Tupac in the Kremlin

How the martyred king of gangsta rap, a bisexual LSD-touting beat poet, and a reclusive alcoholic painter inspire a Moscow apparatchik.

When Putin's senior advisor Vladislav Surkov learned of the U.S. sanctions being levied against him in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea, he responded: "The U.S. I am interested in is Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work. So I lose nothing."  

A Kremlin veteran and possibly a chief architect of Russia's Ukraine policy, Surkov made the comment as a snarky dismissal of the American reaction to Russia's bold land grab. But it was also a striking list of cultural references for a Kremlin apparatchik: the martyred king of gangsta rap; a bisexual, anti-war, LSD-touting beat poet; and a reclusive alcoholic painter known for upending the mores of mid-century art through the advent of abstract expressionism.

It's certainly possible that these figures -- some of the dearest and most progressive in American history -- simply reflect Surkov's eccentric (and in my book, excellent) tastes. He is known to have written lyrics for a Russian rock band and is believed to be the pseudonymous author of a satirical novel. His penchant for Tupac has also been widely reported by past visitors to his Kremlin office, which is graced with the dead rapper's portrait. Off-handed or not, however, Surkov's three Americans each represents a strong counter-cultural thread in 20th-century American society, and provides ample clues about Russia's self-perception as the aggrieved anti-hero of the post-Cold War order.

Tupac. Surkov's affinity for Tupac Shakur, the California rapper killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996, is perhaps the easiest to understand, given Tupac's unvarnished disdain for the rules of society, in addition to almost everything outside of guns, marijuana, and women. With Tupac songs such as "F*ck the World" and "Me Against the World," it's not hard to see how Surkov's -- and in turn, President Putin's -- recent affronts to the international order might align with the dead rapper's ethos. But those of us who grew up in the golden age of hip hop -- and especially those who did so on the West Coast -- know that Tupac was far from an angry and ignorant thug.

The son of Black Panthers and a talented poet and lyricist, Tupac channeled his frustration with police brutality and racism into music that moved generations and challenged the status quo in the early 1990s, an era that saw both the L.A. riots and the fall of the Soviet Union. As one of the architects of the Kremlin's domestic and foreign policy under Putin, one might surmise that Surkov fancies today's Russia to be something similar: a misunderstood rebel who sees that the emperor has no clothes; a speaker of truth to power; and a savior for those left behind by the power structure, namely, today's U.S.-dominated world.

Ginsberg. Along with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg is one of the most celebrated beat poets and is a whole other kind of rebel -- though similarly thoughtful and incendiary in his critiques of mainstream America. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of the Cold War and Vietnam -- not to mention McCarthyism and the American cultural revolution -- Ginsberg was a strong voice for the anti-war and pro-drug movements, as well as for gay rights. (The latter, of course, is rather incongruous given the Kremlin's continued attacks on gay rights in Russia; my guess is the contradiction is not lost on Surkov, though likely conveniently overlooked.)

Ginsberg flirted with communism but stated he wasn't a party member. His work did, however, focus largely on what he perceived as the absurdities of American politics and culture. His 1956 epic poem, America, talks specifically of the Cold War, mocking the anti-Russian rhetoric of the day:

America it's them bad Russians. 
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians. 
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take 
our cars from out our garages ...

Like Tupac, Ginsberg was no cut-and-dry soapbox critic of the U.S. government or mainstream American culture. He often wrote of mental illness, homosexuality, and drug use, resulting in his most famous poem, Howl, being nearly banned for obscenity. Each of these topics, I might add, was by any account more scandalous than anything even considered by the banned Russian feminist punk outfit, Pussy Riot. Ginsberg also wrote often of those who had been seemingly left behind, painting disenfranchisement as a quiet source of strength.

Pollack. Perhaps Jackson Pollack is the most difficult reference to decipher, since his mode of expression was not only visual, but completely abstract. This made him an anti-hero of the art world, of course, but a tinge more opaque as an influence on Russian foreign policy. But looking closely at what Pollock represents does draw a clear line back to the subversive natures of Tupac and Ginsberg. Pollock abandoned form -- then the dominant, if not only, acceptable mode of artistic expression -- in order to more clearly convey an emotional state or moment. The results were explosive, complex, and mystifying to many; apt words, in fact, for Russia's recent behavior, at least on the surface.

Pollock's historical significance is also a good parallel, and perhaps even more concrete than Ginsberg's brushes with communism and critiques of Cold War paranoia. According to a series of revelations made in the early 1990s, the CIA actually sponsored and promoted the work of abstract expressionist artists, including Pollock, as part of the agency's covert cultural war against the Soviet Union. Its aim was to demonstrate that the United States was a bastion of creative expression, unlike the rigid USSR, where Soviet realism was the only acceptable form of artistic work.

According to those who worked for the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA front for this type of promotion, the agency was acutely aware that the artists whom they were promoting were often quite left wing and anti-government. In fact, the CIA deliberately harnessed the avant-garde's association with the left to make even more clearly their point about American artistic liberty.

This may in fact be the most subtle, and yet most telling message to be found in Surkov's admission. That is to say, the best part of America is its own counter-culture. The sense of rebellion, the anger at being left behind by an all-powerful but corrupt system, has had its greatest expressions in American artists, musicians, and poets. We may not always realize it, but, as seen through Surkov's eyes, America is the original avant-garde.

As absurd as it may seem to us, today Surkov is claiming this rebellious anger for Russia, co-opting the need to buck the system, go for broke, get rich, or die trying. We see it in the bold annexation of Crimea, in Putin's defiant address, and in Russia's continued defense of rogue states like Syria and North Korea. Fortunately, Vladimir Surkov is far from the only one whispering in Putin's ear, and more cautious strains of Russian thinking also have their place. But we would be wise to take note of Surkov's clear influence on the president -- and our own cultural anti-heroes' influence on him.



Ready to Fight

Obama might be risk averse, but there are at least five scenarios in which he might use military force in the Middle East.

Barack Obama is clearly not prepared to use military force to confront Vladimir Putin's land grab in Crimea, nor most likely in Ukraine should Russia try to gobble up more territory there. Neither is a vital enough interest to warrant intervention.

But what would President Obama consider vital? Under what circumstances would he actually use force to protect and further U.S. interests?

To hear Obama's critics tell it -- the ones who believe his foreign policy has been a complete failure and abdication of America's moral and strategic responsibilities -- there aren't many risk-ready scenarios for this risk-averse president. Of course, there are the obvious candidates: aliens invading earth, vampires or zombies (or maybe terrorists) threatening the White House, or Putin attacking Western Europe.

But in all fairness, surely there are threats and challenges that would persuade the president to declare an interest so vital that he'd be prepared to project American power in a serious and sustained manner -- despite the temper of the times, in which the American public is wary of doing too much abroad, particularly doing dumb or unnecessary things. North Korean aggression against the south or another U.S. ally in Asia is one case in which the use of force would be likely, as would a territorial or maritime dispute in Asia that drags America into a fight. Beyond that, the region in which some kind of kinetic activity is most likely is -- that's right, you guessed it -- the Middle East.

Here are fives scenarios in which Obama might use force in the region.

An attack on the continental United States, almost certainly by some Middle East group. Protecting the homeland is the organizing principle of any nation's foreign policy. If you cannot protect the homeland, you don't need a foreign policy. Counterterrorism has already proven to be the one area where Obama has been most risk ready. Indeed, he's been much more relentless and aggressive on this front than his predecessor.

Is there any doubt that this president would use force to preempt, if there was actionable intelligence, or retaliate for another attack against continental America, assuming it could be determined what state or transnational group was responsible? While there's always the possibility that a non-Middle East terrorist group would plan an attack on the homeland (see the European fascists attempting to spark a nuclear war in The Sum of All Fears), the likely source of an attack remains a group based in the region that is angriest at America: the Arab/Muslim world.

Bottom line: Steady green light for military action to retaliate or preempt

Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Obama has gone to great lengths to avoid having to take military action. But with the Syrian chemical weapons deal not working as planned and Putin gobbling up Ukraine, Obama simply cannot afford to see another U.S. adversary cross another red line -- and in this case, see Iran get the bomb on his watch.

He's hoping that the interim agreement will lead to a comprehensive one that's good enough to avoid this. Should the talks collapse or fail to produce a compelling comprehensive accord, the war drums would likely begin to beat again, almost certainly in Israel. There would be enormous pressure on the Israeli prime minister to do something -- and should Iran retaliate directly against Israel with missiles rather than indirectly through Hezbollah's high trajectory weapons or proxy terror), the odds are pretty high that Washington would join with strikes of its own against Iranian targets.

Bottom line: Flashing yellow light for a unilateral U.S. strike against Iran; steady green if Tehran hits Israel directly in the wake of an Israeli strike.

Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies describes any number of scenarios in which Iran might try to interfere with shipping in the straits. These range from trying to raise insurance premiums by intimidating oil tankers to trying to close the straits themselves. Should Iran mine or fire on tankers to do the latter, Washington would almost certainly counter with a combined air and naval campaign designed to thwart this effort.

After all, 40 percent of the world's seaborne oil flows through the straits, and a disruption in that supply would wreak havoc on world energy prices. Iran has previously threatened to close the straits as a means of trying to get sanctions lifted. The presence of U.S. military personnel in the Gulf makes it unlikely Iran could pull it off, but it also significantly raises the probability of military confrontation if Iran managed to do it.

Bottom Line: Steady green light for whatever it takes to keep the straits open.

Striking Syria. Obama has gone to great lengths to avoid militarizing the U.S. role in Syria. And he has taken tremendous heat from Republicans, much of the American media, Saudis, and various Europeans for doing so. Syria has proven to be a moral, humanitarian, and even strategic disaster for the United States. But intervention in a never-ending civil war isn't a U.S. vital interest.

Still, several factors are coming together that might presage a more muscular U.S. response. Putin is in the doghouse on Ukraine; the Syrian opposition is losing ground; and the June 30 deadline in an already-flawed process of implementing the chemical weapons agreement is approaching. Should President Bashar al-Assad cease implementation of the agreement altogether or use chemical weapons again, the pressure will remount for a U.S. strike. And this time, Obama may want to respond by using limited military force by using limited military force in order to stick it to Putin and beat back his Republican critics.

The downside of course would be if Putin were to up the ante after a U.S. strike by actually supplying the Syrians with S300 anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment.

Bottom Line: Red light turning to flashing yellow.

Protecting U.S. allies. No Arab state has the capacity to do what Saddam Hussein did to Kuwait. Syria is not in a position to frontally threaten Jordan, and while there are plenty of scenarios in which Iran might use proxies to stir up trouble among the Shiites in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, a frontal assault by Tehran is highly unlikely.

In the event that Iran did choose to attack Saudi Arabia or Israel directly, however, Washington would come to either ally's defense, including by using military force against Iran directly.

Bottom Line: There'd be green lights flashing all over the sit room.

Should we be happy or sad about these bottom lines? Do we have a disciplined president or a weak one? Stay tuned. There's plenty of time left on the presidential clock. The world's not yet finished with Barack Obama. Nor is he with it.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images