America's Decline Gives Bush Putin-Envy
A recent edition of Newsweek features one of the most bizarre articles I've read in a long time. It's called "Why Russia Is Really Weak," and as the schoolyard-taunting title suggests, it's a desperate attempt to convince Newsweek readers that Russia isn't as strong as they think. Really. No, really, Russia really isn't! Dontcha believe us?
It's the "Really" in the headline that's really, really revealing. Because it suggests nervousness on the part of the authors -- a pair of academic beigeocrats with appropriate ethnic names: Rajan Menon and Alexander Motyl.
They're nervous -- they and the presumed Newsweek reading public -- for the obvious reason that Russia is actually getting much stronger. As we know, the American way to react to unpleasant turns in events is to simply deny they're happening, and then to posit their opposite, and leave it at that.
Russia wasn't supposed to get stronger, certainly not on its own, without the West's help. It just doesn't make sense. Moreover, it's somehow cosmologically wrong that Russia should become stronger right at the time when American power is in a freefall. That just ain't right... so therefore, the authors offer a solution: cup your ears, close your eyes, and scream, "Russia is really weak! Russia is really weak!" and it'll all go away, like a bad dream...
Oddly enough, the authors claim in the first paragraph that alleged Western "news stories" uniformly tout a "predictable theme" -- that theme being Russia's growing strength. Moreover, these Western media outlets are guilty of an even worse sin: they're supposedly going farther by calling on Western leaders to "adjust to this new reality." In other words: appeasement.
And now Newsweek is out to set the record straight.
Umm... what are Menon and Motyl talking about? What media outlets have they been smoking? And can I score some of that shit? Seriously, where are these alleged rah-rah-Russia articles appearing? In the Washington Post? The Wall Street Journal? The New York Times?
Let's take a look over the recent past at these three leading papers, the most influential opinion-formers in mainstream America, and see just how predictable and pro-Russian their editorials have been.
First, the right-wing, pro-Republican Wall Street Journal. If you went into a drug-induced coma in 1986 and woke up last week on September 14th, 2006 with a copy of the Journal on your face, you'd be happily reassured that you didn't miss much in the way of historical events: the Cold War's still going strong, according to that edition's editorial, "The New New Russians," which argues that doing any business with Russia is dangerous for the free world: "For the Kremlin, gas, oil, metals, aircraft are not just tradeable goods. They are also tools of political power and security leverage. To devise the proper response on this side of the old Iron Curtain, that must be kept in mind." After reading that, you could smile, bang a couple more baggies of pure Persian Grey, and hibernate another 20 years without worrying about missing much.
Indeed, there's something comforting about the Journal editorial's choice of words and imagery: a nefarious Kremlin, the Iron Curtain, and the ever-naive West, which is such a decent, trusting fella, and so dedicated to keeping business and geopolitics apart, that it simply cannot fathom that another country, especially a country run by white guys, could be so cynical as to cheat, mixing business with politics. Wake up, guys! Before it's too late!
On the other side of the mainstream media political spectrum from the Journal is the Washington Post, whose Op-Ed page leans towards what you might call "Lieberman Democrats." You know, real leftie stuff. Because America has such a diverse and free press. So how does the Post's take on Putin's Russia differ from the Journal's? I won't keep you hanging, so here goes, the concluding paragraph to an August 23rd editorial: "The West relies on Russian energy supplies at its peril."
Wait, what? Isn't that what the Journal's point was? Bingo. But you wouldn't need to have read to the end to figure that out: the Post's editorial was headlined: "An Energetic Bully, Kremlin-backed energy monopolies are bad for Russia and Europe." Okay, it's a little strange that America's right-wing paper and its center-left paper repeat each other in ways not predicted by Newsweek. Indeed, the "right" and the "center-left" repeat each other so much -- in the leadup to the G-8 summit in July, both the Journal and the Post essentially called on the West to either boycott or throw Russia out of the organization -- you'd almost think that the same guy is penning both papers' Russia editorials.
Moreover, one might point out the raw hypocrisy of the Post attacking the Kremlin for mixing geopolitics with energy supplies when, after all... well, I'll just quote the Post's own story:
Politics Of the Pipelines: U.S. Seeks Ways to Route Natural Gas Around RussiaRight, so there goes that argument.
By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 11, 2006
For a low-profile State Department official, Matthew J. Bryza gets around. A member of the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs, he frequents places such as Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. This year, he's also popped in on people in Brussels, Rome and Berlin. One key item on his agenda: persuading governments and energy companies to build natural gas pipelines that skirt Russia.
But anyway, I don't want to dwell here about insane Western double-standards towards Russia, a problem as rampant as oral herpes. We're all sick of hearing about that. This article is focusing on something new: Newsweek's claim that a) the Western press is uniformly touting Russia's power and calling on the West to submit to the new reality, and b) the Western press is wrong, because what neither you, I, nor John Q Public knows is that in fact, Russia is weak. "Really" weak.
So back to our hunt for evidence of Newsweek's claim, let's look at the bane of Republicans and Fox News viewers everywhere, the radical-left-wing New York Times -- you know, the paper that mainstream America is accusing of having committed treason? If anyone's gonna be predictably rah-rah-Russia and pro-appeasement, it's gotta be the Times, right?
Welp, read this recent Times editorial and tell me what you think: "With energy prices high and money pouring in, it would be easy for the Russians to see themselves in a position of strength and refuse to give ground. But behind the facade of strength are long-term weaknesses." Hey! Wait a minute! Did I just quote the New York Times or Newsweek? Let's go back and quote the first paragraph to the current Newsweek story: "News stories about Russia these days follow a predictable theme. The country is resurgent and strong, and the West must adjust to this new reality. But that story line is wrong. Russia is weak and getting weaker." And now the Times: "But behind the facade of strength are long-term weaknesses."
If Newsweek is right about anything, it's that stories about Russia do follow a predictable theme. And that theme is this: they all sound like the Newsweek article. Which is to say, they're all desperately scrambling for a way to convince themselves that Russia is not getting back on its feet, while at the same time, Russia is a menace. That's the point of the Newsweek article, and just about every other American media outlet opinion on Russia, as summed up in the conclusion:
So, the received wisdom is wrong. What the West must live with is a weak Russia. And history shows that states that talk loudly while carrying a small stick often overreach, creating problems for themselves and others.Hell, who cares if this is completely self-contradictory and illogical. After all, Newsweek's readers probably also read the Bible. The less sense it makes, the more persuasive it is.
Why the gloating and hatred? What bothers all of these journalists and opinion-makers more than anything is the fact that Russia is "confident," even "overconfident" -- a word that they come back to over and over. "Confidence": it's a state of mind that America hasn't been feeling for, oh, about 3 years now. And that... hurts.
You have to understand that America values self-confidence more than life itself, more than health or happiness or family or food.
Confidence=Winner= America. The only other people allowed to feel confident are those who are grateful to us. Their confidence is permissible only as a sub-set of our confidence -- they can be confident only after adopting our way of life, like the Czechs, for example.
The nerve of Russia to both reject the US, to get back on its feet without our help (indeed in spite of what we've done here), and then, to top it all off, to publicly display confidence!
Suddenly Uncle Sam is turned into Yosemite Sam, steaming red and stomping around, shaking his fist at Bugs Russia: "Why you no good varmint! I'll show you confidence! I'm a gonna blast your self-confidence intah smithereens! Yup, I'll fill our newspapers with articles callin' yuh 'weak'! That's right! 'Weak'! Yuh hear that? Yer 'really weak,' even, Russia! Now how's that self-confidence of yers doin', yuh long-eared galoot! Mwah-hah-hah!"
* * *
The Newsweek article proving that Russia is "really weak" is not just one of the sloppiest examples of propaganda you'll ever read, it's downright nasty in a way that Americans are usually pretty good at concealing beneath a veneer of sentimental concern. If Russia is really as pathetically weak as the authors claim, then shouldn't the West feel compassion for its 142 million citizens? Shouldn't we want to help?
Fuck no, bitch! Celebrate! The point that the authors want to make is that Russia is weak, and so therefore... are you ready?... if we want to, we can treat Russia like shit, and not worry about it much. Except that they're so weak that they're also a danger. Which is to say, it's okay to hate Russia and to despise it for being weak, because that's all the bastards deserve. But also have a kind of contemptuous caution towards them... you know, like how we used to in the good old days.
The problem is, to convince readers today in the face of so much contrary evidence, the authors have to flat-out lie, both by omission and by, well, lying. Interestingly, to prove Russia is weak, they start by noting that a new Russian missile designed to evade Bush's Star Wars system failed in a test launch a few weeks ago. That's odd, because the entire ABM program has been marked by nothing but a series of highly-rigged tests which repeatedly fail. Over and over.
You'd think that the authors wouldn't want to make this their first piece of evidence, but they do, and very consciously so: "The United States experiences such mishaps, too, of course. But in Russia they are signs of something deeper." Now you start to see the purpose of this article: it's about making America feel better about its own gaping problems, via a false comparison, something it desperately needs. America's highly-touted, highly-corrupt, highly-insane ABM system -- which caused the first big rift in US-Russian relations post-9/11 -- has failed and failed and failed; so what you do is you find a Russian system that failed a test, and then use that to make America feel better about itself.
And we need it. The Bush years are such a throbbing bummer that they're making the Carter years look like the '84 LA Olympics. The anti-depressant to counteract Bush-Era Reality? Point out that Russia is having the same problems we have -- only worse. Their problems "are signs of something deeper," implying that America's inability to rig two successful Star Wars tests in a row is not a sign of anything deep at all, such as massive corruption, militarism, stupidity and evil. No, it's just that our tests are failed tests, while Russia's failed tests actually mean its military is in total chaos.
That's funny, because the accompanying article in the same Newsweek issue announces that Russia has "won" the war in Chechnya. A war that was considered unwinnable by every Western pundit and journalist... including this Newsweek article's coauthor. In 2004, Rajan Menon wrote, "Then as now, no military or political solution was in sight... The Chechen war, in short, is a stalemate, no matter the bravado of those waging it." And a few years before that, Menon wrote, in a Foreign Affairs article titled "Decline and Fall?" that "The Russian Federation may be falling apartand its war against Chechnya is showing why."
So here's the awful reality: Russia won a war it was thought impossible to win, even by Newsweek's own calculations; and America lost a war it was thought impossible to lose. What a fucking bummer.
The authors follow that up with this strange bit of evidence: "India has bought more Russian tanks since 2001 than the Russian Army." India, with a population almost 10 times that of Russia, has fought a series of major wars with neighbors China and Pakistan, with whom it has major territorial disputes. Russia's biggest threat comes from guerrilla insurgency campaigns. Why the fuck would Russia buy more tanks than India, unless it planned to do something as idiotic as America and run around invading other countries? For which tanks are eventually useless anyway... The sad truth is that, despite serious problems, Russia's military is on the ascendancy. And even Newsweek announces that on its cover: "Putin's Hollow Victory: He's Won The War in Chechnya, But At What Cost?"
Is that supposed to be a put-down? My god, what any American would give, what George Bush would give, to win a "hollow victory" in Iraq! At literally any cost! Give us a "hollow victory" any day, and let us rue the consequences. Anything but this horrible failure and defeat, please!
Pulling back, we have to ask, "Why did Newsweek publish this? Why does a story like this resonate with its readers?" The reason, again, is simple: Newsweek's middlebrow Western/American readers desperately need to believe that Russia's military is a joke, the joke that it used to be. Because, well, as it turns out, America -- you know, the "hyperpower," the most powerful empire in the history of mankind? 'member? -- welp, turns out that America can't even manhandle a few restive dust monkeys. The wars America thinks it won... it actually lost. And the war that Russia should have lost... .according to Newsweek, has been "won."
Nothing could gall a nation of Bible-thumping, pious militarists more than this awful picture of opposing trajectories, America's pointing downward. Yet it's fitting: America thought they'd beaten the Taliban, and now they're back; thought they'd conducted an historical invasion/occupation of Iraq, and now they're getting their asses ground down; and thought they'd defeated Russia with the Cold War, only to see Russia rejecting the US, and worst of all, acting "confident."
Then there's the economy. We hate to think that Russia has been growing against all of our advice and help, which is why we desperately want and need to believe that whatever the case about Russia's booming economy, Russia had nothing to do with it: "What happens when -- not if -- oil and gas prices begin to retreat?" the authors posit, sticking their tongues out at Mother Russia.
Note the glee and hope in the sentence: "when -- not if." Yeah, what happens then, huh?! Hey, I'm talkin' to you! I said, what happens then?! You're gonna be really poor again, Russia, that's what'll happen. And you're gonna come runnin' back to us, America, for help. But this time, we may not be there for yuh! Think about that, Russia! Cuz even if you don't think about it, we in America will.
* * *
It's that pathetic. America really has fallen that hard and that fast. From the not-so-long-ago Golden Days of triumphalist Russia-bashing, to today's dumped-ex-girlfriend whining that Russia ain't shee-yit, and someday they'll need us again. Folks, let's face it, America is on the decline.
And it all happened so quickly. If you google your way back in time a few years, to that Golden Age between early 2002 and the summer of 2003, you'd find a slew of insane articles describing America as, in the words of Newsweek, "the most powerful country in the history of the world." Or as best-selling historian Niall Ferguson argued, "The most powerful empire the world has ever seen." One winces when reading an article in the Washington Post from a couple of years ago, quoting neocon William Kristol boasting, "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role?" And no one around to smack him with a wet fish.
But what the hell am I saying, expecting Americans to have learned a lesson from their recent disasters and failures? I keep hearing from American friends that somehow "America is going to come to its senses" and "finally learn a lesson" because, hell, "we've lost the war." Wrong.
There's an antidote to learning lessons from harsh reality. Complete mass insane stupidity, combined with utter shamelessness. Kristol has absolutely no shame whatsoever for having led his country down the shithole to pursue his nerdoid imperial fantasies. He's been all over the airwaves lately, looking and talking all confident-like, first calling on America to support Israel's doomed war in Lebanon... and when that war went so well for Israel, Kristol was back bigger than ever, fresh from total defeat, calling for Bush to attack Iran. "Why wait?" he asked. I don't mean that paraphrasingly-like -- Kristol actually used the "why wait" argument in an editorial in July. I'll quote it: "For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?" Yeah, because heck, what's the point of being the most powerful nation in the world if you can't invade Iran on your own time schedule, and not someone else's?
The kicker here is that not only has Kristol not been pulled out of his mansion and had his head shaven by angry Americans, but rather, he speaks their language! This is where, unless you're lying to yourself, anyone who's trying to understand America needs to look. Past Kristol, past the editorial offices and think tanks in coastal America, and into its rank, mean, stupid heart. In a poll released earlier this week, Bush's approval rating has soared -- soared! -- to 44%, the highest in ages. Even more shocking, Americans no longer believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake. The Bertrand Russell theorem applies to us too: we're getting what we deserve.
When I read that poll this past Monday, I exploded in laughter. The absolute, pure gullibility of the American public is without limit, bottomless... Everyone was asking last week "Why do they hate us?" all over again.
What a silly question! I mean, what's not to hate?! I hate us! We hate us! Anyone in his right mind would hate us!
The Republicans have thoroughly raped America's fields, but the suckers are squealing for more! The denial has reached new, hemorrhage-fever dimensions, exemplified in, for example, a recent US News and World Report cover with an American soldier and the headline: "The Battle For Baghdad: For U.S. Troops, this may be the last chance to head off a full-blown civil war. There's a plan, but will it work?"
Duh, gee George, I dunno if it'll work, doyee! It's only been 3-1/2 years, George. Duh, you think we can pull it off, doyee? Like Joe Montana, huh George? Boy, that's a toughee! Gimme a minute to scratch my balls, George... Doyeee... I'm the American public, and I just need ta scratch my balls, and then I'll give you my opinion... doyeeeee...
I can't help it, suddenly I find Americans not merely contemptible but also funny as hell, I mean if you imagine them as literary characters. Because even in the world of fiction, you couldn't possibly invent a nation of such grotesque, abject suckers if you tried. For one thing, it wouldn't sell. No one would buy it. If the American public were characters in a novel, no editor would let them pass without massive reworking: "Your American public are simply not believable.
They're too stupid and credulous and predictable... not to mention completely unlikable... no reader will identify with them! You can only suspend reader belief so much! Fiction has its limits!"
* * *
This is the essence of the Newsweek article, and so many others like it. While annoying, what they really reflect is something much more disturbing (or funny, depending on your tastes): the sharp and savage decline of American power, and with it, America's self-confidence. What's left are festering new complexes.
Indeed, as I said, it's Russia's confidence that galls the most.
"On the wider global stage, Putin displays seeming strength and new confidence," the Newsweek article notes. And then there's the "but" -- a pretty funny "but," in fact -- because the authors claim that Russian confidence is not merely misplaced, but that it is leading to racial violence and could plunge the region into chaos, while at the same time increasing Russia's weakness. I swear I'm not making this kitchen-sink-of-evils up: "However much it resonates with a particular Russian political class, that [confident] rhetoric can itself breed weakness. You see this in the sharp rise of race-related hate crimes in Russia... "
There is no logic from A to B, but then again, there is no logic to A: Bush destroys American power while enriching his plutocrat donors, and so therefore B: the nation supports him and his party over and over again.
Perhaps an even sadder example of America's syphilitic decline comes from the Washington Post's Jim Hoagland. In a column published the same day as the Newsweek issue, he made this incredible, jaw-dropping claim:
An ambitious American effort to spread democracy into Russia under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s faltered and was stalemated when Putin came to power. But seen from today, it did help create a reference point and toehold for future advances. This should offer some solace to Clinton, and perhaps for President Bush's beleaguered push for democracy in the Middle East as well.If I go into every reason why Hoagland is talking Holocaust-denial nonsense here, my article will be even more unnecessarily long than it is. So I'll be brief: Russians themselves fought to instill democracy into their country in the late
perestroika/early-Yeltsin years. The first huge blow to democracy came when Yeltsin destroyed the opposition parliament with tanks -- with full support from newly-elected President Clinton. The next blow to democracy came from the creation of an oligarchy and the mass impoverishment of Russia, all due to economic policies that came straight out of the US Treasury Department. The last big blow came in 1996, when the once-free Russian media was coapted by the pro-government oligarchy. The media in turn was used to support Yeltsin's presidential run that year -- which he lost, but which he stole with massive manipulation, with the help and support and cover of the Clinton Administration.
By the time of the economic collapse in 1998, democracy had become known as "shit-ocracy," a dirty word and a cruel joke. The Clinton Administration sacrificed every decent value here, starting with the concept of democracy, in order to both enrich their backers on Wall Street and to make sure that the Communists didn't return to power, whether the Russians wanted them or not.
That is America's legacy here.
But we need to feel good about ourselves. That's what Hoagland's soothing message is: "Yes, Russia is entering the darkness of authoritarianism as it slips out of our orbit, but hey, it's not our fault, and moreover, there's a little bit of yearning for democracy left, and that's all thanks to us! So smile, reader! I'm smilin'!"
So this, it seems, is how America is dealing with its horrific case of cognitive dissonance: rewriting the recent past to cast themselves as a force of good and light when in fact we fucked the whole thing up horribly, relieving what should be a guilty conscience (but isn't -- don't be fooled, Americans know only fear, not remorse); and even more desperate attempts to rewrite the unbearable present tense, to deny our own weakness and decline by projecting it on others whom we think should be weaker. Russia, again, is the fall guy.
Nothing speaks more clearly of the total decline of America than this: Russia going from its former role as punching bag which the Western media would smack around to celebrate its own triumph and superiority... to today's anti-creation, in which every cheap rhetorical weapon is employed to ward off having to face the reality of a resurgent Russia. It's like the old Hollywood adage about success, only now applied at the national level, and it's a lesson we didn't learn: as much as we enjoyed dissing Russia on our way up to hyperpower stardom, today we can't cope with passing by Russia -- now ascendant, confident -- as we freefall down to god knows where.