

The first sign of trouble is when journalists abandon a critical mind and accept The Narrative on any issue. Although the full story has yet to emerge, it’s already apparent that Rolling Stone heard what it wanted to hear, namely that Southern white fratboys are secretly rapist monsters, and dispensed with actually cog the story before publishing it. How this could have happened after the remarkably similar Duke lacrosse rape debacle only a few years ago, is a germane question that merits investigation.

The likely answer is that feminists of the Social Justice Warrior variety, to use an au courant term, have accepted that white men are rapists in general, ideologically speaking, thus normal standards of evidence need not apply to prove claims of criminal misconduct. As witm in America, just as Bosnian Muslims were victims of war crimes — but substituting ideology for reality leads to a sort of nihilism.

Unless journalists are held to the accepted norms of their profession, they play a dangerous role in a democracy. Bias is not the issue here, since everybody has bias; rather, the issue is abandonment of long-understood professional practice. Journalists, editors included, who refuse to check facts and confirm accounts, especially salacious claims, are propagandists and should be publicly labeled as such.

When this sort of institutionalized nihilism, which substitutes incendiary assertions for facts, becomes normative, our democracy itself is at stake. We depend on free exchange of ideas and the acceptance of a certain common narrative that believes in at least trying to speak the truth about public events. Abandoning this helped ruin Bosnia, a country far away that few Americans could locate on a map. Institutionalizing the cancerous nihilism of advocacy journalism at home will lead to the ruin of the Republic.