Foreign Policy

America's unsavory alliances

Making the wrong friends in the fight against terrorism

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As pro- and antiwar voices around the world vie for our attention, one extraordinary statement that doesn't fall squarely on either side of the divide comes out of Russia: an "Open Letter to President Bush" by Vladimir Bukovsky and Elena Bonner. Bukovsky, a noted Soviet-era dissident, former political prisoner, and author, and Bonner, the widow of the great scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov and a prominent activist in her own right, are both veterans of the struggle against Soviet tyranny. They have no sympathy with the antiwar movement. Their conclusion, from their own experience of life under a totalitarian regime, is that military action against the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq is long overdue, and that it would free the Iraqi people from brutal oppression. And yet they pose the question: "Why is the US government not as smart as its weapons are? Why does it always make it so difficult to support it, even when it fights for a just and noble cause?"

Bukovsky's and Bonner's harsh words are directed at the unsavory alliances that they believe the United States is entering in the war against terrorism—and, specifically, at our new friendship with Russia.

Their letter, which appeared in the conservative Web magazine FrontPage on March 10, has received virtually no publicity. Yet its message is worth hearing.

Bukovsky and Bonner paint a troubling picture of Russia in 2003. "The KGB has won," they write startlingly. "After 10 years of some hesitant, half-hearted attempts at reform, the power was handed back to them, once again, and they were very quick to reestablish their authority throughout the country."

They cite the crackdown on the independent media and the prosecutions of whistleblowers who have spoken out against military abuses. They also point to Chechnya, where, they assert, Russia is waging nothing less than a genocidal war.

"The danger of 'partnership' with criminal regimes," write Bukovsky and Bonner, "is that they never stop until they make you an accomplice in their crimes. Slowly but surely, the Russian rulers force their Western partners to accept their crimes in Chechnya as a part of common struggle with terrorism."

Before Sept. 11, they note, criticism from the West exerted at least some restraint on Russia's rampant abuses in Chechnya; now, even that is gone. And the Bush administration, they say, had blacklisted Chechen groups as "terrorist organizations" solely on the word of the Russian security service, the FSB (the KGB's successor).

Principles aside, Bukovsky and Bonner argue that these compromises are buying us an untrustworthy partner. They point out that Russia is still secretly selling military equipment to the "axis of evil countries." They are particularly appalled by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's praise for Russia's "vast experience in fighting terrorism."

Actually, they point out, "Russia, in its former incarnation as the Soviet Union, has practically invented modern political terrorism, elevating it to the level of state policy." For decades, it armed and otherwise aided terrorist groups around the world, as well as rogue states including Iraq. Perhaps Bukovsky and Bonner are painting too gloomy and too one-sided a picture. They seem to disregard credible claims of the involvement of radical Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda, in the struggle of the Chechen rebels. They may exaggerate Russia's backsliding toward authoritarianism.

Still, their concerns are firmly grounded in reality. Two days after the publication of their letter, Putin issued decrees expanding the FSB's turf, giving it back some of the functions of the old KGB—overseeing border control and protecting the security of government communications. Many saw this as yet another step in tightening the KGB's grip on the country. "They are re-creating the old monster," warned Ludmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization.

One could argue that we can't afford to be too picky about choosing our allies in the war against terrorism. Bukovsky and Bonner warn against such a view, and not just on idealistic grounds.

"There is nothing more dangerous in the war of ideas than the 'realpolitik' approach which brought us so many disasters in the past," they write. "After all, was not Osama bin Laden a byproduct of a similar 'marriage of convenience' at one point? Was it not true also in the case of Saddam Hussein? … Will the United States ever learn this lesson, or will it continue forever to build up new enemies while fighting present ones?"

As we appear to be headed toward war, we would do well to heed this warning.