American democracy and the Ukraine

A portrait of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera hanging over the entrance to Kiev city hall.

A portrait of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera hanging over the entrance to Kiev city hall.

George Orwell observed not long after World War II that people once believed that totalitarian states enjoyed an unbeatable edge over liberal democracies.  Germany was strong and powerful under a single ruler whereas Britain was torn by dissent and debate.  Hence, the mighty Nazi war machine should have triumphed over the weak and divided Allies.  But it didn’t.  Divisive as it might be, debate turned out to have certain advantages.  After all, Orwell observed:

The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the USSR while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight.  Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power.  So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.

Although no one likes being second-guessed, in other words, a word or two of dissent might have done some good from a strictly military point of view if it had persuaded the Wehrmacht not to open a second front while fighting was still raging along the first.

But is it really so simple?  What if Orwell’s common man speaks out but no one listens?  What if debate is structured so as to all but guarantee that he will be ignored?  The man in the street will be able to carry on all he likes while the war machine steams on undeterred.  From a militarist point of view, it will be the best of all possible worlds since it will allow the regime to pose as a supporter of free speech while making war with as much abandon as ever.

This is pretty much the situation in the United States, a corrupt but still-liberal oligarchy that allows people to freely to denounce the powers-that-be and the government to freely ignore them.  On February 15, 2003, hundreds of thousands of Americans took part in a global day of protest against the upcoming invasion of Iraq.  Since Saddam Hussein had obviously had nothing to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, protesters pointed out over and over again that attacking him in response to 9/11 would be like attacking Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor.  Yet the effect was nil.  During the Senate “debate” on the proposed invasion – which was more like a mini-Nuremberg rally – one Democrat after another echoed Republican lies about Saddam Hussein and the mushroom cloud he was supposedly preparing to unleash.  Hillary Clinton, for example, announced the she was voting for of an invasion because:

Intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program.  He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members….  I want to ensure that Saddam Hussein makes no mistake about our national unity and … our support for the president’s efforts to wage America’s war against terrorist and weapons of mass destruction.

John Kerry was no less mendacious.  “Saddam Hussein has a choice,” he declared.  “He can continue to defy the international community, or he can fulfill his longstanding obligations to disarm.  He is the person who has brought the world to this brink of confrontation.”

It was a perfectly democratic debate in which everyone democratically marched over the edge of a cliff.  Rather than carting protesters off to concentration camps, the Bush administration allowed them to march hither and yon (except in New York, that is, where Michael Bloomberg’s police immobilized them in great open-air pens) while ignoring what they said.  As Nicholas Lemann observed in The New Yorker, Democrats and Republicans were of one mind when it came to shock and awe:

Foreign-policy Democrats are a bit to the right of their party, because they feel that it tends to be too hesitant about the use of American power, and foreign-policy Republicans (excepting the hawks) are a bit to the left of theirs, because they feel that it undervalues diplomacy.  The result is that the foreign-policy arms of the two parties form a continuum of opinion (excepting, again, the hawks), despite the custom that forbids those who have served in Administrations of one party from serving in Administrations of the other.

Instead of two separate parties, there is only just one party as far as imperial strategy is concerned.  Criticism is permitted as long as it is to no effect.

Official imperviousness is back in the news thanks to the standoff in the Crimea.  All the same people are at it again, making all the same noises.  Hillary Clinton compared Putin’s intervention to “what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” while Kerry declared,“You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext,” forgetting, apparently, about the trumped-up pretext that the U.S. employed to invade Iraq.  Nicholas Lemann has not yet been heard from, fortunately, but The New Yorker website is once again filled with denunciations of the enemy du jour as an expansionist, revanchist, and God-knows-what-else.  David Remnick – the same New Yorker editor who denounced Saddam in 2003 as “an aggressive totalitarian leader who intends not only to develop weapons of mass destruction but also to use them” – weighed in with a description of the Russian leader as equally unscrupulous and autocratic: “Putin’s pretext – that frightened masses of Russian-speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine were under physical threat from ‘fascists,’ and were crying out for ‘fraternal assistance’ from Russia – is a fiction generated by his intelligence services and propagated by Russian state television.”  But then, referring to the ultra-right Svoboda party, he undermined his own argument by noting:

In December, when John McCain spoke to demonstrators in Kiev’s Independence Square, he stood side by side with [Svoboda party leader] Oleh Tyahnybok, who was once expelled from his parliamentary faction after demanding battle with “the Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”  Perhaps this was bad advance work from team McCain – much like the advance work on the Sarah Palin nomination – but it did manage to fuel Moscow’s bonfire of suspicion.

So are Russian fears baseless or not?  Remnick seems to be of two minds, although he is absolutely certain that the Russian leader is “an unabashed authoritarian” who “risks alienating himself not only from the West and Ukraine.”  Facts be damned – the guy is still an SOB.

A March 3 editorial in The New York Times was no less contradictory.  “Mr. Putin’s claim of an immediate threat to Ukrainian Russians is empty,” it declared.  “There were some scuffles in the industrial cities where Russians predominate, but nowhere were Russian speakers or Russian interests seriously threatened….”  But less than two weeks earlier, the Times’s own Andrew Higgins and Andrew E. Kramer reported that street fighters who had taken over Kiev’s Maidan Square were “heirs to a nationalist tradition that traces its roots to Stepan Bandera and the fanatical nationalists of western Ukraine who violently opposed their Polish and Soviet overlords in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s before finally being subdued.”  If fanatical nationalists do not send a chill up Russian spines, what does?  Over at The New York Review of Books, Timothy Snyder sounded the same theme.  “The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe,” he wrote.  But “why does anyone on the Western left take them seriously?”

Yet if Snyder read his own book, the much (but not universally) praised Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010), he would know the answer.  In it, he wrote:

The Germans had killed about 1.3 million Jews in the former eastern Poland in 1941 and 1942, with the help of local policemen.  Some of these Ukrainian policemen helped to form a Ukrainian partisan army in 1943, which under the leadership of Ukrainian nationalists cleansed the former southwest Poland – which it saw as western Ukraine – of remaining Poles.  The OUN-Bandera, the nationalist organization that led the partisan army, had long pledged to rid Ukraine of its national minorities.  Its capacity to kill Poles depended upon German training, and its determination to kill Poles had much to do with its desire to clear the terrain of purported enemies before a final confrontation with the Red Army.  The UPA, as the partisan army was known, murdered tens of thousands of Poles, and provoked reprisals from Poles upon Ukrainian civilians.

A million-plus Jews, tens of thousands of Poles – by comparison, the Ku Klux Klan seems like small change.  Given bloodshed on this scale, what on earth does Svoboda’s triumph in the Ukraine’s February coup d’état mean if not a “the return of National Socialism to Europe”?  What would Jews or, for that matter, Poles do if 15,000 followers of Bandera held a torchlight parade through the streets of Lower Manhattan the way they did in Kiev in early January?  Considering that a member of the Svoboda Party is now deputy prime minister while a member of Right Sector, an even more hard-line group, is deputy chief of the national security and defense council, which oversees the armed forces and police, what would African-Americans do if, say, a militant white supremacist were named vice president and  an out-and-out klansman appointed deputy secretary of defense?  Do you think they’d get a mite bit upset?  And if they did, would Timothy Snyder accuse them of shying at shadows?

“Our grandfathers fought the Nazis,” yesterday’s Guardian quoted a Crimean factory worker named Vladimir as sating, “and now they are in tears looking at these revolting fascists in Kiev.”  Given that Yuri Mikhalchishin, the leader of Svoboda’s skinhead wing, has vowed that “[o]ur Banderite army will cross the Dnieper and throw that blue-ass gang, which today usurps the power, out of Ukraine,” I’d say that “revolting” is the mot juste.  Since Mikhalchishin has promised to “make those Asiatic dogs shut their ugly mouths,” it is hardly a surprise that those same “Asiatic dogs” are now looking to Russia for protection.

People like Remnick, Snyder, and the anonymous Times editorialists are able to carry on in this manner because they believe they operate in a criticism-free zone in which they can be as illogical as they please without having to worry about complaints from below.  What makes it all so galling is that Barack Obama, the man ostensibly in charge, was elected to put a stop to such warmongering.  In his famous October 2002 speech against the invasion of Iraq, he had tough words for the laptop bombardiers who were determined to plunge the country into one conflict after another.  Obama emphasized that he was not opposed to all wars, merely those that were stupid and unjust:

What I am opposed to is a dumb war.  What I am opposed to is a rash war.  What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

Strong stuff.  Yet once in office, he opted to leave the hardliners undisturbed, rewarding the empty-headed hawk Hillary Clinton by appointing her secretary of state and then doing the same for the even more fatuous John Kerry.  The effect was to give both a license to lie.  The result is a foreign policy that is little better than George W. Bush’s and in some ways worse thanks to the growing use of drone warfare and U.S. support for the unprecedented Saudi-Qatari-Al Qaeda assault on Syria.

America has a two-party system of sorts when it comes to domestic affairs, but a one-party dictatorship when it comes to the imperial war machine.  Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, is currently sending populist hearts a-flutter with her attacks on free-market economics and outrageous loopholes that allow billionaire to pay less in taxes than their secretaries.  But when it comes to the Ukrainian crisis, she has remained silent.  Apparently, it is easier to attack Wall Street these days than Foggy Bottom.  In a way that Orwell could never have anticipated, U.S. democracy is structured so as to place certain topics permanently off-limits.