FEB 27, 2012 16:38 UTC
There was Vladimir Putin the other day doing what he does best. The Kremlin strongman who has promised to put rebels in the outhouse, threatened an annoying reporter with circumcision and shot darts at rare Siberian tigers, has responded to the pre-election unrest about his planned return to the Russian presidency with his tried-and-true playbook: a noxious brew of ethnic nationalism and macho chauvinism, mixed in with nuclear posturing, America-bashing and old-fashioned scaremongering.
“We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak,” he lectured in an op-ed last week. In fact, he wants a country with a plummeting population, aging infrastructure, corruption-plagued education system and no major enemies to speak of aside from Georgia (a tiny neighbor one-thirtieth its size) to spend billions of dollars modernizing its military, and especially its nuclear missiles, over the next few years.
To Putin, under fire in advance of Russia’s Mar. 4 presidential election as never before in the dozen years he’s ruled, enemies are suddenly everywhere, from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Napoleon Bonaparte to assorted lesser villains at home and abroad. On Monday, that enemies list grew even more ominous when Russian and Ukrainian state TV reported an alleged plot to kill Putin by Chechen militants, a plot that had supposedly been broken up in January but only made public now, on the eve of the election. “We will never allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs,” he said at a campaign rally a couple days ago. In a stadium packed for Defender of the Fatherland Day, Putin put on a full-throated pep rally
, as if the country were in the midst of war: Victory, he shouted, was “in our genes, in our genetic code.”
But Putin’s rhetoric — unquestionably over the top (I remember back in 2004, when Putin threatened that reporter using a word so vulgar the interpreters refused to translate it) — is less of an outlier than you might think in this global campaign season. In Greece, the rioting crowds, furious over austerity, call the Germans who insist on massive budget cuts for their overstretched government latter-day Hitlers. In Venezuela, embattled, cancer-stricken autocrat Hugo Chavez has responded to a strong challenge from a united opposition by unleashing a campaign
against his opponent that includes tarring him as a gay, Zionist, neo-Nazi sympathizer out to ruin the country.
And then there’s the U.S. presidential election, where Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has been bashing European socialism, Chinese central bankers — and Putin — with as much zeal as he has jumped on Barack Obama. His fellow Republican Newt Gingrich, perhaps feeling his chances finally slipping away, just in the last few days called Obama “outrageously anti-American” in his energy policies and pronounced him “the most dangerous president in modern American history.”
Republicans are sure they can attack Obama as a declinist, a wimpy European sort who’d rather go around the world apologizing for American power than using it (never mind Obama’s surprisingly muscular record of supporting war in Libya, surging more troops into Afghanistan and dramatically increasing covert strikes against terrorists). So of course they were quick to seize on the president’s apology last week to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the apparently mistaken burning of the Koran at a U.S. military base outside Kabul, an incident that set off days of riots throughout Afghanistan. Romney called Obama’s apology “difficult for the American people to countenance.” His rival Rick Santorum said flatly it was wrong.
In a new article out today in Foreign Policy, the magazine I edit, two key architects of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns make the case for exactly this sort of Obama-bashing. The president, according to Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, should be attacked by Republicans this year as “naïve,” “weak,” and generally out of his league on the international stage. (Remember when Obama in 2008 argued that “Iran was a ‘tiny’ country that didn’t ‘pose a serious threat,’” they write. “How foolish that now seems.”)
Although the conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is a strength for a president who finally managed to kill America’s Enemy Number One — Osama bin Laden — Rove and Gillespie are sure it’s a weakness, and one that should be exploited by this year’s nominee, whoever he is. “The nominee should adopt a confident, nationalist tone emphasizing American exceptionalism, expressing pride in the United States as a force for good in the world, and advocating for an America that is once again respected (and, in some quarters, feared) as the preeminent global power.”
Does all this chest-thumping rhetoric matter? Putting aside the political calculation behind it, it sure seems like a distraction. After an incredible 20 debates among the Republican candidates, the year’s conversation about the world can pretty much be summed up like this: America is great, Obama is not, and by the way let’s be worried about China and get rid of our foreign aid budget (except the part that helps Israel).
Where was the serious discussion of Europe in the midst of its most serious financial — and political — crisis in decades, a crisis that is arguably the most significant threat to the United States today? It’s only the economic health of America’s largest trading partner and closest ally that’s at stake. (At least in Europe, they get the implications; wags there often refer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Obama’s running mate.) What about any debate on Obama’s escalating drone wars, or his stated goal of a “strategic pivot” to Asia and away from the conflicts of the Middle East? Or a serious discussion of what to do about nuclear-armed North Korea, in a perilous state of transition now under the stewardship of its late tyrant’s 27-year-old son?
And this holds for Obama, too. Long gone is the 2008 candidate of hope, the one who promised to tackle global warming and peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and even make progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons. These days, Obama positions himself as more of a tough-minded realist, and to listen to his State of the Union speech one could be forgiven for thinking that the signal accomplishment of his first three years in office was killing one man. (Gerhard Peters of the University of California at Santa Barbara calculates that Obama mentioned bin Laden just 14 times from his inauguration to last Apr. 30 — and 103 times since May 1, when he announced bin Laden’s death.)
As for Russia and Putin’s aggressive campaign, neither party really has much to say about it. Obama early on proclaimed a “reset” with Russia after the frosty relations of the Bush era, and made so much of its success he’s not exactly going to campaign now against it — even with the Russians waging a crude propaganda campaign targeting Obama’s new ambassador, Michael McFaul, an architect of the reset now being blasted in the Russian media as an agent sent to foment revolution.
Still, the sniping has escalated in recent days
, not just because of Putin’s tough talk about the supposed hidden hand of Clinton and the Americans in undermining his regime. A real flash point may emerge over Syria, where Russia pretty much alone in the world has publicly defended the interests of Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime, dismissing the deaths of more than 6,000 people as an internal affair and steadfastly using its U.N. Security Council veto along with China to block any coordinated international action. “It is just despicable,” said Clinton.
So, is there a new deep freeze on the way between Putin’s Russia and whoever runs America after the 2012 election? Better listen to all that overheated campaign rhetoric, whether it’s Mitt Romney blasting Obama for negotiating the New START nuclear-arms reduction deal with the Kremlin or Putin’s tough-guy talk about upgrading the Russian military so it’s no longer a shadow of its Soviet self. They might actually mean it.
PHOTO: Presidential candidate and current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (front) addresses supporters at the Luzhniki stadium on the Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow, February 23, 2012. REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool
OCT 17, 2011 15:06 UTC
By Susan Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.
The Amerislump is upon us.
Conservative agitator Pat Buchanan’s new book says America might not survive until 2025; it’s called “The Suicide of a Superpower.” Even less alarmist observers are suddenly sounding a lot like Buchanan, as economists now predict that China may surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy a lot sooner than we thought, and important conferences are convened to deal with what Fareed Zakaria memorably dubbed “the post-American world.”
Over at Foreign Policy, my colleague Joshua Keating (coiner of the “Amerislump” phrase) has taken to tracking all the gloom-and-doom punditry under the heading “Decline Watch” on our website—and not a day goes by without a classic example, from the poverty-stricken new muppet on Sesame Street who doesn’t have enough to eat, to the supposed cocaine slump on Wall Street and the new government initiative to attract Chinese shoppers here — so they can buy Made in China goods, but at the cheap prices caused by our undervalued dollar.
The zeitgeist about America is so bleak that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even begins her speeches these days being forced to remind audiences that the U.S. economy is still the world’s largest and its workers by far the most productive. Clinton, no declinist, invariably does her best to convince us that America is not retreating from the world at a time of national angst. Or at least that it should not.
“Beyond our borders,” she wrote in a recent piece for Foreign Policy that argued that the United States should make a strategic pivot away from the wars of the Middle East and toward the economic opportunities of Asia, many now question “America’s intentions — our willingness to remain engaged and to lead. In Asia, they ask whether we are really there to stay, whether we are likely to be distracted again by events elsewhere, whether we can make — and keep credible economic and strategic commitments, and whether we can back those commitments with action.”
Clinton’s answer is a resounding yes, but the questions themselves are revealing — even extraordinary — coming from a sitting Secretary of State, and the context is pretty clear: These are angst-ridden times to be an unabashed advocate of America’s role in the world, when everyone from Tea Partiers at home to financial markets abroad wonders about the staying power of this humbled superpower.
Sixteen years ago, when another sitting Secretary of State wrote for Foreign Policy, the world looked like a starkly different place to a top American official — a post-Cold War mix of opportunities and threats, bound together not so much by anything except the promise of American leadership. Indeed, said Warren Christopher, “the simple fact is that if we do not lead, no one else will.” It was an age, and one that now seems quaintly outdated, of America the indispensable nation.
Flash forward to today, when the United States struggles to assert its continued leadership in the world — or even its commitment to remaining there. Which makes it all the more depressing to listen to the early debates of the 2012 presidential campaign, where the rest of the world by and large doesn’t figure at all — except for the increasingly shrill protestations of some Republican candidates about their belief in America’s special destiny to lead the planet.
Consider Mitt Romney’s recent speech on foreign policy, before an audience of cadets at The Citadel, there to serve as an enthusiastic, uniform-clad backdrop while he questioned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. “God,” Romney lectured, “did not create this country to be a nation of followers.” Obama’s supposed sin? Not being sufficiently believing in the high church of American greatness, because, in 2009, he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect the Brits believed in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
In the reductionist boilerplate of presidential politics, this has been translated into an alleged lack of faith in America. “I believe we are an exceptional country with a unique destiny and role in the world,” said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has enlisted a who’s who of Republican foreign policy heavyweights drawn heavily from the Bush administration to support his candidacy and casts himself as a classic GOP politician of the muscular internationalist type. “In Barack Obama’s profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States.”
Now, this might seem like a difficult charge to make stick against Barack Hussein Obama, the African-American son of a single mother who rose against all odds to become the nation’s first black president. But no matter: the more depressing point to me is simply that this is the debate Romney and others are determined to have, following in a long line of patriotic chest-thumping, rather than offering a real robust conversation over what to do for America at this time of troubles—or what sort of role America should play in the world.
But Romney’s problem is not just Obama and his multilateralist-loving, we’re-not-number-one-anymore-and-it’s-okay party, but many inside his own GOP. Americans in both parties, as surveys have consistently found, are simply fed up with bearing the costs of global security that come with being the world’s only superpower. Tell an audience that the United States currently spends more on defense than all the other countries in the world combined, and see what the reaction is. It’s no accident that the biggest applause lines at the GOP debates this year have been when candidates like Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman call for withdrawal from Afghanistan — as soon as possible.
But even if Americans can be convinced to keep bearing the costs — and that is very likely, given that this extraordinarily rich nation still spends just under 4 percent of GDP on defense and has had to make few sacrifices to maintain its military through a decade of post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — it’s still got a huge, and growing, image problem in a world where the decline narrative has set in. Recently, we asked a group of foreign writers and thinkers to play a game of Madlibs, and fill in the blank on this question: “The United States is…..” Here’s a sampling of what they said: “Not the promised land anymore.” “A sick superpower—but still a superpower.” “Facing a long spell of painful adjustments.” “Its own worst enemy because it refuses to recognize its most severe flaws and then address them.”
The last comment may be the most relevant of all. There’s much that ails America today, from schools that stink to collapsing infrastructure and a bloated financial system nowhere near finished dealing with the results of the burst housing bubble. But the bigger problem may be this: a political system that rewards bloviating over American greatness but not those whose hard work or big ideas might ensure Americans actually still have something to crow about.
PHOTO: A man waves an American flag in the upside-down distress position in front of a U.S. Bank building as Occupy Los Angeles protesters march in the Protest Against Corporate Greed on their International Day of Action in Los Angeles, California October 15, 2011. REUTERS/David McNew
SEP 12, 2011 14:40 UTC
By Susan Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.
Last month was the deadliest for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the ten years of the war there, with 67 killed, nearly half of them Navy SEALs in the downing of a Chinook helicopter — the deadliest single incident in this, the longest war in American history. More promisingly, it was also the first month since the American invasion of Iraq
in 2003 that not a single U.S. soldier was killed there.
And yet these startling facts received almost no notice: the president never mentioned them, Congress was silent. When it comes to these drawn-out conflicts, both American political parties are increasingly determined to say nothing at all.
The silence is especially striking among the Republican political establishment, on whose watch these wars were launched. At last week’s debate of the 2012 presidential candidates at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, Afghanistan rated barely a mention. It came up only twice, once when libertarian Ron Paul complained that it costs “$20 billion a year” to provide air-conditioning for U.S. troops in the wars and demanded that the U.S. pull the plug, and a second time when the Utah politician-turned-diplomat Jon Huntsman urged a complete withdrawal: “This is not about nation-building in Afghanistan. This is about nation-building at home,” he said. “We’ve got to bring those troops home.”
The response? Loud applause from the audience, and a brief protest from former senator Rick Santorum. The frontrunners were resolutely silent, including ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney—the same Mitt Romney who as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008 vowed not only to bolster the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan but to wage what amounted to an extensive nation-building campaign as well.
And Democrats, if anything, are even more resolutely determined both to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq as quickly as possible – and to avoid talking about it before they do. President Obama’s calculation here seems purely political; how else to explain the deadline of September 2012—just a couple months before the presidential election, rather than a couple months after, as his generals recommended–for U.S. troops to officially “end” the surge he began last year to much-disputed effect? In Iraq, a similar calculus seems to be taking effect; Obama, the New York Times
reported a few days ago, is now prepared to allow just 3,000 or 4,000 troops to remain after the end of this year, down from the approximately 50,000 still there now—and far below the 10,000 said to be under consideration until recently.
At the same time that silence reigns over these two long-running conflicts, America’s foreign policy elite is falling in love all over again with a new model of war, one that supposedly beckons with modest investment, no boots on the ground, and a convenient narrative of freedom toppling dictatorship. Yes, I’m talking about Libya.
For even as dozens of American soldiers were being killed in Afghanistan, August was also the dramatic breakthrough in the nine-month-old, NATO-assisted Libyan revolution, when AK-47-wielding rebels charged into the capital of Tripoli and, aided by precision-guided Western missiles dropped from the sky, toppled the Gaddafi regime that had terrorized and overwhelmed them for the last three decades. Members of Congress, even those who had been criticizing the intervention weeks before, were eager to talk about this war, as was the Obama White House, which touted it as a model of the kind of regime change—without American boots on the ground—it would prefer to undertake.
“The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis for legitimacy for this but will also provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier,” Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security advisor, told me and a colleague recently
. “While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition.”
In other words: Here’s a war that works. And by the way, did we mention how different we are than George W. Bush, pushing regime change at the barrel of an American gun?
For many liberals, this is a long-awaited vindication of their own deeply held beliefs in the need, at least occasionally, for a form of internationalism that allows for the possibility of armed intervention and a just war. Bush and his neocon-driven foray into Iraq on a false pretext had seemed to discredit, once and for all, the exercise of such American power; Libya, maybe, sort of, brings it back.
But it’s hard not to see the perils in this way of thinking. “When did you drink the Kool-Aid?” a friend asked a longtime human rights activist, after listening to him make the case for the democratic bona fides of the Libyan rebels, never mind the rounding up of dark-skinned Africans taking place in Tripoli or the other acts of vengeance sure to follow.
I was in both Afghanistan and Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the American invasions that swept tyrannical regimes from power. I remember all too well the initial—but sadly fleeting—euphoria that greeted the disappearance of the police state. I walked through the jail cells and torture chambers of Basra with former prisoners who showed me how they had worked, and listened as a tearful doctor recounted the way Saddam’s men had forced them to cut off the ears of military conscripts who deserted. In Afghanistan, I met brave women who had immediately returned to working in school as teachers after years of whispering their lessons to young girls in underground classrooms banned by the Taliban. These are scenes achingly similar to those playing out today in Libya, ruled by the bizarre dictates of Muammar Gaddafi for nearly four decades. But freedom isn’t the only story there. Ending the war, really ending the war, and making a new peace never happened in either Afghanistan or Iraq – that is the unfinished business that keeps American soldiers there.
Which is why I keep thinking of Tim Heatherington, a journalist who died covering this short Libyan war. A couple years ago, Heatherington made a powerful documentary, “Restrepo.” It offers a harrowing portrait of a team of American soldiers fighting vainly to keep their outpost in Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley. At the end of the movie, after all the heart-thumping patrols and bloody mistakes, the dead comrades mourned and the piles of discarded ammunition littering their mountain aerie, a chilling sentence scrolls across the screen: The U.S. military withdrew from the Korengal a year later. In other words, it was all in vain.
PHOTO: Afghan workers watch as U.S. soldiers from Task Force Bronco take part in a memorial run to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, at a U.S. military camp FOB Shinwar in Nangarhar, Afghanistan September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
AUG 8, 2011 12:20 UTC
By Susan B. Glasser
The opinions expressed are her own.
When Hosni Mubarak was wheeled in to his courtroom cage last week, gasping out his not-guilty plea from his sickbed-behind-bars as his son tried to shield him from the cameras, Egypt seemed to have produced the ultimate photo-op of revolutionary upheaval: the pharaoh brought low before the people’s tribunal. But I couldn’t help thinking about an unlikely character: Russia’s strongman leader Vladimir Putin. While the Middle East struggled to absorb the meaning of how quickly its mighty had fallen, Putin was busy contemplating a return to the Russian presidency, posing with scantily clad girls and trashing the United States for “living like a parasite off the global economy.”
If it seemed like a line out a Soviet script, well, it was.
Where revolutions start is not always where they end up.
Twenty years ago this month, the Soviet Union was experiencing the 1991 equivalent of the Arab spring, all youth and democracy and optimism about a future free from central planning and the dead hand of the security-obsessed authoritarian state. And yet for more than half the time since the hardline coup of Aug. 19, 1991, spelled the effective end of the Soviet Union, Russia has been ruled by Putin, the former KGB colonel who famously called the breakup of the Soviet Union
“the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th
The remark is well worth remembering today, against the backdrop not only of a new era of revolutionary tumult in the Middle East but also in the context of a post-revolutionary Russia that has retained an outsized geopolitical importance in a world where its vast energy resources, strategic location, nuclear missiles and U.N. Security Council veto are too important to ignore. This Russia may matter, but it is a nation whose course is still very much adrift a full two decades after the Soviet collapse Putin so lamented. Across the broad swath of the former Soviet Union, the U.S. NGO Freedom House finds not a single country outside the European Union members in the Baltics that ranks anything better than “partially free” today. Elections are a sham, economies are either almost entirely resource-dependent, as in oil-rich Russia or natural-gas-blessed Azerbaijan, or disastrous basket cases like turmoil-plagued Ukraine or isolated Uzbekistan. And the revolution that got them there?
Not only unpopular, but deeply misunderstood. In the West, we have tended to view the breakup of the Soviet Union as a blow for freedom and democracy which, while followed by the regrettable excesses of the Boris Yeltsin era of free-for-all governance and gangster capitalism, will over time result in a better, more open society. That is not at all how Russians, even those most supportive of the revolution, view it.
Gennady Burbulis was one of those supporters. A top aide to Yeltsin at the time of the coup, Burbulis was a philosopher-turned-democratic reformer; he believed in a different course for Russia. And yet consider his acerbic account
in a special issue of Foreign Policy
, the magazine I edit, devoted to the Soviet collapse two decades later: “The coup” of August 1991, he wrote, “was the political Chernobyl of the Soviet totalitarian empire. Like the meltdown of a faulty nuclear reactor, the failed putsch blew the country apart, scattering the radioactive remnants of the Soviet system throughout the country. . . It spoiled the promise of a democratic Russia before it had even begun.”
Meanwhile, we should all be pondering the question of why the Russian revolution exploded when it did—a mystery still decades later, just as enigmatic as the present day debate over why a self-immolating Tunisian fruit-seller or some protesting students in Tahrir Square triggered a revolution when so many other indignities over decades of corruptive, repressive rule did not. In the case of Russia, as Leon Aron, a Soviet émigré and biographer of Boris Yeltsin wrote in the special edition of Foreign Policy, “everything you think you know about the collapse of the Soviet Union is wrong”: it was not Reaganite saber-rattling or oil prices crashing or crushing military expenditures from the losing Soviet war in Afghanistan that did in the communist regime. Yes, those problems–and many more–plagued the Soviet Union in its later days, but then again, as the scholar Peter Rutland memorably put it, “Chronic ailments, after all, are not necessarily fatal.” Instead, Aron argues, it was a radical break in consciousness, “an intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride” that “within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991.”
Still, what makes this so relevant to today is what happened next. As Aron perceptively notes, such a tide “may be enough to bring down the ancien regime, but not to overcome in one fell swoop, a deep-seated authoritarian national political culture. The roots of the democratic institutions spawned by morally charged revolutions may prove too shallow to sustain a functioning democracy in a society with precious little tradition of grassroots self-organization and self-rule.” Which is why Putinism has proved so attractive–when the former spy came to power a decade into the revolution, he pledged to make Russia a great power again. Attention activists of the Arab Spring: Hauling the old dictator into court is a lot easier than avoiding creating the conditions for a new strongman to emerge.
And so we have in Egypt today not only Mubarak hauled into court, but a wary standoff between the student activists who brought the revolution to Tahrir and the military generals who were the bulwark both of Mubarak’s regime and of the current government, with a devastated economy, massive joblessness, rising sectarian tensions, and huge uncertainty about both whether genuinely free and fair elections can take place in the country–and if they do, whether the results will do much to improve the conditions that triggered the revolution in the first place.
And in Russia, two decades later? Talking with Aron the other day, he made a most un-Russian argument: optimism. Think of the French revolution of 1789, he said. It took Napoleon’s wars, the terror, the restoration, and several generations of street battles before the French returned to the original democratic ideals of the revolution in 1848. “It took France 50 years,” he told me. “And Russia is only twenty years in.”
PHOTO: Participants pass a poster of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during his visit to the summer camp of the pro-Kremlin youth group “Nashi” at lake Seliger, some 400km (248miles) north of Moscow, August 1, 2011. REUTERS/Mikhail Metzel/Pool
Susan Glasser is editor in chief of Foreign Policy, the magazine of global politics, economics, and ideas. A longtime foreign correspondent and editor for the Washington Post, Glasser spent four years as co-chief of the Post's Moscow Bureau. Together with her husband, New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker, she wrote "Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin's Russia and the End of Revolution," which was published in 2005.
ANY OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE ARE THE AUTHOR’S OWN.
SUSAN GLASSER IS A REUTERS CONTRIBUTOR. ANY VIEWS EXPRESSED ARE HER OWN