My grandparents and great-grandparents were Orthodox Jews who escaped Czarist, anti-Semitic, fascist Russia around 1907. They were fortunate. They got out. Many were not so blessed. But ever since, my family has kept a watchful eye on Moscow. We love the Russian people, but we don’t trust the Kremlin, which Ronald Reagan rightly described as running an “Evil Empire.” It was, after all, Russian leaders who launched the Communist Revolution in 1917 and built the Soviet Union that brought so much pain and misery to the Russian people and enslaved hundreds of millions of others. It was Russian leaders who were responsible for the death of well over 20 million people during Stalin’s reign of terror. It was Russian leaders who started and fueled the Cold War for half a century, even trying to position nuclear-armed missiles on Cuba, 90 miles off our shores, a crisis that brought the world within days of a thermonuclear war. I could go on and on, but you know the history, too.
How is it possible, then, that so many political leaders, policy analysts and pundits in the West fundamentally misunderstand the nature and threat of evil that Russian leaders have posed for so long? And how is it possible that they misread the motives and blood-thirsty ambitions of Vladimir Putin for so long?
Consider a column this morning by Tom Friedman of the New York Times. Now, Friedman is a brilliant guy and a fabulous writer. One of my favorite books of all times is his From Beirut To Jerusalem, describing his remarkable experiences as the Times bureau chief both in Lebanon and Israel during the 1980s. The World Is Flat is also an intriguing and provocative work. But the column he wrote this morning about the Russian aggression against Georgia misses the mark so badly I have to comment on, respectfully.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I was among the group of Americans — led by George Kennan, the father of ‘containment’ theory, Senator Sam Nunn and the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum — that argued against expanding NATO, at that time,” he writes. “It seemed to us that since we had finally brought down Soviet Communism and seen the birth of democracy in Russia, the most important thing to do was to help Russian democracy take root and integrate Russia into Europe. Wasn’t that why we fought the Cold War — to give young Russians the same chance at freedom and integration with the West as young Czechs, Georgians and Poles? Wasn’t consolidating a democratic Russia more important than bringing the Czech Navy into NATO. All of this was especially true because, we argued, there was no big problem on the world stage that we could effectively address without Russia – particularly Iran or Iraq. Russia wasn’t about to reinvade Europe.”
Then, he quotes Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and a former foreign policy advisor to President Clinton. “The Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams acted on the basis of two false premises,” said Mandelbaum. “One was that Russia is innately aggressive and that the end of the Cold War could not possibly change this, so we had to expand our military alliance up to its borders. Despite all the pious blather about using NATO to promote democracy, the belief in Russia’s eternal aggressiveness is the only basis on which NATO expansion ever made sense — especially when you consider that the Russians were told they could not join. The other premise was that Russia would always be too weak to endanger any new NATO members, so we would never have to commit troops to defend them. It would cost us nothing. They were wrong on both counts.”
Executive summary: Friedman and Mandelbaum have believed for years that it was a mistake for the West to expand NATO because Russia was no longer a threat after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now they are saying “we told you so” as if NATO and the West are to blame for the death of thousands in Georgia and South Ossetia, not the Russian leadership.
Excuse me? How is it possible that people so smart can say things so foolish? First, sadly, the vast majority of Russian leaders over the past century have been “innately aggressive,” up to and including Czar Putin. Second, the Cold War did not change this fact. Third, Russia did just invade a European country and is now threatening unspecified military action against Poland as well (and don’t forget Ukraine and the Baltic states which are now feeling endangered, as well). Fourth, NATO membership for Georgia would have prevented this Russian aggression. NATO’s refusal to include Georgia this spring told Moscow it could act with impunity. Fifth, NATO exists precisely to protect European democracies from Russian aggression and we should be letting more democracies in, not keeping them out, precisely because of what we have seen Moscow do for the past few weeks.
I have said it before, but it bears repeating: To misunderstand the nature and threat of evil is to risk being blind-sided by it. Friedman, Mandelbaum, and many others in Washington and Brussels were blind-sided by Russia’s move in Georgia precisely because they don’t understand who Putin really is, and apparently they didn’t fully understood the nature of the Stalinesque Soviet leaders and Russian Czars that preceded him (Gorbachev and Yeltsin being welcome exceptions to the rule). Unless they wake up and realize soon who Putin is and what he really wants, they are going to be ill-prepared for the horrors that lay ahead.