Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Beating up on Russia’s shrinking democracy has become a geopolitical blood sport from Vice President Dick Cheney down to unreconstructed cold warriors who gleefully say, “I told you so.” They see no contradiction in berating Vladimir Putin’s governing style and imprecatory Bush administration diplomatic efforts to enlist the Russian president’s support to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Even Moscow’s anti-Putin newspaper Kommersant called the Bush administration’s Russophobia an echo of the history-making 1946 Fulton speech when Winston Churchill first warned of an Iron Curtain descending across Europe from Stettin to Trieste.

Mr. Putin was more nuanced in his state of the union speech, but Mr. Bush was now “Comrade Wolf who knows whom to swallow, and he swallows without listening to anyone” by spending 25 times more on defense than Russia. It wasn’t so long ago that President Bush peered into Mr. Putin’s soul and liked what he saw: a reliable partner.

In fact, so reliable Russia became at one stage a de facto member of NATO. It still maintains a military mission headed by a general at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) in Belgium. Russia will chair and host this year’s G-8 summit of industrialized nations.

Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, NATO’s frontiers have moved steadily eastward. First it took in three of Moscow’s ex-satellites — Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Two years ago, NATO expanded by seven new members to 26 countries by taking in six former Soviet satellites: Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia — and Slovenia. Now NATO’s frontier extends from the Black Sea coast to Finland. Its air defense shield covers the Baltic States with a tripwire presence of four F-16 fighter planes in Lithuania. The U.S. is also setting up “lilypad” bases on the Black Sea for contingency deployments in the Middle East or the Caucasus.

Had the dollar collapsed followed by implosion of the American empire, it is a reasonable assumption we would not have been too accommodating as we watched, helplessly, Canada and Mexico join the Warsaw Pact.

Today, the U.S. borrows $7 billion a day — much of the debt held by China, Japan, Russia and Saudi Arabia — to stay in the superpower business. But Mr. Putin does not denounce President Bush for gambling with global monetary stability. Or blast the laissez-faire gambling of a derivative market of $300 trillion (U.S. Fed estimate) — not $300 billion — in bets for or against almost anything placed by wealthy hedge fund managers. Futures, forwards, options, calls, swaps are greed run amok.

Warren Buffett, the legendary investor, has raised serious concerns about the growing menace of derivatives. A derivatives meltdown would be a global financial tsunami.

Russia’s historical interest in its “near abroad” — i.e., the former inner empire of Soviet republics — is comparable in many ways to America’s much more recent interest in its own near abroad, namely Canada and Mexico. Both these countries can recite dozens of examples of U.S. bullying. To ask Russia to forget about its near abroad is tantamount to urging Moscow to commit an unnatural act, to self-destruct.

Under the U.S.S.R., Soviet republics were inextricably tied to Moscow. Each had its own economic specialty; none was economically independent. Intentionally so. Canada and Mexico are similarly inextricably entwined with America. Washington’s former lumber dispute with Canada and Moscow’s recent banning of Moldovan wine and Georgian mineral water, while not comparable economically, have similar geopolitical roots. Both Washington and Moscow know how to throw their economic weight around.

Now only the U.S. can throw its military weight around. And Moscow was not alone among once friendly powers to look askance as the U.S. dropped a half-trillion dollars on a war of choice, not necessity, a few miles from Russia’s own near abroad. Afghanistan, where the U.S. now has 20,000 troops chasing a resurgent Taliban up and down mountains, is also where the Soviet Union’s outer empire met its final defeat. Nine months after the last Soviet soldier withdrew from Afghan territory, the Berlin Wall came down.

Neither Washington nor Moscow is known for diplomatic finesse. Neither knows how to wield the diplomatic stiletto. The klutzy way Gazprom threatened to shut its gas pipeline to Ukraine last January didn’t help Russia’s reliability quotient.

The double standard of the Bush administration is also a sore point in Moscow. The U.S. accuses Russia of playing “pipeline politics” while the U.S. lobbies hard for the new Baku-Ceyhan pipeline through the near abroad to avoid Russian territory.

Deeply resented in Russia is how the U.S. pushed in 1991 for instant political democracy and market economics to replace communism cold turkey. This led to history’s biggest plunder. Some $220 billion was literally stolen from Russia — from raw materials and icons to gold and diamonds — and stashed in offshore bank accounts to buy choice properties from France to Fiji and Buenos Aires to Berlin. A country that had known nothing but authoritarian rule for 1,000 years was suddenly turned over to bandit capitalism — and eventually total collapse under Boris Yeltsin.

Mr. Putin’s poll ratings are consistently in the 70 percent range (Mr. Bush’s are now down to between 30 percent and 40 percent, while Mr. Cheney’s hover in the teens). Even Mr. Putin’s enemies concede he is an immensely popular nationalist. The oil windfall has enhanced his successful image. Mr. Putin’s model is Charles de Gaulle who saved France in 1958 as the Fourth Republic of revolving door politics — a new prime minister every six months — collapsed under the weight of corruption and costly colonial wars. Similarly, under Mr. Yeltsin, prime ministers were fired with tedious regularity.

Russian news reports from the United States also reflect American democracy, warts an all. Six out of 10 young Americans between ages 18 and 24 could not find Iraq on a map of the world. Half of U.S. teachers are likely to quit within the first five years because of low salaries and poor working conditions. More than 50 percent of the U.S. prison population of 2.1 million is black.

The litany is long. But it should teach us that when we live in a glass house, with full transparency, we should ease up on the brickbats.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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