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Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War | The Nation

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Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War

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Illustration by Doug Chayka

I prepared the text below for remarks to the annual US-Russia Forum in Washington, DC, held in the Hart Senate Office Building (though not under official auspices) on June 16. Obliged to abridge my text to the time allocated to speakers, I have restored the deletions here and spelled out a number of my impromptu comments. In addition, I refer to a few subsequent developments to illustrate some of my themes.—S.F.C.

We meet today during the worst and potentially most dangerous American-Russian confrontation in many decades, probably since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The Ukrainian civil war, precipitated by the unlawful change of government in Kiev in February, is already growing into a proxy US-Russian war. The seemingly unthinkable is becoming imaginable: an actual war between NATO, led by the United States, and post-Soviet Russia.

Certainly, we are already in a new Cold War, which escalating sanctions will only deepen, institutionalize and prolong—one potentially more dangerous than its US-Soviet predecessor, which the world barely survived. This is so for several reasons:

§ The epicenter of the new Cold War is not in Berlin but on Russia’s borders, in Ukraine, a region absolutely essential in Moscow’s view to its national security and even to its civilization. This means that the kinds of miscalculations, mishaps and provocations the world witnessed decades ago will be even more fraught with danger. (The mysterious shoot-down of a Malaysian jetliner over eastern Ukraine in July was an ominous example. The military threats in August surrounding Russia’s humanitarian convoy sent to the Donbass cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, and Kiev’s simultaneous attempt to take those cities, are others.)

§ An even graver risk is that the new Cold War may tempt the use of nuclear weapons in a way the US-Soviet one did not. I have in mind the argument made by some Moscow military strategists that if directly threatened by NATO’s superior conventional forces, Russia may resort to its much larger arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. (The ongoing US/NATO encirclement of Russia with bases, as well as land- and sea-based missile-defense weapons, only increases this possibility.)

§ Yet another risk factor is that the new Cold War lacks the mutually restraining rules that developed during the forty-year Cold War, especially after the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, highly charged suspicions, resentments, misconceptions and misinformation both in Washington and Moscow today may make such mutual restraints even more difficult. The same is true of the surreal demonization of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin—a kind of personal vilification without any real precedent in the past, at least after Stalin’s death. (Henry Kissinger has pointed out that the “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” I think it is worse: an abdication of real analysis and rational policy-making.)

§ Finally, the new Cold War may be more perilous because, also unlike its forty-year-long predecessor, there is no effective American opposition—not in the administration, Congress, the establishment media, universities, think tanks or the general public.

In this regard, we need to understand our circumstances. We—opponents of the US policies that have contributed so woefully to the current crisis—are few in number, without influential supporters and unorganized. I am old enough to know our position was very different in the 1970s and ’80s, when we struggled for what was then called détente. We were a minority, but a substantial minority with allies in high places, even in Congress and the State Department. Our views were solicited by mainstream newspapers, television and radio. In addition to grassroots support, we even had our own lobbying organization in Washington, the American Committee on East-West Accord, whose board included corporate CEOs, political figures, prominent academics and statesmen of the stature of George Kennan.

We have none of that today. We have no access to the Obama administration, virtually none to Congress, which is a bipartisan bastion of Cold War politics, and very little to the mainstream media. (Since the Ukrainian crisis deepened, does anyone recall reading our views on the editorial or op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal—or seeing them presented on MSNBC or the Fox News Channel, which differ little in their unbalanced blame-Russia broadcasts?) We do have access to important alternative media, but they are not considered authoritative, or even essential, inside the Beltway. In my long lifetime, I do not recall such a failure of American democratic discourse in any comparable time of crisis. (Gilbert Doctorow, an American specialist on Russia and experienced multinational corporate executive living in Belgium, is trying to create a US-European version of the Committee on East-West Accord.)

In my limited remaining time, I will speak generally about this dire situation—almost certainly a fateful turning point in world affairs—in my own three capacities: as a participant in what little mainstream media debate has been permitted; as a longtime scholarly historian of Russia and of US-Russian relations; and as an informed observer who believes there is still a way out of this terrible crisis.

About my episodic participation in the very limited mainstream media discussion, I will speak in a more personal way than I usually do. From the outset, I saw my role as twofold. Recalling the American adage “There are two sides to every story,” I sought to explain Moscow’s view of the Ukrainian crisis, which is almost entirely missing in mainstream coverage. (Without David Johnson’s indispensable daily Russia List, non-Russian readers would have little access to alternative perspectives. John Mearsheimer’s article in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs is an important exception.) What, for example, did Putin mean when he said Western policy-makers were “trying to drive us into some kind of corner,” “have lied to us many times” and “have crossed the line” in Ukraine? Second, having argued since the 1990s, in my books and Nation articles, that Washington’s bipartisan Russia policies could lead to a new Cold War and to just such a crisis, I wanted to bring my longstanding analysis to bear on today’s confrontation over Ukraine.

As a result, I have been repeatedly assailed—even in purportedly liberal publications—as Putin’s No. 1 American “apologist,” “useful idiot,” “dupe,” “best friend” and, perhaps a new low in immature invective, “toady.” I expected to be criticized, as I was during nearly twenty years as a CBS News commentator, but not in such personal and scurrilous ways. (Something has changed in our political culture, perhaps related to the Internet.)

Until now, I have not bothered to reply to any of these defamatory attacks. I do so today because I now think they are directed at several of us in this room, indeed at anyone critical of Washington’s Russia policies, not just me. (Not even Kissinger or President Reagan’s enormously successful ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, have been entirely immune.) Re-reading the attacks, I have come to the following conclusions:

§ None of these character assassins present any factual refutations of anything I have written or said. They indulge only in ad hominem slurs based on distortions and on the general premise that any American who seeks to understand Moscow’s perspectives is a “Putin apologist” and thus unpatriotic. Such a premise only abets the possibility of war.

§ Some of these writers, or people who stand behind them, are longtime proponents of the twenty-year US policies that have led to the Ukrainian crisis. By defaming us, they seek to obscure their complicity in the unfolding disaster and their unwillingness to rethink it. Failure to rethink dooms us to the worst outcome.

§ Equally important, however, these kinds of neo-McCarthyites are trying to stifle democratic debate by stigmatizing us in ways that make us unwelcome on mainstream broadcasts and op-ed pages and to policy-makers. They are largely succeeding.

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