Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dangerous Knowledge

It is now a little more than a year since Book TV ran a broadcast of Dennis Ross talking about his book Statecraft. Since then I have posted periodically on the many ways in which our current Administration has, almost systematically, gone against the grain of the rather straightforward lessons of this book. Whether these have been actions of defiance or ignorance is left as an exercise for the reader; but I was amused to note that my most recent post, "Getting into the Iran Mess," was written exactly one year after I first cited Ross' work.

My thoughts turned to Ross again this morning while reading Joe Conason's latest column, "A Cut-and-Paste Foreign Policy," on Truthdig. This time, however, I was less concerned with whether or not the present occupant of the White House and his would-be successor John McCain were disregarding Ross' fundamental principles of statecraft out of defiance or ignorance. Rather, I began to realize the extent to which Vladimir Putin seems to not only understand but also embrace those principles. Consider Conason's final observation:

There can be no doubt that Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses a challenge to the West, and to the next administration. It can be argued that Russian ambitions must be checked now to discourage Moscow’s bullying imperialism. It can also be argued that bringing the former Soviet republics into NATO only provokes the Russians into resisting encirclement by their Cold War enemies, and that we must engage Russia to cope with existential threats like nuclear proliferation and Islamist extremism. What can no longer be sanely argued is that reflexive ideology and confrontational bluster will secure our future.

It all comes down to how accurately we understand "Russian ambitions" and what actions we can take (based, of course, on our "capital resources," both material and social) towards our own interests. When it comes to resources, our relation to Russia is no longer one of "My pop's bigger than your pop," based on the size of nuclear arsenals. We now face crises of shortages of both food and energy, which may ultimately lead to the recognition that the best government (whether on a national or global scale) is the one most likely to sustain life on this planet that involves more than living from hand to mouth. Putin is less a blustering militarist and more a cold-blooded chief executive determined to set achievable goals that can be brought about through well-executed plans. Put another way, he knows how to frame what he wants in terms of what he has; and he does it well enough to run up a good record of getting what he wants. Surprisingly enough, the execution of his plans often involves playing the game of statecraft by Ross' rules, just because he is in a position to play the game better than the others.

Meanwhile, in our hemisphere we cannot even agree on what we want our goals to be; so we fall back on the empty rhetoric of our political ideology, which may well be at least a predisposing cause of both the current food and energy problems. Without a better sense of goals, our actions cannot be planned, which is why we jump from one "campaign" (Iraq) to the next (Iran) without giving much thought to any of them, particularly when it comes to why they matter (the question we hear least about where the current crisis in Georgia is concerned). We are thus reduced to the pathological loser at a poker table in Las Vegas, so inept that our attempts at bluffing are transparent to all the other players.

I am reminded of a story about the Soviet Union and Iran. As I recall the story, Nikita Khrushchev once asked the Shah of Iran why there was such a strong American presence in his country; and the Shah replied that Iran needed protection against a possible Soviet invasion. Khrushchev replied, "The Soviet Union does not need to invade Iran. Iran is a rotten fruit. The Soviet Union can wait for it to drop from the tree." Does Putin see the United States as such a "rotten fruit?"

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