Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

The Russia Journal
November 30-December 6, 2001
U.S. administration learns to look right way
After a decade of misguided policy, Russia is no longer seen as a threat
(The writer has taught Russian domestic and foreign policy at Boston, American and Stanford Universities. He is a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.)

It is now an accepted cliche to say that the world changed on Sept. 11. In fact, the world changed over a decade ago, when the Cold War ended. Unfortunately, many American national-security "experts" failed to notice. Imagine a goaltender refuses to guard his right post because the first several goals scored against him came from his left. The successful terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were the consequence of a similar misguided approach on a profoundly more serious playing field: the life and death arena of foreign affairs.

Some have been arguing for a fundamental redefinition of the threats that will be faced by the United States and its allies in the coming century and for integrating Russia into Western security structures, including NATO. The main threats to American and European security, it is argued, were now Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and, in the future, likely China. Russia, on the other hand, is no longer an enemy or a threat, but a potentially strong ally.

Terrorist Groups

After the Cold War and the disappearance of their sponsors, terrorist groups compensated for their loss by coordinating their struggle against Western "infidels" and finding new sponsors, including an heir to a Saudi multimillionaire, one Osama bin Laden. Soon Bin Laden was implicated in the "truck-bomb" attacks on the World Trade Center and American embassies in Africa as well as the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Yet he and other "Islamic" extremists were allowed to thrive in Afghanistan and elsewhere, supporting terrorists acts from Manhattan to Manila. This monumental failure of American leadership was a direct consequence of U.S. policymakers' inability to think outside the box of the old Cold War.

At the end of the Cold War, the underbelly of Eurasia became an enormous crescent of underdeveloped, authoritarian and weak states, many themselves or with elements antagonistic toward the West. Only one major power, stretching across the heartland of Eurasia, had entered on the path of economic and political reform and turned its face West. This power was alone in possessing borders and wielding significant influence in every direction across the Eurasian crescent. This power was Russia.

The new Russia was a rusted, crippled reflection of the communist nemesis with no desire to challenge Western interests. It was a potential threat in purely theoretical terms only because it possessed a nuclear arsenal, but in practical terms it constituted no threat whatsoever. Its economy was mired in an unprecedented depression. Its institutions, including its national-security structures, were weak, incohesive and corrupted. Its society was riddled with disease, crime, fatigue and demoralization, beaten and exhausted from seven decades of communist rule.

At this historical moment, Russia opened not a window to the West but a floodgate. A tenuous majority of its citizens and elites alike looked to the West for answers and assistance in solving its political, economic, social and cultural problems. Russia's historically tentative place in Western civilization had suddenly become potentially tenable.

Ripe for Change

Though weakened and confused after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Russia was ripe for reformation and viable for resurrection as a regional power and integration into the West, but it was unsure as to how or why it could do so without the West's help and encouragement. One of the most vexing problems hampering the formation of a community of democracies that extends beyond the confines of Europe – Russia's transformation and incorporation in Europe – was more solvable than at any time in modern history.

Unfortunately, the West lacked the vision and courage to move aggressively to incorporate a potentially invaluable ally in what may be new twilight struggles in the 21st century. It failed to reflect in its policies, the degree of change in Russia that it expounded in its rhetoric when celebrating its victory in the Cold War. The West acted as if it were unsure whether or not Moscow had really surrendered its old aspirations. Led by the new, inexperienced and for the most part uninterested Clin-ton administration ("It's the economy, stupid"), the United States responded to this pivotal moment in history by delaying and limiting economic assistance to Russia, proposing NATO expansion, excluding the possibility of Russia's possible entry into the alliance and ruthlessly competing with it for arms and energy markets that had been opened up throughout the former Soviet empire.

A combination of domestic political considerations mostly centered around former President Clinton's unrestrained ambitions for re-election overshadowed "your father's" concerns of geopolitics and twilight struggles. Winston Churchill said that politicians think about the next election, but statesmen think about the future generations. NATO's eastward expansion delivered to Clinton the votes of various East European diasporas located in several key states and campaign financing from defense contractors, who would be rewarded with new markets formerly under the Soviet military-industrial complex.

It also softened Clinton's anti-military profile, as military officers and bureaucrats of NATO were given a new raison d'etre in the wake of the U.S.S.R.'s disappearance. A planned second round of NATO expansion, set to bring in the Baltic republics of the former U.S.S.R., and steps toward a National Missile Defense (NMD) system brought Russian-American relations to a new low as the Bush administration prepared to take office. The consequence of Clinton's misbegotten policies was a resurgence of anti-Americanism in Russia, first among elites to NATO expansion, then among the populace, aggravated by NATO's apparent hubris in Yugoslavia. Moreover, Clinton's lack of a foreign policy vision had led to a gap in our national security position.

‘Most Evil Person’

Although the Republican former army Col. Oliver North warned the United States during the Iran-Contra hearings 15 years earlier that Osama bin Laden was "the most evil person alive" and recommended that U.S. special forces assassinate him, President George W. Bush and his "dream team" came to office replicating Clinton's Russia policy and taking it one step further. Top administration officials, including CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, were trumpeting the Russian "threat." Almost every kind of aid to Russia was panned as a waste. NATO expansion was to go forward with new zeal, and NMD would be implemented regardless of the Russian reaction. In short, the new administration, like the old, was looking the wrong way on Sept. 11.

A deluge of questions arise now. How did Polish, Czech and Hungarian membership in NATO improve our security against real and present threats, as opposed to old or imagined ones? Might not an early fast-track to NATO membership or some form of associate membership for Russia (beyond the largely fruitless Partnership for Peace) have provided us with useful assets for combating the terrorist threat? Might Russia's geostrategic position, military-political and intelligence positions and infrastructures in the region, contacts with the Afghan Northern Alliance and almost two decades’ worth of experience of combating Afghan mujahadin, Chechen separatists and international terrorists have provided us more than Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague can? It's foreign policy, stupid.

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