Fighting Words

Cause and Effect

It’s time to stop blaming the good guys for problems in Iraq.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Another obscene video from al-Qaida, this time showing the different ways in which abducted Russian diplomatic staff can be put to death. And, as one could well expect, feeling in Russia runs high. Against the United States, that is. A resolution in parliament and statements from Russian officials place the blame on U.S. authorities for not protecting Moscow’s envoys. In advance of the Group of Eight summit (the G8 supposedly being a gathering of advanced industrial democracies, even though Russia, this year’s host, is neither advanced nor a democracy), Putin’s ministers split the difference between the actual murderers and those who recently put an end to the noisome existence of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. As if perhaps sensing that this would not quite do, the Putinistas then issued a big-mouth statement, announcing that they had instructed their security organs to use all means to track down the murderers. The empty theatricality of the second declaration only helps to underline the petty demagoguery of the earlier ones.

Out of a thesaurus of possible nominations, one would have to select George Bush’s remarks about Vladimir Putin as the stupidest utterance of his entire presidency. Impressed beyond words by the fact that Putin was wearing a crucifix that had belonged to his mother and was thus a man of faith, our chief executive then burbled like a schoolgirl and said that he had looked into the man’s eyes and knew he was the one to trust. (I have not checked, but surely someone can discover how many times Putin has worn that crucifix since. It could be a sort of emblem of the fatuity of the “faith-based.”) Since then, Putin has been noticeable for his efforts to protect Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, the Iranian mullahs, and the Sudanese racist cleansers from any concerted action by the United Nations and has instructed his troops in Chechnya to behave in a manner that would cause a storm of international outrage if emulated by coalition forces in Iraq. In response, Chechen insurgents have committed atrocities, such as the seizure of the Moscow theater or the Beslan school hostage-taking, which nobody would be so crass as to blame on the lack of vigilance of the Russian security services.

Until 2003, things used to be pretty tame at the Russian Embassy in Baghdad. The place represented a two-way understanding whereby one side winked at sanctions-busting and the other side paid lavish bribes—vide the Volcker report on oil-for-food racketeering. Security was provided by Saddam’s secret police. Nothing to complain about, really. It is, of course, true that the Iraqi government (not the coalition) has legal responsibility for the protection of diplomatic immunity, but in all countries—even peaceful ones—embassies also make provision for their own security. Yet it had to be the United States that bore responsibility on this occasion. And the new Iraqi government could use some help, which Russia has coldly declined to provide.

One wishes that the Putinist mentality was confined to the cabal of cockroach capitalists and ex-KGB men who now hold power in Moscow. But I find that there is a general willingness to commit the same misattribution of blame. The other night in New York, I was approached by someone who is very well-known (and justly renowned) as a novelist and a critic. He mentioned to me the recent kidnapping and hideous mutilation of two young soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division. I was beginning to concur with his horror and disgust when he said abruptly: “How can you support a war like that?” For a moment, I truly did not understand what he meant. But in fact I knew well enough. It was just that the transition was so swift. In a sense, the subliminal message of every bombing and torture and beheading is—”nowhow do you like your precious regime-change?”

In this week’s National Review, John J. Miller contrasts the current situation in Nicaragua with the Sandinista period and writes that Daniel Ortega “nationalized Nicaragua’s economy, lifted its rate of inflation to roughly 30,000 percent, cracked down on dissent, inspired the Contra resistance movement …” Just hold it right there. I didn’t much like Ortega then, and I like him even less now, but the contras were being organized by the CIA in camps run by the sadistic Argentine junta long before Ortega’s Nicaragua had its first election. They were also led by elements of the previous dictatorship. I gave up my campaign to have the Iraqi thugs called contrassome time ago, but I still wish it had caught on. Of course, as well as drawing on former Gauleiters, their ranks also contain the elements of a future religious dictatorship. But that doesn’t much alter the case. (I was amused to find, reading a history of the period recently, that Gen. Francisco Franco’s Catholic fascist and Islamist Moroccan forces in Spain were blandly called “insurgents” by the New York Times.)

Semiconsciously, though, these tirelessly wicked forces in Iraq are denied any agency of their own, and by a none-too-clever elision, their horrific actions gradually become attributable to the presence of the very force that is fighting against them. This is both dishonest and dangerous. The U.N. office in Baghdad was hit far harder than the Russian Embassy, and the reason given for the attack was that the murdered U.N. envoy had been involved in overseeing the independence of East Timor  (another sad disappointment, incidentally) from Muslim Indonesia. Was that a protest against “occupation”? Whatever its disagreements over the initial confrontation may have been, the international community has a moral and legal obligation, expressed in a major U.N. resolution, to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq and to support its elected government. This cannot happen while serious powers like Russia use even their own victims to make the wrong point. And it cannot happen while so much of the intellectual and media life of this country is infected with Putinism: a nasty combination of the cynical with the unrealistic.