Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia

The American propaganda machine is working overtime. Used to a supine, quiescent Russia in international politics, convinced that sanctions and lower world oil prices are successful silent mechanisms to that end, Putin’s dramatic move in the Middle East has more than ruffled American feathers, and rather, as though seemingly confirmatory signs of Russian aggression, gives the United States the opportunity it wants and has long sought: to heighten Cold War tensions and feelings as cover for its own regularization of unilateral global dominance. Syria is not about Assad, nor about ISIS, in US policy assumptions. This is 1947 all over again, Russia qua Soviet Union and Stalin, to be contained, ultimately, crushed and dismembered. Only now, Putin is seen as more than Stalin II, and rather, a formidable, intelligent adversary who must be demonized and mentally/ideologically reduced in importance, if not obliterated on sight.

To keep America strong, we invent our own devils. The most insidious word in the American lexicon is “peace,” going back to Theodore Roosevelt and the Battleship Navy, code for softness, flabbiness, easily conquered in, even then, a geopolitical paradigm of inevitable conflict in which America must win and remain on top or decline and simply go under. More than one hundred years later, nothing has appreciably changed, the mental-set fully intact, and with the Bolshevik Revolution a ready perennial target always there and in the making by which to justify a vision of unrestrained slash-and-burn US capitalism.

World War II, FDR, and the fight against fascism, was the splendid exception to the unrelenting war on socialism, and even in the midst of war the preplanned return to business as usual once the Axis Powers were vanquished. Containment was the operative principle, no bones about it, except that its dimensions were wider than in George Kennan’s original concept, emerging as a counterrevolutionary global design to embrace Third World retardation under free trade rather than colonial principles. The world was to be ours, an oyster pried open through armaments and implemented schemes of regime change. Historical continuity is an embarrassment, but there it is: a long trail of interventions, actual and proxy wars, puppet governments, internal subversion, covert operations, carrot-and-stick propositions to surrender to American terms, all viewed as necessary, fully justifiable moves in fulfilling the rights and expectations of American Exceptionalism.

Mao, Fidel and Che, Ho, but also Mossadegh, Chavez, any and all who challenged the American Imperium, were to be confronted, pressured, delegitimized, steamrolled over where and when possible or convenient, while maintaining the veneer of democracy and international good citizenship. Putin may be the first world leader in decades to say the Emperor has no clothes, or rather, wears a suit of armor starting to squeak and requiring a fresh supply of oil (literally). No question, he is a different kettle of fish, not the tactful Xi Jinping, and in the hands of the three recent presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama, a ready-made target for demonization precisely because neither fearful of American hegemony nor obsequious to US claimed moral superiority.

Weakness bespeaks denunciation of the Other, the shadow world of feigned arrogance when in reality one’s own society is overflowing with hatred: hatred of the stranger, the immigrant, the dissenter, the poor, in the last analysis, ourselves, because rampant American capitalism leaves in its wake dissatisfaction with life, fear of stumbling, desirous of a potency that only militarism can satisfy. Putin should be greeted as an iconic Freud, for liberating our collective neuroses bordering on psychoses, bringing us up short to our true selves, and instead, as expected when layers of suppressed feeling are in danger of being revealed, the psychological door is snapped shut and the bilious matter remains on the surface to fester and require more self-concealment and more armaments, more assurances of rectitude, still greater vilification of the Other, in this case, Putin, as the convenient symbol of the Enemies surrounding blameless, pristine America.

For liberals (a term of derision for me, signifying antiradical cosmetic moderation of capitalism, on the same continuum with Rightist organization and thought in America) we see a polite form of condemnation of Putin frequently dressed in proper academic language, not the guttural-like verbiage of Republicans and segments of the media, yet with the same desire to blame, wound, destroy. I just picked up Walter Laqueur’s recent book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West (2015), which possesses the requisite scholarly tone that makes a hatchet-job respectable and comports with the style, tone, and purposes of his affiliations, e.g., the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, intended therefore as a damning indictment of the putative adversary no quarter given. Moderates, whether Laqueur or the New York Times, are more ideologically decisive and destructive, because of their seeming moderation and proper language, than the presumed unsophisticated vulgarians that make up the Republican party and especially their current candidates. Words are deceiving; content should be everything, and the free pass given liberals enables them to hide a more cosmopolitan proto-fascism, as I believe describes, particularly in foreign policy (most germane here), many Democrats as well.

For Laqueur, Putin is less a Stalinist than a Czarist, wanting to go back to a nineteenth-century re-creation of an ordered Russia, a mighty fortress, free from internal social disturbance, and respectful of a Strong State. And Putin, the account goes, is cynical, manipulative, having as his goal great-power status in the modern world. (As though it doesn’t already enjoy that status—the author regarding it as sinful that Russia should have this aspiration or seek to confirm its reality.) America the global demigod is a given of liberal orthodoxy. What this account says about Russia is that Marxism-Leninism was always a front for premodern political-economic development underpinned by devotion to the Russian Orthodox Church, a monolithic societal formation held together, first to last, by repression, Putin merely the last tyrant standing and capitalizing on centuries-old anti-Western feeling which has turned Russia eastward, looking to Asia as its natural sphere of predominance. To elaborate on Laqueur’s subtitle, Russia and Its Future with the West, it has none, only the role of spoiler and disrupter.

Here in microcosm we see the spirit of liberal interpretation, my sense of the kept intelligentsia, in the New York Times article by Steven Myers, “In Putin’s Syria Intervention, Fear of a Weak Government Hand,” (Oct. 4), in which the purist state-dimension explains all, Putin’s motivation and Russian behavior, autocracy and totalitarianism joined. Impossible, then, for either to play a constructive role in Syria and the Middle East or against ISIS. Myers begins with Putin in 1989 “watch[ing] with alarm as thousands of East Germans in Dresden swarmed the riverside compound of the dreaded secret police, the Stasi.” East German Communism collapsing, he “could only stand by helplessly at the K.G.B.’s Dresden outpost a few hundred feet away.” He, according to Myers, viewed the crowd—although the takeover “was relatively peaceful”—as “frenzied, deranged and dangerous, and the experience that night haunted him like nothing else in his mostly undistinguished career as an intelligence officer.”

The upshot? In 1991 when the Soviet Union fell from what Putin called “’a paralysis of power,’” and became Russia, “That diagnosis has been a driving force in his consolidation of political power, and it does much to explain Russia’s forceful intervention last week to bolster the besieged government of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.” Putin’s hatred of disorder explains his own and Russia’s position in the world, an a priori reflex action in light of his own experience justifying intervention and the worship of power. Never mind the facts on the ground, defense of a long-standing ally against determined American opposition (never fully explained) and CIA-trained groups aiming at regime change, as well as Russia’s stake in combating ISIS having faced Chechnya Islamic terrorist activities. (Russia’s call for a cooperative effort to destroy ISIS, using Assad’s forces in the coalition, has gone unanswered.) Thus Myers concludes the thought, “The specter of mass protest—of mob rule—is one that has haunted Mr. Putin throughout his political life, and that fear lies at the heart of his belief in the primacy of state authority above all else, both at home and abroad.”

Mob rule, not American universal hegemony, exhibited through military encirclement of Russia, defines Putin’s order of priorities and presumed consequent authoritarian state-building and aggressive foreign-policy conduct. For Myers, Putin saw opposition to Assad as the “unlawful usurpation of government authority… [which] leads inexorably not to positive political change, but rather to chaos.” The portrayal is complete: an unsure leader mortified by disorder, hence, devoted to the status quo as a first principle. Perhaps thinking this was proof of his assertion, Myers quotes Putin at the UN last week in what I take to be the opposite: “’Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people wanted change. But what was the actual outcome?’” The outcome, as he sees it, is severalfold: first, the creation of a vacuum because of US attempts to dislodge Assad, in which ISIS has gained a foothold; second, American intervention, as in the plan to overthrow Assad, is about exclusive predominance in the Middle East, no other power, namely, Russia, having any legitimate role to play or interest in the region; and finally, I only surmise, Assad’s overthrow is intended, beyond keeping Russia out as part of the larger geopolitical framework, to stabilize alignments which undermine Iran and protect Israel, making the latter America’s surrogate in the region looking after its interests.

Fear of disorder/chaos, the psychological linchpin determining Putin’s conduct, domestic and foreign, and furnishing the rationale for a strong (absolutist?) state. Myers: “This distrust of popular will has been the justification for laws that have throttled dissent at home. With each election, the Kremlin has tightened the rules governing political parties and public gatherings.” Again: “What is striking, though perhaps consistent, is how Mr. Putin’s view of public protest has become the basis for an increasingly assertive foreign policy, one aimed at countering what he views as efforts by the United States and others to violate the sovereignty of nations by encouraging political change.” Let’s not be squeamish—regime change, and hardly a chimera. Here’s where one puts the petal to the metal, for Myers, along with most Western observers, treats Russia’s suspicions of US involvement in the so-called “color revolutions” as irrational and self-serving, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, 2002-2005, while I submit America was up to its neck in their planning and execution.

No less a foreign-policy figure than Anthony Cordesman of (where else) the Center for Strategic and International Studies recognizes Russian thinking that regime change is a surrogate for war when he writes (Oct. 2) that these presumed “popular uprisings have been studied by Russia’s military commanders as ‘a new U.S. and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at a low cost and with minimal casualties.’” Neither he nor Myers denies the accuracy of the assertion, and one suspects their favorable view of the outcome. Yet Myers sarcastically adds, as though the Russians are all wet in the face of selfless American conduct: “The civil war in Syria, in that view, is merely the latest in a series of messy conflicts that arise from the toppling or weakening of central authority through American aggression. Previous instances include the American war in Iraq that overthrew Saddam Hussein, and NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011.” Not messy, and therefore dismissible, but aggression, first and last. And then we have Ukraine, for which Russia is blamed as the usurper subjugating a freedom-loving people.

Myers summarizes that Putin’s desire to create a diversion from failures at home and other factors may be involved, “but at the heart of the airstrikes is Mr. Putin’s defense of the principle that the state is all powerful and should be defended against the hordes, especially those encouraged from abroad. It is a warning about Russia, as much as Syria.” The hint is planted, to the Russian people, watch your step, keep order, or you too can be the subject of airstrikes. ISIS is practically forgotten (we’re not even sure which hordes he has in mind) as the dynamics of regime change grinds on, Myers being merely illustrative of predominant American thinking. My New York Times Comment on the Myers article, Oct. 5, follows:

“…especially encouraged from abroad.” This one-sided view of Putin ignores a central tenet of US policy: regime change. Putin’s critique of Western policy does not occur in a vacuum. We have abetted and engineered the rise of dictators for so long; merely go back to the Shah and Pinochet.

And to demonize Putin, as The Times continually does, making a mockery of its claims to objectivity and integrity, does not weigh in the analytical balance the massive NSA surveillance of the American people. Are we a model democracy? Our president relishes, yes, relishes, the continuation of drone assassination and covert action. Is the CIA any more virtuous than the KGB? Is the US military budget somehow more exhonerative than that of Russia’s?

Why the unfairness in discussing world politics? Why, using Ukraine, is there no mention of the American-sponsored coup d’etat?

Conceivably, Putin favors state power because he knows, as does much of the world, that US intervention to overthrow governments it does not favor, destroys the international playing field.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at