The Man Who Got Russia Right

Washington has a long tradition of misreading Moscow. As Putin teeters, it’s worth recalling George Kennan, the best Kremlinologist America ever had.

When mass protests broke out in Russia a few weeks ago, the breathtaking speed with which the country's generally complacent middle class turned on Vladimir Putin seemed most remarkable of all. For a dozen years, the KGB-trained tough guy in the Kremlin had been boosted by a stage-managed image of macho realism and the backstage machinations of a corrupt and heavyhanded state, fueling his wildly misleading popularity. When his approval ratings cratered after claims of vote-rigging in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, it was as if a giant soufflé had fallen: Overnight, seemingly, Putin's poll numbers went from nearly 70 percent approval to a bare 51 percent.

It was so serious that even Dmitry Medvedev, the puppet president whose office Putin has said he plans to retake in 2012, was warning this week that the political system has "exhausted itself" and that without real change, Russia's rulers could find their rule "delegitimized." And that, Medvedev said, "would only mean one thing for our country: the collapse of the state."

The timing of Russia's latest political spasms couldn't be more fitting. It was exactly 20 years ago this week that the Soviet Union itself collapsed, a 70-year-old empire that evaporated in the weeks between Dec. 8, 1991 -- when Russia, Ukraine and Belarus declared their independence -- and Christmas Day, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from the Soviet presidency, declared the office extinct and signed the government's death warrant. The events were so traumatic for many Russians of the old regime that, years later, Putin was moved to call the Soviet breakup "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

If you're bewildered by the new twists in Russia's famously contorted history, give thanks for George F. Kennan, who has been resurrected in a timely and authoritative biography by Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis. George F. Kennan: An American Life is out just in time to guide us through a Russia once again in the throes of political transformation.

Kennan almost singlehandedly invented the serious study of Russia by America's diplomats, and through his three stints in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, he sent reporting home that was prescient and insightful even for today's audience. Consider this observation he made to his boss, the U.S. ambassador to Latvia, in 1932. At the time, the United States hadn't even recognized the Soviet Union, Kennan was several years short of 30 and he hadn't yet traveled inside Russia. But he was already immersed in its history, language and literature, and he foresaw the Soviet Union's internal decay -- at a time when others perceived a new superpower emerging to become one of the new strong men of Europe.

"From the most morally unified country in the world," Kennan wrote, "Russia can become over-night the worst moral chaos."

Based in Moscow a few years later, Kennan saw the historical contradictions that undermined the foundation of the Soviet regime -- while at the same time giving it a veneer of power. Russians were "used to extreme cold and extreme heat, prolonged sloth and sudden feats of energy, exaggerated cruelty and exaggerated kindness, ostentatious wealth and dismal squalor, violent xenophobia and uncontrollable yearning for contact with the foreign world, vast power and the most abject slavery, simultaneous love and hate for the same objects." Looking for an insight into the forces competing for political supremacy in Russia today, you could do far worse than Kennan's observations.

The quote comes from the draft of a 12,000-word essay Gaddis unearthed and which Kennan wrote for Ambassador Averell Harriman in the summer of 1944. Much of Kennan's genius about Russia is contained in it, from the notion that the Soviet Union, despite its enormous losses in World War II of some 20 million of its people, would rise as "a single force greater than any other that will be left on the European continent when this war is over" to the cultural factors that would eventually prove the communist state's undoing. "The strength of the Kremlin lies largely in the fact that it knows how to wait," Kennan wrote. "But the strength of the Russian people lies in the fact that they know how to wait longer."

Gaddis captures why Kennan's dispatches deserved to be immortalized. "Contrary to what almost everyone else assumed at the time Kennan portrayed the Soviet Union as a transitory phenomenon: It was floating along on the surface of Russian history, and currents deeper than anything Marx, Lenin, or Stalin had imagined would ultimately determine its fate." Or here is Gaddis on Kennan again: "He saw what others saw but in different colors.... He had a historian's consciousness of the past, which gave him a visionary's perspective on the future."

In short, Kennan was a great reporter.

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But Kennan's place in American history, and in Gaddis's biography, is assured not for what he saw in Russia but for what he told the United States to do about it. He was, as a million Google hits will tell you, "the architect of containment," the postwar strategy for countering the Soviet Union that was at the heart of the Cold War.

The notion of "containment" as a new form of Western grand strategy -- a third way to block the Soviets that involved neither capitulation nor another devastating world war -- built on Kennan's views about the internal weaknesses of Soviet power. It was a brilliant insight, and Gaddis spends much of his biography on Kennan's decades-long struggle (he died in 2005 at age 101) against the many ways in which his idea was used to justify a long, highly militarized contest with the Soviet Union, a contest whose particulars he often violently disagreed with.

Kennan's containment was rooted in his fight to get Washington to pay attention to Stalin's shift at the end of World War II, from allying with the United States and Britain to competing with them for mastery over postwar Europe. But the term itself has lost that meaning; it has long since become shorthand for all that followed: the costly, reckless nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam, and the chess match in the Middle East and Latin America, all justified in the name of competing with the Soviet aggressor. Kennan was against many if not all of those and yet his name has been indelibly associated with them -- in part reflecting the much cannier Washington savvy of his rivals within the U.S. government, rivals more skilled at promoting the muscular form of containment backed by American military might that they preferred. Even today, Kennan's name is shorthand for a policy he mostly hated. Here was GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, just the other day, complaining of our current foreign policy. "We're still trapped," he said, "in the Cold War, George Kennan mindset."

Here is where one can at least gently criticize Gaddis's book, the sort of tome that is invariably called "magisterial" and in this case for the most part is. Gaddis subtitles his book -- an authorized biography nearly 30 years in the making -- "An American Life," and goes on at great length about Kennan's critiques of the country of his birth. But Gaddis makes a far less convincing case that Kennan was anywhere near the student of the United States that he was of Russia. Indeed, some of his early writings, as Gaddis acknowledges, show Kennan as a sort of misinformed elitist (and a highly intolerant, vaguely anti-Semitic one at that) who had contempt for the democratic politics of his homeland even as the twin totalitarian behemoths were taking shape in 1930s Europe. For much of Kennan's long life after his star-studded diplomatic career, he was writing and teaching at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and arguing on the wrong side of U.S. political battles in a Washington he had always disdained.

Which is why I'd like to make the case here for more of Kennan the Russia hand and less of Kennan the American strategist.

It is because of Kennan's meticulous observations, incisive prose and deep knowledge of the country and its people that 20th-century Americans were lucky enough to have him as witness to the monstrosities of Stalin's Russia -- one who didn't merely throw up his hands in confusion, or succumb to wishful thinking or fellow-travelerism or any of the other diseases endemic to so much Western writing about the Soviet Union.

This is a relevant legacy of Kennan's, and one that we have yet to fully absorb. Indeed, the tradition of getting Russia wrong has a distinguished Washington lineage, and one that I witnessed while covering the rise of Putin for The Washington Post in the early 2000s. In those years, Putin was reconsolidating power in the Kremlin, taking over independent media, jailing or banishing potential political opponents, shutting down elections for governor and putting into place a new security-state apparatus from such remnants of the Soviet police state as had survived the 1990s. Yet back in Washington, there were those who persisted in believing for years that Putin was not exactly as he seemed. Remember when George W. Bush looked into his "soul" in 2001? He wasn't the only one. We encountered many, both at senior levels in the U.S. government and among the Westerners in Moscow, who were so eager to do business with a resurgent Kremlin that they were willing to rewrite the facts. The White House today faces a similar challenge as President Obama, who made a point of a "reset" in relations after the frosty U.S.-Russia standoff of the late Bush years, now leaves it to his secretary of state to lecture Putin on democracy. Will the administration read the Kremlin right this time?

Kennan knew well the perils of Washington getting Russia wrong, and this understanding makes for the high point of Gaddis's gripping book. It was Feb. 22, 1946, and Kennan, at home in his Moscow sickbed, was getting pinged from Washington about a speech Stalin had given a few weeks earlier. The speech -- given at the Bolshoi Theater and, as Gaddis writes, "meant, superfluously, to win him an election" -- said nothing much new to Kennan, who saw it as so routine he at first just summarized it in a cable home to the State Department.

But like any good reporter, he responded when his bosses demanded front-page treatment for the story. In the 5,000-word masterpiece that followed, Kennan let rip with a document that summed up everything he had seen in six long winters in Russia, from the poisonous fusion of Russian nationalism with international Communism to the weaknesses of a country overextended into an empire it couldn't fully absorb and with a people it could repress but not fully conquer.

This was Kennan's famous "Long Telegram," and it exploded in the American policy debate like a bomb -- not because Kennan had his pulse on the policy battles in D.C., but because he knew Moscow when it mattered. "It hit Washington," Harriman later recalled, "at just the right moment."

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The World According to Ron Paul

Republicans are freaked out about what a libertarian isolationist in the White House would do to American power -- but not all Democrats are.

In this year's GOP presidential track meet it seems that everyone gets a turn in front -- and this week Ron Paul is the lucky candidate. While still trailing in the national race numbers, recent poll results from Iowa suggest that, two weeks until caucus day, Paul has jumped into the lead there ahead of the water-treading Mitt Romney and the sinking Newt Gingrich.

Paul brings a unusual set of views to the Republican presidential sweepstakes -- on almost every core national security and foreign-policy issue he holds a position that is in fierce opposition to the views of mainstream Republicans.

Indeed, his entire philosophy is largely a renunciation of much of what Republicans believe about America's role in the world. He questions the popular notion of American exceptionalism and has argued in his recently published book, Liberty Defended, that the "United States is an empire by any definition, and quite possibly the most aggressive, extended, and expansionist in the history of the world." This is the kind of language that might cause Ronald Reagan to roll over in his grave.

And that's just for starters. He belittles the war on terrorism as a "cliché" that is used to "con the people into thinking that all citizens must cooperate and sacrifice our liberties to ‘win' the war." He is openly disdainful of the use of torture and other extrajudicial tactics that have been utilized to fight it. He is dismissive of the need to kill top al Qaeda lieutenants, including Osama bin Laden; blames U.S. foreign policy and meddling in other country's affairs for the "blowback" that contributed to 9/11; and downplays the efficacy of the country's military might. In Paul's view, if the United States simply stayed out of other countries' business we would be left alone. Suffice to say, his opponents in the GOP race have a far more "exceptional" take on U.S. power.

His policy solutions are even more anathema to conservatives. He wants to reduce the military budget, abolish the CIA, pull the United States out of NATO, end financial support for Israel, and do nothing in the face of Iranian nuclear proliferation, which he claims is a legitimate desire for Tehran to have. In Liberty Defended, Paul is unabashed in his criticism of prominent Republicans. He calls former Vice President Dick Cheney a "chicken hawk"; criticized the "lies" of the Bush administration that led the United States to war in Iraq and directly takes on conservatives who don't share his views noting, "Those who consider themselves to be opponents of big government and yet have an uncritical attitude toward militarism and war are either fooling themselves or haven't thought enough about the problem."

According to Bruce Fein, senior foreign policy advisor to Paul, his campaign is "about changing the conventional orthodoxies" that are articulated by the other GOP candidates. In Paul's view, says Fein, the United States should not exercise global leadership by the end of the sword but rather by the "influence of its example." According to Fein, "Ron Paul is the greatest hawk of all when it comes to defending America and Americans. He wants every defense resource focused on defending America and not other countries."  

Paul uneasily falls into a long-silenced tradition in Republican politics of isolationist thought. While Paul is often quick to note that he is not an economic protectionist (and thus, he claims, not an isolationist) he is, says Christopher Nichols, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on isolationism, more of a political isolationist. He doesn't want America to turn its back from the world; he wants rather to end all alliances and international arrangements to which the United States is a participant. Indeed, Paul is even more radical in his views than the Idaho Republican Senator William Borah and Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who were the standard bearers of GOP isolationism in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Nichols, Paul's foreign policy attitudes are much more influenced by his libertarian absolutism than by the legacy of Borah and Taft. It's been a long time since such positions have held much sway in the Republican Party -- and based on the reaction from establishment conservatives and the party's rank-and-file it doesn't appear to be gaining much traction, even with Paul's rising poll numbers.

Prominent conservatives from Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review to Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly have respectively labeled Paul a "blame America firster" with a poisonous view of the United States and a candidate whose foreign policy views "disqualify" him from the presidency.

Indeed, while Republicans might like some of the things that Paul has to say -- about foreign aid, the United Nations, and international trade -- generally speaking, the candidate has a fairly hard ceiling on how far he can rise within the GOP. In fact, his favorability in Iowa is higher among independent voters than it is among actual Republicans. Fein told me that he is confident once people hear Paul's views and he "racks up a few electoral victories" GOP voters will come around. We'll see, but it seems very difficult to imagine that anyone with Paul's foreign policy views could be the party's nominee in 2012.

What is perhaps most interesting about Paul -- and where his political potential might lie should he choose to run as a third-party candidate -- is in the support that he garners from across the political aisle. His attacks against America's military-industrial complex, his bemoaning of U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his strident criticism of the hyping of threats regarding Iran has endeared him to a host of liberal activists and commentators.

Rachel Maddow has applauded his lack of belligerency against Iran and even intimated that it's the reason he is leading the Iowa caucus (not really). Liberal activist Glenn Greenwald has attacked those who call Paul "crazy" for being opposed to foreign wars; Bill Maher said he'd vote for Paul and even progressive-leaning Jon Stewart joked that he likes Paul as our "idea guy" and imagines the septuagenarian libertarian as "America's Kramer." Paul recently also won the public endorsement of Obama supporter and nominal conservative Andrew Sullivan who argues that Paul's nomination could "break the grip of neoconservative belligerence on conservative thought and the Republican party could make space again for more reasoned and seasoned managers of foreign policy."

As Adele Stan, who has covered Paul closely for Alternet said to me, "progressives don't get Paul's anti-war talk from their own people (i.e. Democrats) and to hear it from him satisfies this deep spiritual yearning to hear someone say that we shouldn't be bombing other people around the world." Indeed, after ten years of war it's striking that Ron Paul has become the only presidential candidate -- Republican or Democrat -- talking about the need for a less militaristic foreign policy.  

The problem, however, is that there is far more to Paul's view than just his opposition to U.S. military adventurism. Paul also believes that the United States should depart from all international organizations and global alliances. This includes not just NATO, but also the United Nations and the World Health Organization (he introduced legislation to this effect as recently as this March). He stridently opposes NAFTA, all free trade agreements, and even U.S. membership in the WTO on the grounds that free trade should be free of government interference, global rule-making, or apparently dispute mechanisms. He is opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants and believes that securing America's borders should be the "top national security priority."

What about foreign aid? Paul wants to end it completely -- with some vague exceptions made for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. He claims that "foreign aid never works to achieve the stated goal of helping the poor of other nations." Finally, there is a darker element to Paul's foreign policy views -- a healthy degree of conspiracy-mongering. He has warned against the so-called NAFTA super-highway and the North American Union, a supposed plan to turn the North American continent into an economic union with a single currency and open borders along the lines of the European Union. Paul has even introduced legislation to prevent this non-event from occurring. He has also claimed that the United Nations "wants to influence our domestic environmental, trade, labor, tax, and gun laws" and that "its global planners fully intend to expand the U.N. into a true world government, complete with taxes, courts, and a standing army."

Sullivan, in endorsing Paul, has said that he does not approve of the candidate's "nuttier policy proposals." But Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, said that while he doesn't agree with everything Paul says, "he's bringing ideas to the table that aren't often heard among Republicans on the campaign trail. He has broadened the debate on foreign policy. Compared to the Bush years, it's like glasnost."

This is often the sort of praise one finds for Paul's foreign policy views. The problem, however, is that a Ron Paul presidency would mean far more than simply an end to foreign wars and the United States playing policeman to the world. In short, he wants to pull up the drawbridge and separate the United States from all official foreign entanglements, not just the military ones. One could certainly make the case that the consequences of such a doctrinaire and unyielding foreign policy vision could do significant long-term damage to the United States. According to Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network, "A foreign policy that lets our trading partners collapse (in Europe); fails to engage with new ones as they are busily building ties with each other (Brazil, Turkey, Korea, Indonesia); and lets new disease incubate in the food we import and pollution concentrate in the winds we breathe will kill citizens and impoverish our national treasury as surely as the wars Paul critiques."

What's more, there is little evidence that the vast majority of Americans actually want to see the United States so dramatically disentangle itself from international affairs. Many of those supporting Paul or saying positive words about his candidacy may not fully comprehend that under a Paul administration it is quite possible that the United States would no longer be a member in good standing at the United Nations, turn to the World Trade Organization to resolve trade disputes, patrol sea lanes that are transit points for U.S. commerce, work with international organizations to fight global diseases or support economic development, and consult with allies in multilateral forums to deal with global challenges. In short, it's not clear that Americans are as prepared as Paul is for the United States to no longer be a global power.

This might be a case where Paul's adherence to ideological purity will limit his larger political impact or even the strength of his foreign policy message. And that's a shame. Perhaps more than at any point in recent American history there is a need and a yearning for a presidential aspirant who espouses a vision of American power that is more modest and restrained then what is being articulated by both Democrats and Republicans.  Alas, for all his current yet likely fleeting appeal, it's hard to imagine that in the end Ron Paul is capable of ultimately being that candidate. His candidacy -- and his foreign policy views -- will in the end be a victim of his own political absolutism.