Foreign Policy

Sympathy for the Devil

Why is the American left making excuses for Putin's Russia?

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Last Friday, Salon.com columnist and blogger Glenn Greenwald, one of the Bush presidency's harshest critics, blasted both major party presidential candidates for perpetuating the "blatant falsehood" that Russia launched an "unprovoked attack" on Georgia last August. This, he asserted, was a clear-cut instance of the suppression of legitimate and vital debate in America's political discourse. It so happens that Greenwald's charge is blatantly false—and reveals much more about the mindset of the left than about the state of American democracy.

In Greenwald's view, McCain has championed the false notion of the Russia-Georgia war to further his own neocon agenda, while Obama has "adopted the lie" out of political expediency:

Since all of the major candidates accept the deceitful premise about what happened—that Russia's "aggression" against Georgia was "unprovoked"—nobody refutes it… The propaganda is just asserted to be true by the political establishment and thus accepted by most of the citizenry, and then becomes the unchallenged foundation of all sorts of dangerous, militaristic policy orthodoxies…

Yet, curiously enough, neither of the presidential debates to which Greenwald links to back up his argument contains the word "unprovoked." In the first debate, on September 26, Obama called Russia's actions "unacceptable" and "unwarranted"; McCain spoke of "serious aggression" and criticized Obama for his initial statement urging mutual "restraint," while Obama denied that his statement was soft on Russia and noted that he had warned back in April about the risks of Russian "peacekeepers" in Georgia's disputed regions. In the second debate, on October 7, it was much the same (though McCain came closest to Greenwald's description when he condemned Russia's "naked aggression").

One candidate did use the word. In her September 11 interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, Sarah Palin referred to Russia "invading a smaller democratic country, unprovoked." But her claim went anything but unchallenged, with Gibson at once interjecting, "You believe unprovoked." The Los Angeles Times described her position as "at odds with that of U.S. officials who have reviewed events leading up to the military action." In The New York Times, Maureen Dowd chided Palin for not knowing that "as heinous as Russia's behavior toward Georgia was, it was not completely unprovoked."

Indeed, as harsh a critic of Russia as Condoleezza Rice has openly acknowledged that Georgia initiated the military action by shelling the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, on August 7, and that "all sides made mistakes." Clearly, what irks Greenwald is not that Russia's actions in Georgia are viewed as unprovoked but that they are viewed as (to quote Obama) unacceptable and unwarranted. Incidentally, this view is hardly unique to the United States, as Greenwald implies; it is also dominant in Europe.

Why? Well, let's review Russia's actions, not just during and after but before the armed conflict. For years, Russia backed separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia while paying lip service to Georgia's sovereignty. Since about 2002, it has been handing out Russian passports to people in these regions, in a transparent ploy to create a "legitimate" cause for intervention—defense of its citizens. (It's unclear whether these passports, the kind held by Russian citizens abroad, would allow their possessors to live inside Russia.) It engaged in blatant provocations toward Georgia, apparently including the downing of a Georgian reconnaissance drone over Abkhazia.

Georgia has staunchly maintained that Russia initiated the military action in the recent conflict by moving its troops inside the Roki Tunnel, which links Russia to South Ossetia, about 20 hours before the shelling of Tskhinvali began. These claims, still under investigation by European Union officials, are at least partly corroborated by intercepted cell phone calls indicating Russian troop movements before dawn on August 7, and by other intriguing, if inconclusive, evidence.

Whatever is eventually learned about the start of the war, Russia's actions afterwards are not in doubt: the illegal invasion and partial occupation of Georgia; the looting and destruction of Georgian property and military equipment; the abetting of ethnic cleansing in Georgian villages by South Ossetian vigilante squads; the abrupt, unilateral recognition of the two separatist republics. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili may be no paragon of democratic governance or wisdom, but that doesn't change the basic fact of Russian aggression.

These facts are widely known in almost every place where the Russia-Georgia conflict has received attention. Almost. Which brings us to a particularly stunning passage in Greenwald's piece: "Americans are alone in this world in being lied to about what happened. Virtually the entire rest of the world…has access to the truth." Greenwald seems to have forgotten about Russia, where state-run television—the average citizen's main, and often only, source of news—went on a Soviet-style propaganda binge for weeks, and where the pro-government media has repeated outlandish claims of Georgian "genocide" in South Ossetia long after these tales were discredited.

There is something puzzling about the sympathy for Russia evident in many quarters of the American left—from Greenwald to Noam Chomsky to Alexander Cockburn and Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation (not to mention numerous commenters at sites like Salon.com and The Huffington Post). When Cold War-era leftists pleaded for a more understanding view of the Soviet Union, they were at least arguing on behalf of a power that, despite its abuses, at least outwardly embraced many "progressive" ideals: free medicine, housing and education, extensive social services, secularism, women's rights, relative social equality. The Putin/Medvedev Russia is the opposite of everything today's left supports: It's a land where billionaires flaunt their $20,000 watches and $350 million yachts, social services are slashed to a minimum, religion is entangled with the state, ethnic bigotry flourishes, labor unions are trampled, and homophobia is rampant and officially condoned.

Why the sympathy, then? A knee-jerk reaction that equates hostility to Russia with red-baiting? Or could it be that to some on the left, the cause of sticking a finger in America's eye is progressive enough?

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.