30 October 2016

Rod Liddle gets it

I have been thinking these days more and more about Dr. Strangelove, and how the attitudes and rhetoric in the American centre-left-to-centre-right with regard to Russia more and more resembles the anti-human arithmetical logic of General ‘Buck’ Turgidson in that film. And the reasoning we give for this idiotic sabre-rattling, all woven from the same century-old ideological tissue of Wilsonian Whiggery and interventionism which this blog has opposed from the very start, all drawing from the same tainted wells as the boosters of the horrific wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, resembles nothing so much as the unbalanced obsession of a certain fictional general over the imagined threat to the purity of his bodily fluids. But the ramifications of this rhetoric, risible as it is, are deadly in tenor, and this brinkmanship game against a power which is not directly threatening our national interests (but which is fully capable of defending itself) on the part of NATO and the American elites heading it, is an act of sheer strategic stupidity.

It seems no one gets this as well as the notably-cantankerous British Labour journalist Rod Liddle at the Spectator, who understands both the moral stakes and the history in the current dust-up (again) over Syria. He understands perfectly well that
  1. There is no competent governing authority in Syria apart from Assad;
  2. Russia’s actions supporting Assad may be heavy-handed, but they are in fact defensive, have standing historical precedent, and are well within the realm of international law;
  3. Our governments’ actions supporting a fantasy of ‘nice moderates’ (but a reality of head-lopping Wahhabi extremists), on the other hand, are not;
  4. Those actions are ‘done in the name of dippy, well-meaning, liberal evangelism’; and
  5. These actions have ‘cost far more lives than can be laid at the door of the Russkies and Vladimir Putin’; and
  6. The quickest way to end this most uncivil war with the least possible loss of human life is to ensure an Assad victory.
But it’s clear that our bourgeois élite class, mired as they are in a narcissism which defies reality every bit as much as the fictional Jack D. Ripper’s delusions do, have no interest in a peace that would help to stabilise the region, balance power between (again, a non-threatening) Iran and her hostile Sunni neighbours, and lessen the risk to the American populace of terrorist attack in the future. No – they want a free hand to shape the region according to their ideological whims, which are obfuscated in a haze of self-serving rhetoric about ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ – rhetoric whose emptiness is revealed by the bland evasion of responsibility for listening to actual Syrians on the ground about what they want or about what would be best for them.

Or rather, they want to go back to the more comfortable black-and-white logic of 1964, when there was a clear-cut ideological enemy that really was out to destroy us. Such logic, however convenient, is not without its flaws – as Rod Liddle points out something quite important: ‘[y]ou cannot divest a country of its empire, its political system and raison d’être, its industry, its jobs, its money, its prestige and world stature in five or six short years and not expect some sort of rebound, some sort of hankering after the old way of life … a hankering after Putin’. But here’s the thing. Putin was not, at first, an anti-Western politician. He was part of the Eltsin administration; and he took over in the hope of reaching some kind of conciliation with the West. But the West repeatedly frustrated his hopes with the needless provocations of a recklessly-expanding and increasingly-hostile NATO. Putin simply arrived at the same conclusions as any self-respecting national leader would do after meeting with incessant insults, provocations and military encroachment. I say this as someone who has never been entirely convinced of the goodness of Putin’s policies. But Putin now has a ready and willing base of support in the shape of eighty per cent of the Russian populace, which he never would have had if we hadn’t continued our arrogant hegemonic policies in Russia’s near-abroad, which any Tory worth his realist salt back in the day would have told you was a bad idea.


  1. Comments on Syria aside what is your take on the allegations of Russian attempts to influence the US election? The recent broadcasting of Mike Hayden (former CIA) director on whats being called foreign espionage seems to highlight Russia's own desire to 'want a free hand to shape the region according to their ideological whims' both in Syria and even the US.

    You also mentioned the American failing to address the actual desires of Syrian people on the ground. Yet this immediately calls to mind the fact that I consistently meet, live amongst and work alongside Eastern Europeans (or occupants of 'Russia’s near-abroad') who state that Soviet Russia fell guilty of the same crime amongst their own people that you (rightly) accuse America of in contemporary Syria.

    We may say 'a plague on both your houses' when it comes to the foreign policy of these two entities. Particularly from the perspective of someone who is a citizen of neither nations. Yet to broadcast the sins of the American government is not a means of exonerating Russia's. The two feed upon one another as they seek of exert dominance in various arenas around the world. Rod Liddle may wish to move to New Zealand but he doesn't offer a constructive alternative to the tensions at work apart from leaving Russia to its own devices - which assuredly extend beyond its own borders. Syria's become something of a proxy war, thats not a good thing but its been that for a long time and trying to address it as anything other than that will be doomed to fall down somewhere.

  2. Thank you for the comment, Keith! Now, I must beg your indulgence and your pardon for taking it apart and disagreeing with the entire thing.

    What do I think of 'allegations of Russian attempts to influence the US election'? I think they're pretty weak tea, to be honest. I don't think Russia even has an ideological stake in the outcome of the American election, as the attitudes of their people, the explicit statements of their government and the overall orientation of their domestic and foreign policies seem to bear witness.

    Which segues nicely into the second point.

    Russia is not trying to shape the world according to its whims, but merely trying to order its own regional position in the world according to its best interests. In fact, their foreign policy has been notoriously flexible with regard to ideology, as their attitudes toward the divergent paths taken by the market-socialist Belarus and the neoliberal Kazakhstan bear adequate witness. The inhabitants of Russia's near-abroad may feel put-upon, but there is absolutely no reason why they can't negotiate with Russia independently of our influence there (which is why I continue to say that NATO's continued existence is not only redundant and obsolete, but actually dangerous). The sins of Parthia are not akin to the sins of Rome.

    For that reason, 'a plague on both your houses' will not suffice. Any reasonable objective analysis or basic historical awareness would lead to the conclusion that Russia's power projection abroad is nowhere near equal to or reflective of that of our own (in my case, American) government. Russia has a total of 14 functional military bases in its near-abroad, and none outside. We have over two and a half times as many military installations in Germany alone.

    As for Syria, of course it's a proxy war. That's what I've been saying all along. The problem is, we're backing a side that explicitly wants to hurt our civilian populace and endanger our national security, whereas Russia is backing an old ally, the head of a formerly-functional state, at that ally's explicit request. The two stances are not even remotely comparable.

    So, I'm sorry to bust your bubble of neutrality, but, to quote Aristotle, the very worst kind of inequality is the attempt to make unequal things equal.


    1. No worries Matthew! Although unfortunately, despite indulgences given, no bubbles have come even close to being burst. Perhaps comments are a poor medium to address this in any detail as I'd like to press you on this further. More generally I find this viewpoint of yours is one I haven't encountered before (not even amongst my Eastern European peers who have more experience than I on this) and would like to talk about it in some more detail, despite disagreeing with it wholeheartedly.

      I don't disagree that Russia's power projection abroad is nowhere near equal to or reflective of that of the US. Yet to even consider this a fixed or rigid attribute independent of political, geographic or social context is, I'd venture, simplistic.

      With references to Syria, again in my initial response I avoided comment on it for good reason. Yet your assumption that being wary of Russia more generally as somehow giving blessing to US foreign policy in Syria came across as rather off-colour. Yet I think you have inadvertently touched on the conflation at the heart of Liddle's article. That Russia's practice in one part of the world may somehow be worked back across the entirety of its foreign policy as some form of apologia particular when put in the framework of US and Russian tensions. The more plain view is that one may support Assad staying in power (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/09/21/british-support-keeping-assad-power-if-it-means-de/) and still be wary of Russia elsewhere and more generally, particularly in Europe (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/11/17/russia-and-world-peace-countries-threatening-world/). In fact - this is the view of most of the British public according to recent YouGov polls on the subject. Liddle in this piece you link uses Syria as a means to paper over the very deep fault lines in the geo-political landscape to build some form of polemic against the US, is misleading and lacks nuance.

      There is no bubble bursting going on. This Russia / US dichotomy - particularly for those who are nationals of neither is a fire that persistently sucks up all the oxygen in the room and benefits primarily either Russia or the US. I'm not neutral, I'm British - that means I can still call down plagues on the aggressive regional powers I'm trapped between.

    2. Fair do's, Kevin. I have no problems with your wariness toward Russia generally, only with the equation of American empire with much more modest Russian power projections in its own 'backyard'.

      But it doesn't strike me even in the broad strokes that Rod Liddle's article was an attempt, either, to exonerate or apologise for Russian power so much as to excoriate Western overreach.