As momentum once again picks up for an American-led intervention in Syria, it might be worth our time to examine some of the commentary emanating from prominent American neoconservatives over the past few weeks with regard to Russia.
Not a week into the Sochi Olympics, in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine, foreign affairs analyst James Traub confidently predicted:
Putinism is bound to fail; it is, as widely noted, already failing. Twenty-five years ago the United States had the good sense to help the Soviet empire fall as gently as possible. Some time, perhaps not long from now, the United States will have to engage in the same act of deft diplomacy.
The neoconservative and LGBT activist Jamie Kirchick took to London’s Spectator to proclaim:
…as bad as things have become for gay people in Russia, they are hardly the most downtrodden group in that benighted land. In October, a Moscow mob perpetrated what can only be described as a good old-fashioned Russian pogrom against migrant workers, calling for a Motherland cleansed of Central Asians and people from the Caucuses. Racial hatred is hardly new to Russia, of course, and in recent years Putin and his cronies have cynically fuelled it.
This is the same armchair warrior who, at the end of a lengthy screed attacking actual conservatives in The Daily Beast, noted that Putin’s Russia is “a brutal society marked by violent nationalism, social breakdown, domestic authoritarianism, and foreign aggression.”
This sort of stuff—invective passing for analysis—continues unabated into the second week of the Games. In the pages of the formerly conservative National Review, online editor-at-large and noted cliché collector Jonah Goldberg wrote a column expressing—in the sort of faux outrage that has become the dominant tone of the media’s coverage of Putin’s Russia—bewilderment at the fact that the Opening Ceremony wasn’t dedicated to an extended examination of Stalin’s crimes and the horrors of the Gulag and Holodomor.
Walter Russell Mead took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal last weekend to assure readers that, though it may appear that Mr. Putin’s Games are succeeding, never fear:
The Russian president’s biggest problem is simple: Post-Soviet Russia is a weak state. Take away its gas and oil resources, nuclear arsenal and Cold War-era intelligence networks, and there is not much of a there there.
Yet we should not lose sight of the fact that Putin’s ultimate goal is to “reconstruct the Soviet empire in a post-communist world.”
What is the intention of these writers? Ostensibly it is to poison U.S. public sentiment and elite opinion against any attempt by the Obama administration to construct a viable working relationship with Russia. And their efforts have largely succeeded.
Consider the results of a recent Gallup poll, released on February 13. It shows American public opinion towards Russia is at its most negative in two decades. The unfavorable ratings of Putin and Russia have hit new highs of 63 percent and 60 percent, respectively.
The effort to poison American public opinion towards Russia has—in reality—very little to do with Putin or his domestic policies; in fact—as was trenchantly noted in Forbes recently, Putin’s domestic turn rightward dovetails nicely with the American religious and neoconservative Right’s own domestic proclivities.
But I would contend that what all the criticism toward Russia really amounts to is an extended display of pique at the Russian government for having the temerity to stand in the way of American military action against Syria.
As we have seen in just the past few days, the Obama administration is now revisiting its options with regard to Syria. This coincides with renewed calls for action from stalwarts of the neocon-Right; this week in the Washington Post, George W. Bush’s former chief speechwriter pleaded for the administration to put aside negotiations in favor of a military strike against Assad, while Bush’s UN Ambassador wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
Obama argued for three years that Russia shared his objective of a peaceful transition from the Assad regime in Syria to something else. This was never true. Moscow’s support for Assad (as well as Iran’s, directly and through Hezbollah) guaranteed he would only depart feet first.
As all of the aforementioned writers have long recognized, if a strike is to take place it will necessarily be done in the absence of authorization from the UN Security Council. Therefore, they have collectively spilt a considerable amount of ink denigrating Putin, Russia, and the Sochi Games. Hence the following post from The American Interest: “Syria and Ukraine – Is Obama Waking Up?” After citing a New York Times story indicating a possible change in direction in administration policy on Syria, the writer expresses hope that:
…at some point President Obama decides to change course. It seems clear that the strong pressure inside the Administration against the President’s chosen policy mix continues and has gained force as it becomes less and less possible to pretend that the “partnership with Russia” is anything but a sham.
It’s clear that what really has been bothering this influential segment of American opinion all along has been Russia’s refusal to help oust Assad by use of force. And the downturn in American public opinion towards Russia serves their purposes; the denigration of Russia serves to devalue the authority of its UN veto, rendering it largely meaningless in the eyes of the American public and thus easing Obama’s path to military action against the Assad regime.
And that, I would submit, has been their intention all along.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.