House of Cards and the Obama Administration’s Policy on Russia
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Over the past half year some international affairs commentators have opined with an air of superiority that the Obama administration lacks a policy on Russia, that its personal attacks on President Putin reveal a superficiality that masquerades as policy whereas those plotting our foreign relations have not done the hard work of strategic analysis. The responses at press conferences by the ignorant dullards who act as spokespersons for the White House and the State Department surely encourage such a benign interpretation of the course taken with respect to Russia.
However, closer inspection of what is being said about and done to Russia these days leaves no doubt that Washington does indeed have a policy, and that it is a very misguided, tendentious and ultimately hazardous policy that courts the calamity of yet another world war by its dismissal of Russia’s military and economic capabilities and of Russia’s readiness to defend its vital interests with all resources at its disposal. This is not an incidental oversight; it is the fundamental blind spot which drives everything else.
Excerpts released to the media this past Sunday from President Obama’s interview with The Economist newspaper illustrate perfectly where we stand and why. The most piquant sound bites were carried at once by many media outlets as teasers. I found them at the online edition of The Moscow Times in the feature article “Obama Dismisses Russia as Nation that ‘Doesn’t Make Anything.” That remark was well crafted to attract attention, being similar in kind to the offhand comment by Russian nemesis Senator McCain some months ago that Russia was not a country but a gas station.
The headline remark formed part of a dense string of provocative assertions about Russia and its President. Already on the next day, Forbes.com journalist Mark Adomanis came out with an article entitled “Three things Barack Obama got wrong about Russia” exposing the falsehoods which the American President was disseminating.
The three factually wrong assertions which Adomanis chose to explore were:
1. that Russia does not attract immigrants
2. that male life expectancy in Russia is just 60 years
3. that the population of the country is declining
As I will demonstrate in a moment, among the assorted insulting statements about Russia which Obama chose to let drop during his interview these were among the more anodyne. They were chosen by Adomanis to debunk because they matched his personal knowledge base and comfort zone.
For those unfamiliar with the opus of Mark Adomanis, it bears mention that this hard working and widely published journalist has focused in the past several years on Russia’s demography. He has contributed greatly to drawing a realistic picture of Russian society simply by doing what others in the profession disdained to do: he reads and analyzes the data releases of Rosstat, the Ministry of Health and other relevant Russian institutions. His writings show that the population decline which Russia experienced as from the 1990s has been effectively reversed beginning in 2009, with a gradual shift in contributing factors from immigration to natural rise in live births over deaths. It is also worth noting that in his writings Adomanis has done some comparative analysis of demographic trends in all the former Soviet bloc, showing that Russia’s experience from the fall of Communism and the industrial chaos that followed was largely similar to the experience of all its peers, only that Russia generally has been much more successful in reversing the decline.
In addition to reiterating in his latest article his findings on Russia’s rising as opposed to declining population, Adomanis noted that the true figure for male life expectancy in Russia today is 65 rather than 60, and he proceeded to drive home to his readers the importance of an 8% margin of error in statistics issued over the President’s name.
As for the third factual error in Obama’s allegation that “immigrants are not rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity,” Adomanis did not produce hard numbers but otherwise adduced persuasive arguments to show the opposite is true, including anecdotal evidence on the vast presence of foreign workers in Russian cities. Thus, he concluded that “Russia is widely acknowledged to be the world’s second most popular destination for immigrants after the United States.”
What is at issue in those 3 negative assertions by Obama and their overturning by Adomanis is the negative or positive characterization of Russian society and its leadership. Ultimately the population collapse of Russia in the 1990s was a direct result of the economic collapse and the hopelessness that pervaded society. Similarly the rise in natural births over the past five years, while supported by the generous maternity capital extended by Putin’s government to families with two or more children, accurately reflects the generalized prosperity that has touched the whole of Russian society in the past decade, and with it greater self-confidence and financial security of prospective parents.
At the same time, Adomanis is always careful not to upset his editors and the readership of an information resource to which American business subscribes. His positive take on Russian demographics and occasional upbeat remarks on the Russian economy are tempered by regular reminders of the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime. Therefore it is not surprising that the journalist chose not to explore some other assertions of Obama and, more importantly, not to dwell on why all these assertions were made in the first place.
Apart from a lighthearted comment at the outset of his article that ‘’he [Obama] was pretty clearly doing his best to give Vladimir Putin an aneurism,” Adomanis ended his article with the suggestion that the blame for the falsehoods in Obama’s remarks was due to sloppiness, unprofessionalism among his staff who never took the time to do some google research.
In fact, apart from the one-liner that ‘Russia as a nation doesn’t make anything,’ all of the other denigrating remarks were nothing new from official Washington. The talk about Russia’s declining population was rolled out five years ago by Vice President Joe Biden at the conclusion of his trip to Ukraine and Georgia to counteract fears that Washington’s policy of reset with Moscow meant détente at the expense of the former Soviet republics and East Bloc countries.
The suggestion that Russia poses just “regional challenges” that can cause only local and short-term inconvenience to America and its allies is something that Obama let loose during his visit to The Netherlands and Belgium this past March. This is by far the most dangerous belief in the President's intellectual arsenal, because it directly (mis)informs all American decisions about how far it can push Russia into a corner. I have explained precisely why this assumption is dead wrong in http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2014/03/28/barack-obama-s-speech-in-bozar-is-there-a-new-cold-war-1127296.html.
This leaves us with the “Russia doesn’t make anything” allegation, which is arguably a new low in malicious propaganda about Russia being disseminated from the Oval Office. The notion that the world’s fifth largest economy doesn’t make anything is patently absurd and requires no detailed counter proof. Anyone at all familiar with Russian reality knows about the creation of new industrial clusters all around the country, knows about resurgent Russian agriculture that has retaken for the country its position as a leading global grain exporter using state of the art farm machinery that is being produced in ever greater numbers by local affiliates of the world’s major brands. Reindustrialization of Russia is proceeding apace. Import substitution that Obama’s sanctions are forcing on the Russian economy will likely accelerate the trend.
What is true is that much of the technology underlying the reindustrialization is coming from abroad and that Russia is not yet a significant contributor to global innovation. However, its phoenix-like rise from economic chaos since the millennium suggests the dynamism is there. And compared to its peers in Central Europe, Russian reindustrialization is not doing badly. Poland, which is often cited as the head of class in terms of industrial recovery has no self-standing world-class industrial companies of its own and mostly gets by as subcontractor and spare parts manufacturer to German industry. Arguably Russia has made greater progress in mastering full industrial cycles.
So how may we understand Obama’s assertions about Russia and what do they tell us about his Russian policy?
As noted above, one interpretation was set up by Mark Adomanis without his developing it: that Obama’s intent is to taunt and bait Putin in the hope that he will do something rash to justify the idea that he is deranged and must be removed for the sake of international security. After all, going back to the autumn of 2014 and the information war over Russia’s laws on homosexuality, high officials in the Obama administration have repeatedly likened Putin to Hitler.
In parallel, Obama’s talking points from the interview fit in well with his administration’s objective of marginalizing Russia. This is what was behind the efforts to boycott the Sochi Olympic Games, which then morphed into disparaging news coverage of corruption, vast overspending and likely terrorist dangers in the run-up to the Games. This is what underlies Russia’s eviction from the G-8. And now it has seamlessly moved on to sanctions, which, whatever harm they may do to the Russian economy and whatever degree of popular discontent and political instability may ensue, have the sure objective of casting Russia as a pariah state and diminishing its possible global influence.
All of these essential policy objectives – marginalizing Russia, demonizing Putin and the Kremlin leadership, and striving for regime change in Moscow– have a common source in Neocon political thinking. Their Russophobe beliefs jumped the Republican-Democratic divide in the second half of the 1990s. They were the common property of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, together with the recruits to the State Department during their watch. They were fostered during the political cleansing at State during the watch of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. They have gathered force ever since 2003, when Russia emerged as one of the three leading nations publicly opposing the US invasion of Iraq, and the only opposing nation able to deny to the United States the legitimacy of United Nations approval it sought for its action.
These are the political forces which took in hand Barack Obama from the moment he locked up the nomination and received Joe Biden as his Vice Presidential running mate in the summer of 2008. Continuity of the ideology of American hegemony guiding foreign policy from the Bush administration was assured immediately following the November election when Obama’s State, Defense and other cabinet secretaries were named. These men and women and the mindset they brought to their government service have led us in a straight line to where we stand today and to Obama’s casual invective directed at Mr. Putin’s Russia in his interview for The Economist. It is the product not merely of one or two outstanding and visible personalities, such as Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and her husband, Neocon foreign policy thinker Robert Kagan. It owes its strength and persistence to a substantial embedded establishment.
However, American foreign policy is not merely the prerogative of the presidential administration and the Department of State. It also rests on a consensus of the Congress, where it plays out as just one more element in the trading of favors and power that constitute domestic politics.
One of the big hits in American television programming over the last two seasons was the political drama serial The House of Cards, produced and distributed by Netflix. Populated by bigger than life personalities such as the serial Dallas enjoyed in its heyday, House of Cards has shown off to Americans how raw power can be even more seductive than money, how senior politicians work in packs and count for very little as individuals.
The Machiavellian plots that drive House of Cards follow from a double cross over the nomination of a Secretary of State such as happened to John Kerry in the fall of 2008. It would be helpful if the insider knowledge and x-ray vision of the scriptwriters were applied to inform us about the Congressional horse trading over foreign policy, and over policy towards Russia in particular.
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2014
Article is published with permission from Gilbert Doctorow.