Michael Moynihan’s article, framing Chavez’s power-grab and the upcoming Russian elections as evidence of “the Cold War’s return,” wouldn’t merit much comment, except that he makes this claim as he tries to tell his audience why they should care about what happens in the domestic politics of other countries:
Despite their obvious contempt for democratic institutions, both leaders still command a disturbing, though hardly overwhelming, level of Western support; defenders who will doubtless welcome a Chavez or Putin electoral victory and retrenchment.
He cites John Laughland’s TAC article on Putin (not available online) and a couple HuffPo columnists. I’ll leave the latter until another time or perhaps to someone else, because the columns are available online and can be judged for themselves. Moynihan attributes to Laughland “support” for Putin that would make him “welcome” electoral victory and retrenchment for United Russia, when Laughland’s article is an attempt to provide some balance and perspective about Putin’s regime, about which there have been more than a few breathless and hysterical Reason articles in the past. There was no question of welcoming or dreading United Russia’s victory, since every informed person knows it is certain to happen and is a fact that should be viewed with some dispassion. For some people, attempting to understand foreign governments and leaders in a sober way–free of provocative references to the start of another Cold War–is evidence of endorsement and support and “defense” of a foreign government. To the extent that these observers want to avoid hostility and conflict between the West and these other governments, they will try to get past the (frequently self-serving) propaganda that would seek to make every insufficiently (or, in the case of Russia and Venezuela, arguably excessively) democratic government around the world into a dire threat or villains to be opposed.
We should be clear about a few things. No one needs to applaud Putin’s authoritarian populism (and no one is applauding it) to understand why it prevails in Russia and will continue to do so, no matter how many hectoring Western articles are writtenn against it, and that it is part of the political reality of our time. We can respond to it rationally and according to our interests, which dictate that we do not get into another escalating confrontation with Russia, or we can respond to it viscerally and stoke such fruitless confrontation by making the internal politics of Russia our business.
Since Laughland’s article isn’t online, it is difficult for non-subscribers to check Moynihan’s claim that it offers support and defense of Putin. It seeks to get past caricature and vilification, yes, but the article is generally descriptive, not apologetic. It allows Putin to speak for himself, rather than having Western pundits impute motives to him based on their own preoccupations with curtailing Russian power and backing U.S. hegemony in Eurasia. If I were someone preoccupied with vilifying a foreign government, I might also find this “disturbing,” since it interferes with the generally unified message from Western media that we must fear and loathe Russia under Putin.
Laughland starts by noting the excessive demonisation that seems to be focused on certain Slavic nations (typically when their governments do not play ball with Washington):
Is there such a thing as Slavophobia? To be sure, not all Slavic nations are vilified in the West, but the recent demonization of the Serbs and Russians has an especially vicious quality….the Western mind attributes to them the most sinister of motives, as if they were the embodiment of evil itself.
He then describes a meeting he had with Putin, noting:
The contrast between the image of Putin in the West and Putin in the flesh could hardly be greater.
This would almost have to be true, since the image promoted by many Western pundits is that of Stalin risen from the grave.
Laughland says later:
Lack of ideology is the new Russian ideology, and Putin has a lot to be non-ideological about. In his eight years in power, Russia has gone from being a semi-bankrupt state to having the largest gold reserves in the world and some $300 billion in foreign currency reserves besides….The Putin boom cannot be reduced to oil and gas revenues alone, for it has lifted many sectors and many different regions of this, the largest country in the world….Putin specifically referred to the abandonment of ideology during his long talk with us [bold mine-DL]. Asked what Russia’s role should now be in the world, he replied that neither the Tsarist model of support for Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire nor the Soviet model of support for socialism were remotely appropriate for Russia today. Lenin, he said, had cared nothing for Russia itself but only for world revolution. Putin spoke firmly to as he told us, “I have no wish to see our people, and even less our leadership, seized by missionary ideas. We need to be a country that in every way has a healthy self-respect and can stand up for its interests but a country that is at the same time able to reach agreements and be a convenient partner for all members of the international community.” Putin sees it as his mission to make Russia a normal country.
Again, this is not “lauding”–it is describing what has happened and quoting what Putin says. Now you can be skeptical, and we should always be skeptical when politicians say any of these things, but the point of Laughland’s article is to report what Putin said at this meeting, to try to understand the current Russian government as one that is not nearly so far removed from modern Europe as its critics would make it out to be and to appeal to people in the West to be more reasonable in their attitudes towards the Russian government. As both Moynihan and Laughland would acknowledge, the current form of regime in Russia is not going anywhere anytime soon. It is realism and common sense to see Putin and Russia as something other than “villainous” (Moynihan’s word for Putin) enemies to be thwarted and checked. Putin and Putinism will remain, so it is probably wiser to seek a modus vivendi rather than endlessly provoking and perturbing Moscow. If that constitutes a “defense” of Putin, we have watered down the meaning of apologetics pretty thoroughly.
For the record, I don’t approve of Putin’s squelching of independent media and most of his so-called “managed democracy,” and I don’t approve of Saakashvili and Musharraf’s declarations of emergency rule and everything that goes with them, but what ought to matter most in determining our relations with all these states are our interests and theirs and the points of agreement between them. Where Putin’s rule has been promoting stability in Russia, Saakashvili and Musharraf have promoted instability and have in the process jeopardised real U.S. interests in their respective regions. It seems to me that Americans should be a great deal more concerned with what our feckless client states are doing that may harm U.S. interests, and we should be much less concerned with what a very powerful potential ally does within its own borders. Most pundits and politicians in America seem to have this exactly backwards.