“In Russia, most analysts, politicians and ordinary citizens believe in the unlimited might of America, and thus reject the notion that the US has made, and continues to make, mistakes in the [Middle East]. Instead, they assume it’s all a part of a complex plan to restructure the world and to spread global domination,” writes Fyodor Lukyanov on the Al Monitor website today. Lukyanov, who chairs Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, laments what he derides as a “conspiracy theory.” Nonetheless, he reports, President Vladimir Putin and the Russian elite think that the United States is spreading chaos as part of a diabolical plot for world domination:
From Russian leadership’s point of view, the Iraq War now looks like the beginning of the accelerated destruction of regional and global stability, undermining the last principles of sustainable world order. Everything that’s happened since — including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, U.S. policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria — serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.
Russia’s persistence on the Syrian issue is the product of this perception. The issue is not sympathy for Syria’s dictator, nor commercial interests, nor naval bases in Tartus. Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy,” it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia. It’s therefore necessary for Russia to resist, especially as the West and the United States themselves experience increasing doubts.
It’s instructive to view ourselves through a Russian mirror. The term “paranoid Russian” is a pleonasm. “The fact is that all Russian politicians are clever. The stupid ones are all dead. By contrast, America in its complacency promotes dullards. A deadly miscommunication arises from this asymmetry. The Russians cannot believe that the Americans are as stupid as they look, and conclude that Washington wants to destroy them,” I wrote in 2008 under the title “Americans play monopoly, Russians chess.” Russians have dominated chess most of the past century, for good reason: it is the ultimate exercise in paranoia. All the pieces on the board are guided by a single combative mind, and every move is significant. In the real world, human beings flail and blunder. For Russian officials who climbed the greasy pole in the intelligence services, mistakes are unthinkable, for those who made mistakes are long since buried.
From a paranoid perspective, it certainly might look as if Washington planned to unleash chaos. The wave of instability spreading through the Middle East from Syria is the direct result of American actions. I wrote yesterday in Asia Times Online:
Syria’s Sunni majority started an insurgency against the minority Alawite government of Basher al-Assad in response to the ill-named Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa. America’s abrupt dismissal of its long-ally Hosni Mubarak and the ascendancy of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood emboldened Syria’s long-suffering Sunni majority to stake its claim to power. Like Mubarak, the Assads suppressed the Muslim Brothers, but far more viciously, leveling the Sunni town of Hama in 1982 with casualties estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000.
Western policy thus provoked Syria’s civil war. The prospect of a Sunni fundamentalist regime in Egypt under American patronage, the emergence of the ”Sunni Awakening” in Iraq during the Petraeus ”surge”, and the victory of Western-backed Sunni jihadists over Libya’s Gaddafi, gave Syria’s Sunnis little choice. America’s fecklessness with respect to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, moreover, gave Saudi Arabia and Turkey strategic reasons to fund and arm various branches of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.
In this tightly scripted tragedy, America’s blundering provided the impetus for each step, except, of course, for the blundering of the European Union. The Europeans forced Assad to undertake agricultural reforms among the conditions for a new trade treaty, forcing tens of thousands of small farmers off their land in the Sunni Northeast of the country, into tent cities around Damascus.
Iran responded to the Sunni insurgency in the obvious way, by sending Revolutionary Guard regulars as well as its Lebanese-based Hezbollah auxiliaries into Syria to fight for its ally, the Assad regime. Iran’s involvement prevents the loosely organized insurgent coalition from toppling a minority regime.
The depleted ranks of the regular Syrian army will be replenished with Iranian soldiers or surrogates. The Alawite regime will continue to commit atrocities in order to convince its own base as well as the Syria’s Christian, Kurdish and Druze minorities that they must fight to the death because Sunni vengeance would be horrible. Saudi Arabia will continue to filter jihadists and weapons into Syria and Turkey will continue to provide logistical support.
Could the Americans really have been such idiots?, the Russians ask. Of course we could. George Bush and his advisers actually believed that we were going to bring democracy to Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. The Russians understood matters differently. Fyodor Lukyanov writes:
In the summer 2006, when then-President George W. Bush came to St. Petersburg for a summit of the “Big Eight,” an interesting dialogue took place between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference. Bush drew attention to the challenges posed by democratic freedoms, especially freedom of the press, in Russia — and then noted that things had gotten much better in Iraq. Putin immediately responded, “Well, we really would not want the kind of democracy they have in Iraq.” The room filled with applause, and not everyone heard Bush’s response: “Just wait, it’s coming.” What Bush had in mind was increased stability in Iraq, but it sounded more ominous: you’ll see, democracy will be brought to you as well…
If the Russians sound mad, consider this: there is another substantial body of opinion that sees an evil conspiracy behind American blundering in the Middle East, and it votes for Ron Paul and Rand Paul. I am not suggesting that Sen. Rand Paul is a paranoid, I hasten to clarify: I have never met the man and don’t presume to judge his state of mind. But his popularity stems in no small measure from conspiracy theorists who think that the U.S. government really is planning to criss-cross the continental United States with killer drones and pick off American citizens on their home soil. A lot of the same people think that America invaded Iraq on behalf of the oil companies (who would make a lot more money if Iraq were zapped by space aliens) or by the Israelis (who never liked the project from the outset). A fair sampling of such paranoia gets posted on the comments section of this site.
Thus we have the strangest pair of bedfellows in modern politics, the Russians and the rubes. Try to explain to them that George W. Bush was a decent and well-intentioned man without a clue as to the consequences of his actions, and they will dismiss it as disinformatsiya. Tell them that the New York Times and the Weekly Standard both believed in the Arab Spring as the herald of a new era of Islamic democracy, and they will see it as proof of a conspiracy embracing both the Democratic and Republican establishments. How, the paranoids ask, could two administrations in succession make so many blunders in succession? It stretches credibility. I wish it were a conspiracy. The truth is that we really are that dumb.