The deadly hubris of US in Russia

Failed Crusade

May 25, 2001

This is a book of anger. Its subtitle suggests sorrow, and there is a bucket of that too, but it is first of all an indictment, Swiftian in savagery if not in style. In earlier times it would have been printed as a pamphlet or a tract ("The Conduct of the Capitol") and it retains some tract-like trappings, including moral outrage, rough edges and perfervid critique. Stephen Cohen, the pseudonymous "Sovieticus" of The Nation magazine during the 1980s, may be a hanging judge, but he is an earnest author, intent on establishing his credentials in this ferociously politicised field. Failed Crusade comes after the Party is over. It is post-Soviet, post-Soros, post-satire. It is as convincing as it is disturbing.

Cohen identifies the dominant (not to say overweening) position of the US establishment on Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union as "a nation ready, willing and able to be transformed into some replica of America" - a neo-America on the Moscow River, as he says - transformed, that is, through the agency of American "missionaries", "advisers" or "fellow travellers", heavily loaded terminology even with the ideologies reversed. These are the people the Marshall Plan generation used to call the Friendly Aid Boys, a moniker with irresistible connotations of the Mob, led perhaps in the new era by a suitably troubled Tony Soprano. The carefully scripted programme of these postmodern missionaries had a clear plot and an easily recognisable signature tune: "transition", to a liberal democracy and a market economy, a favourite with audiences of the 1990s and such a change after the endless repeats of the old cold war.

All of this is anathema to Cohen. For him, the establishment position was not merely overweening but fundamentally misguided, and the programme stemming from it - the crusade - "the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam", with even more perilous long-term consequences, not least "the destabilisation of a fully nuclearised country". The uncomfortable truth is that, since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has suffered an economic and social catastrophe unprecedented in modern times. On the ground, the evidence is plain for all to see. Most of the population is impoverished. Three of every four Russians grow their own food in order to survive. Barter is commonplace. Epidemics of typhus, typhoid and cholera have re-emerged. Millions of children no longer attend school; many suffer from malnutrition. Male life expectancy has plunged to that of Dostoevsky's day and continues to fall. The commander of the Strategic Rocket Force reports that 80 per cent of his men live in poverty, compelling some to take second jobs to feed their families. The contemptuous jibe of the cold war has come to pass: Russia is truly Upper Volta with rockets.

For Russians, the transition is something of a sick joke. For Americans, Cohen argues, the consequences are hardly less severe. Like China half a century earlier, Russia has been "lost" - if not directly by the Americans then by Boris Yeltsin and his gang, at the Sopranos' behest (their motto: Friendly Aid you cannot refuse) - to say nothing of billions of dollars and, Cohen suggests, the integrity of US foreign policy. For those of a more hard-nosed persuasion, Russian-American "strategic partnership", once Washington's cherished aim, is a nullity.

In the great game of geopolitics, Russia has been marginalised. Yet US influence is precarious if not chimerical - as witness Chechnya - and anti-Americanism is rife in every corner of every former Soviet state. This is what Chalmers Johnson in another recent book calls "blowback", a term coined by the CIA to describe the unintended and unanticipated consequences of American policies and activities abroad. Anti-Americanism in the former Soviet Union is blowback writ large, and with a vengeance.

What is to be done? Cohen has some scabrous fun with the deceiving notion of "the Russia we want" - a mirage with a pedigree. More important in some ways is the America we want. This is Cohen's real subject, refracted through the Russian case history. He is too much on the front line and has no time to develop it. Nevertheless, the coincidence of his book and Johnson's is interesting. Failed Crusade and Blowback invite humbling reflections on fin-de-siècle foreign policy in the home of the brave. Is this a portent of some deep-dyed, dry-eyed rethinking? Bon courage , Mr President. Surtout pas trop de zèle .

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia

Author - Stephen F. Cohen
ISBN - 0 393 04964 7
Publisher - Norton
Price - £15.95
Pages - 304

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