The Jonathan Schell Reader has just been published by Nation Books.


Osama bin Laden has been thinking. Perhaps he has a lot of time to think in his cave, or four-star hotel, or wherever he is. And like so many who think a lot, he wants to share his thoughts. Just before the election, of course, he appeared on videotape, in golden robes, to analyze the political situation in the United States. He was discursive, almost garrulous. He explained why he hadn’t attacked Sweden. He analyzed the Patriot Act. He expatiated upon the US budget deficit. Within the mass murderer, it seemed, there was a pundit struggling to get out, as if he hoped for a spot on The Capital Gang or Meet the Press.

Now he has spoken again, this time on an audiotape that runs for more than an hour. He unsurprisingly commends the guerrillas who recently attacked the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The tape appeared a scant ten days after the attack, in his fastest response to an event in the news. What followed, however, was unexpected. He analyzed the fall of dictators, from Ceausescu of Romania onward. And he called on the Saudi leaders to carry on nonviolent revolution of the kind the world has seen a good deal of recently. He was eager, he said, to head off an armed revolution by Saudi youth.

The interest in nonviolence, in any shape or form, is, to put it mildly, new for bin Laden. Is it possible that while reading the latest news and thinking about revolutions, he had also taken note of the highly successful nonviolent movement against the stolen election in Ukraine? After the September 11 attack, bin Laden had famously asserted that if people are asked to choose between a weak horse and a strong horse, they’ll choose the strong horse. After dealing his staggering blow, he was feeling like a strong horse. But in Ukraine, where, according to European Union observers and others, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich had stolen the victory from Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition seemed to be heading for victory without violence. Its methods were the polar opposite of his. Did he hope for something like it in Saudi Arabia? He indeed appeared to have timed the release of his tape to coincide with a demonstration against the rule of the Saudi princes in Riyadh. (As it happened, attendance was low, and no nonviolent, Ukrainian-style miracle got going.)

Elsewhere in the world, people were also pondering the meaning of the Ukrainian events. Russia had intervened strongly in favor of Yanukovich. The Kremlin had dispatched consultants to help him, and Russian President Vladimir Putin openly supported him during the campaign and then congratulated him on his faked electoral victory. Afterward, Stanislav Belkovsky, the president of the National Strategy Institute in Moscow and a critic of Putin, explained that Yanukovich had been a “creation of political consultants–a very popular principle in Russia today.” After the defeat, one of those Moscow consultants showed his stripes when he commented, “All Yushchenko supporters are beasts and fascists.” Russia had clearly tried to set the course of Ukrainian politics from without, and it had failed.

The United States has also been busy in Ukraine. In the past decade, it has spent some $58 million there, through organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by annual appropriations from Congress. Nongovernmental groups such as the Open Society have also been involved. In principle their intervention has been nonpartisan, but the boundary between support for a fair election and support for the candidate who is demanding fairness for himself (Yushchenko) is not easy to draw. According to testimony by Republican Representative Ron Paul of Texas at hearings of the House International Relations Committee, for example, some of the groups supported by American dollars were organizationally tied to Yushchenko. Process and result were linked. Nevertheless, one imposing fact stands out: Russia was helping a government steal an election while the Western-supported groups were opposing that theft.

Some have concluded from this story that while Russia was failing to determine the Ukrainian election, the West succeeded in this. For example, Ian Traynor of the Guardian has written, “The operation–engineering democracy through the ballot box and civil disobedience–is now so slick that the methods have matured into a template for winning other people’s elections.” (Emphasis added.) But making sure there is an election is different from deciding who the winner is. No one supposes that strategic aims, including extending American influence, are missing from US policy decisions, and the danger that democratic movements will be manipulated from abroad for geopolitical reasons is real. But does anyone suppose that there could have been an “orange revolution” in Ukraine if Yanukovich had actually won?

The Russians before the fact and the Western observers after it seemed to make a common mistake: to imagine that in modern times the future of countries can readily be determined by intervention from without. It’s a mistake with a long history. The Russians made it in Afghanistan and then in Eastern Europe. The United States made it in Vietnam. The United States is now making it, with a vengeance, in Iraq.

An observer from still another land–Poland–who was in Kiev during the stormy, heady days of the demonstrations surely got closer to the pounding heart of the whole matter. Reading in the Western press that Ukraine was “the training ground of the fight between the US and Russia,” Marcin Bosacki of Gazeta Wyborcza was struck with “a sense of utter absurdity when one realized what was missing from all these comments.” And what was it? It was “the millions of people on the streets of Kiev, Kharkov, Lviv…. For it is the people who are making this a self-containing, nonviolent revolution.” Bin Laden, the slayer of thousands of innocents, may notice the result but is unlikely ever to understand the role of the people. Russia under Gorbachev understood the lesson and let Eastern Europe go, but under Putin has forgotten it again. The United States once learned it and has now also forgotten it. How many times must the lesson be taught, and at what cost, before it is learned once and for all?

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