Dear Mr. President ...

Why the long faces?

I would be willing to risk a small sum of money to bet that you never saw or heard of a short television documentary that I made about you for the BBC in 2002. It followed the trajectory of your political career from the governor’s mansion in Texas to the White House, and it made an attempt to trace the corresponding or correlating evolution of your views of the wider world. It did not fail to notice that in the presidential debates of 2000 you had taken a considerably less “interventionist” view of foreign policy than then-Vice President Gore, and it advanced the thesis that you had initially hoped to govern the United States much as you had governed the Lone Star State: somewhat part-time at the helm, with the aim of lower taxation and smaller government, and the lifting where possible of restrictions on trade with oil-bearing regions of the Middle East.

It could have been predicted that there would be another terrorist attack on our homeland from the forces of Islamic jihad, but so facile did that prediction seem that in some paradoxical way it appeared by repetition to lose some of its urgency. It could also have been predicted that China would become such a successful state-capitalist power as to emerge as a direct rival to the United States, but this very emergence was itself partly the outcome of a long American attempt—somewhat identified with the career of your own father—to condition and encourage precisely the outcome of a booming and entrepreneurial Chinese system.

Other guesses and forecasts, made at about the same date, would have proved mostly correct also. It might well have been foreseen that a version of Peronism would recur here and there in the southern hemisphere of the Americas, just as it might have been surmised that this phenomenon would not have a very durable social or economic base. And we certainly all knew, even if we sometimes buried our awareness of the fact, that there would have to be some kind of reckoning with Saddam Hussein as the sanctions regime that constituted his “box” continued to erode. Prime Minister Tony Blair was the most prescient on this point, in a now-famous speech delivered in Chicago in 1999.

So in some ways, absurd though it may seem in view of the shocks and casualties and traumas of the past eight years, we were in fact quite often braced for what might be coming. Yet now I must speak for myself, though I fear I am also voicing a want of foresight and indeed insight that is very common within and without your administration. Who would have predicted, when you first took the oath of office, that our cartoonists would so soon have been able to recycle their old frames and images, of a vicious Russian bear engaged in gouging and clawing the smaller creatures in its vicinity?

Having confessed that I wasn’t any more adept than most people at seeing the rise of a self-confident Russian revanchism, I can still say that I winced at the moment when you awarded Vladimir Putin your apparent seal of approval at first meeting. And awarded it, furthermore, for his display of one of the warning signs of his nascent ambitions. He may possibly have donned a crucifix in order to make a favorable impression on you and other professed believers, but he has since most certainly made Russian Orthodoxy one of the cements and reinforcements of his nationalist-chauvinist-militarist regime. (His puppet, Dimitri Medvedev, was sworn in by kissing an icon held to his lips by a black-cowled patriarch, and the Orthodox Church has secured the right to discriminate against other versions of Christianity, as well as other faiths, in return for its energetic support as a religious pillar of the new state.)

It was not pleasant, in the months of August that were supposed to be devoted to Olympic fraternizations, to see Russian forces either triumphantly looting or contemptuously destroying American-supplied equipment on the bases of the army of the Republic of Georgia. Less pleasant still was the look of serene assurance on the face of Vladimir Putin, as if he absolutely knew that this punitive expedition onto the soil of a former colony would meet with no serious international opposition.

One does of course understand that Russia cannot be indifferent to what happens in the Caucasus or to Russian-speaking or ethnic-Russian minorities in other countries. But it was many months ago, on the fourteenth of February to be exact, that Putin stated openly that our recognition of the independence of Kosovo would be directly countered by renewed Russian support for anti-Georgian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The August crisis, in other words, was something deliberated and determined, and even boasted of, well in advance by Moscow. One might have guessed as much from the well-coordinated air, land, and sea operations of Russia’s combined forces. Something of the sort was quite self-evidently in preparation, and quite independently of whether or not we accept the position of Georgia’s elected leader Mikheil Saakashvili that he was trying to preempt (some have preferred to say provoke) a move by his gigantic neighbor onto Georgia’s sovereign territory.

So then it seems fair to inquire, Mr. President, whether our own intelligence agencies were sufficiently well informed to see any of this coming. Were they? And what advice, if any, did they give? In default of answers to these questions, we are compelled to add the Georgian case to an embarrassingly long list of crises, from Lebanon in 2006 to the North Korean and Iranian missile tests, which appear to have come to Washington as a more or less complete surprise.

Several months before the Ossetia/Abkhazia events, I chanced to have dinner with a senior minister in the government of Poland. He told me that he had recently been threatened, in the most direct and frontal fashion, by a Russian general who warned him of the “targeting” of his country if it accepted the basing of American anti-ballistic missile systems. This same threat to Warsaw, in the same crude terms, was then made publicly by Russian officials in the very week that their forces were invading Georgia and making no secret of their intention to alter its politics as well as its geography. So, again, one would like to know: was anything said on our behalf to Moscow, on behalf this time of our Polish friends, in advance of or in response to this outright blackmail?

Patrick Buchanan has written that, if Georgia had been included in NATO as you once proposed it should be, then American soldiers would by now be dying for South Ossetia. A thinkable response to his position is that, if Georgia had been shielded by NATO membership, Russian troops would have thought at least twice before trying to alter the demographic makeup of Georgia. But how sure can one now be of that latter proposition? The Euro-NATO countries, in the absence of any convincing stand by the United States, appear to have reverted to a version of their response to the implosion of Yugoslavia and issued their discrepant reactions state by state and à la carte.

Republican spokespersons at election and convention time are often fond of lampooning this sort of idleness and indecision. Yet it is far from obvious that such ditherings are not an echo of our own uncertainties and hesitations. The arrival of Vice President Cheney in Georgia in the days after Labor Day, with an apparent remit for reconstruction but no clear words about rearmament, put some of us in mind of other moments when the United States was talking a better game than it played. There is no more dangerous occupation than provoking a superpower, or indeed even a mere regional power, without the wherewithal to make good on the challenge.

Russia and her apologists make the claim that any country of equivalent size with the requisite self-respect would resent and resist the “encirclement” to which Moscow has been subjected. This line of argument finds many sympathizers in think tanks and op-ed pages, where it is asked how “we” might like it if Russia was arming and equipping Venezuela, say, or Cuba. Well, the first thing to say is that the United States has learned a lesson and that it no longer intervenes to change the regimes of Latin American states with which it disagrees. Even when they have trade and military agreements with Iran. The second thing to say, if one must stoop to this argument at all, is that our diplomats no longer talk in the hysterical tones of the Cold War, and have ceased to speak as if the magic words “Ninety Miles From Key West” have any serious meaning. The Chileans and Brazilians and Grenadians and Bolivians may elect anybody they like, and if the Cubans cannot yet say the same, it is Putin whom they partly have to thank for the deficiency.

The peoples of Estonia, Poland, Kosovo, Bosnia, Ukraine, and Georgia, and their newly won sovereignty, are not to be lightly compared to this more local predicament. Take the case of Estonia, which was until not long ago a physical part—not a dependency or colony but a part—of the Soviet Union. It had that status as a result of a handshake between Hitler and Stalin, or, to be exact, between Ribbentrop and Molotov. Having regained its independence after the most arduous and bitter experience, it was very recently subjected to an economic and cyberspace blitzkrieg, orchestrated from Russia, because its government had proposed to move a Red Army war memorial. Not, you will notice, to demolish or desecrate such a memorial, but merely to move it to another part of the capital city. Who is the aggressor here: the small country that wishes to deemphasize its previous history as an annexed vassal state, or the former possessing power that brooks no interference with its imperial symbolism? In what sense can it be argued that Russia is being “encircled” by Estonia?

To ask the same or a similar question about Ukraine, where the most flagrant Russian interventions have been mounted in the country’s internal affairs, is to confront the same point in a different way. Russian imperialism is not, so far as we can tell, “contingent.” That is to say, it does not operate on a “case-by-case” basis, justifying itself by specific or particular instances or incidents. Rather, it claims a general right of intervention, along and across a wide arc of neighboring territory, just as it happens to see fit and without bothering to conceal its aims and objectives. Thus it doesn’t really seem to matter all that much whether Georgia acted incautiously, or whether Estonia should have behaved with a trifle more circumspection. The confrontation was being sought.

The militaristic spokesmen of this new Russian expansionism (one might almost use the term “hegemonism”) would not be threatening the Poles with their missiles if they were not prepared to revive the whole business of “throw-weights,” “targeting,” and the rest of it, with us as well. And we thought that we had finally bid adieu to all of that nonsense. Is it possible that the close of the Bush regime will coincide with a revival of the silo-based round-the-clock standoff with Moscow? That we shall have to go back to worrying about the oldest and stupidest menace of an accidental war, potentially to be triggered by a misunderstanding of “launch on warning” or “use ’em or lose ’em”? If this dispiriting prospect is really to stretch out before us, it would have been useful to know on what principle it was to be based, and in defense of which allies and principles, and founded on the defense of precisely which frontier. The Russians appear to have an alarming self-confidence even as we dimly rehearse our own view of the question.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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