15 August 2008

The Return of Russophobia

The fear of Russia in lands to the west predates the Bolshevik Revolution. Ever since the country first asserted itself as a force in European affairs, people have feared that its size and resources would make Russia the dominant power on the continent. This simple competitive anxiety was made worse by Russia's image as an almost congenitally tyrannical nation, which dates back probably to the time of Tsar Ivan Grozny ("the Terrible"). When American anti-federalists in the 18th century warned that a country as large as the United States could not be ruled except by tyranny, they had the example of Russia in mind. Throughout the 19th century, Russia was a byword for tyranny. Leading up to 1917, the country's reputation grew worse with the violent suppression of the 1905 uprising and repeated anti-Jewish pogroms. Adolf Hitler's opinion notwithstanding, German Jews rallied to their country's cause in 1914 because of their hostility to Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution's quick turn to tyranny only confirmed perceptions that Russia as a culture was inclined to tyranny and servility on the part of the masses.

American observers with some sense of history have said that Vladimir Putin's ascendancy in Russia and his tough attitude toward his neighbors represents a return to ancient form. More typical is the response to the South Ossetian crisis that implies that Russia today is pretty much interchangeable with the old Soviet Union. Putin's past as a KGB man is evidence enough for the belief that he's a closet Communist, whatever his actual economic policies may be.

Whatever Putin really represents in historical terms, Russophobia is alive and well in America. Predictably enough, neocon columnists like Charles Krauthammer are calling for blows against Russia ranging from a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics to the financing of an Afghan-style insurgency among the Georgians if Russia moves for a total takeover of that embattled country. Krauthammer is sensible enough to realize that "There's nothing to be done militarily" against Russia, but wants President Bush or (he hopes) President McCain to "remind Vlad of our capacity to make Russia bleed."

Cal Thomas uses his current column to argue that Senator Obama's response to the crisis shows his unpreparedness to manage American foreign policy. Thomas isn't exactly a neocon, but has remained mostly loyal to Bush through the past eight years. As a hard-line partisan, his interest in stoking Russophobia is to remind Americans of the existence of a big enemy and of their need for a strong man (McCain in this case) to stand up to the bully. To drive the point home, he claims that "Putin never renounced communism," and offers the South Ossetian crisis as "a sobering reminder that the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was not a sign that old-line communists were ready to walk the sawdust trail or repentance and convert to capitalism, human rights and religious freedom."

Clearly viewing Russia through a "totalitarian" template, Thomas has no time to discuss the claims of South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Those add up to "pretext" for him, no more to be taken seriously, one infers, than the pretexts Hitler offered for seizing the Sudetenland or invading Poland. To make Russia the villain, it's almost imperative to ignore or even disparage the minorities within Georgia. If Russia is the bad guy, and they want Russia's help, then they must be bad guys, too.

The U.S. has made the next move by advancing plans to install missile-defense components in Poland. The Russians have responded in an objectively thuggish way, threatening to "punish" Poland for its action. The Poles have every right to defy Russia and seek any ally who'll help them do so. That doesn't mean it's wise for anyone else to offer that help, however morally satisfying the decision might be, if "there's nothing to be done militarily" to deter Russia. It's even less wise to claim moral satisfaction when nearly 200 years of your own history since the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine has shown the U.S. as much wedded to the notion of a "sphere of influence" as any other power. The return of Russophobia is a convenient excuse for ignoring the hypocrisy of the American position. Therefore, expect to see a lot of it from now until November.


crhymethinc said...

Seems that the Americans need to be reminded that about 40 years there was a thing called the "Cuban missile crisis", in which Cuba decided to allow their "allies", the USSR, to put a missile base in their country for "defensive purposes". Our president stated in very clear terms that Cuba risked invasion and the possibility of a nuclear strike if they continued on that course of action. Now, the roles are reversed.

If the USSR was in the wrong then, we are in the wrong now. This right-wing bullshit of dual-standards must come to an end. If the USSR was not allowed a missile base in Cuba, then the USSA must not be allowed a similar base in Poland. If the USSA continues on this course of action, the next logical step for Russia to take is to build a base in Cuba.

I completely disagree with the idea of any country being allowed a "sphere of influence", but if our leaders are to insist on this absurdity, then let the Monroe Doctrine be our final word on the subject. We get the Western hemisphere and the Eastern hemisphere is up for grabs to anyone but the US.

Samuel Wilson said...

The Missile Crisis itself exposed an American double-standard. The U.S. already had missiles in Turkey, which bordered the U.S.S.R., before Khrushchev installed his missiles in Cuba. While Americans and Kennedy idolators like to boast of how he made Khrushchev blink, the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba was part of a quid-pro-quo arrangement that resulted in our removing our missiles from Turkey. Right-wingers who know this history actually argue that Kennedy really lost the confrontation by giving up the Turkish missiles. The double standard was even more blatant then than now. They used the Monroe Doctrine to justify our stance against Cuba, but never acknowledged the USSR's equivalent claim for a border region free from foreign influence.

Maybe Russia should put it in writing now, ideally in a word-for-word equivalent of the MD, but I shouldn't kid myself: the right-wingers and stupor-patriots would just say, "how dare they claim moral equivalence with us?" That's a neat trick to hide the fact that Russia would not have claimed "moral equivalence," only "equivalence," but to too many Americans that would be "immoral."