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The Neocons, Russia and the Soviet Union

By Donald Douglas

I'm surprised, frankly, at the ahistoricism of Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall.

These two guys are not only among the very top-tier bloggers on the scene, they are also Ph.D. recipients in political science and history, from Harvard and Brown respectively. Given such esteemed backgrounds, the apparent ignorance of these two on the continuities of Russian history as they relate to the current war in the Caucasus is stunning.

Sullivan, for example, wants to excoriate the "neocons" for what he perceives is their abuse of historical analogies:

It's very bizarre to read the neocons' speaking about Russia as if the Soviet Union were still in existence. Here's a classic slice of the mindset from Max Boot, who wants a third little war in the Caucasus:

It should be no surprise that Russian spokesmen are masters of the Big Lie-their Soviet predecessors practically invented the technique.

Condi Rice, who really should know better, said:

"This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed."

Yes, things have changed: the Soviet Union no longer exists. Wasn't the entire point of the Cold War that totalitarian expansionist states are different than authoritarian ones? Are we now going to elide this Kirkpatrick distinction when it comes to Russia? Putin is not a saint; and his attitude is Cheney-esque in his fondness for secrecy, brute force and contempt for international law. But he is not a communist and he is not attempting to take over the world. The West fought the Cold War based on this distinction. Why should we forget it now it's over?

Tagging along close behind is Marshall, who pumps up Sullivan with some big huzzahs for taking down the "neocon" warmongerers:

Andrew Sullivan, who's been on a tear on this story, has another good post on the bankrupt posturing of the neocons, jumping at the hopes of a new Cold War with the Russians, despite the lack of the ideological underpinnings on which we fought the first and any Russian global ambitions or capacity to fight it.

Marshall goes on to throw in a few more digs at the denizens of the American Enterprise Institute (a hothouse of neoconservative ideas), and he suggests that for people like Bill Bennett and Charles Krauthammer, the Georgian crisis is like an "80s era Gilligan's Island reunion flick."

The reality of anti-neoconservative fervor is well-recognized, but in the cases Sullivan and Marshall, their attacks exhibit a sense of irrationalism, almost an "acute paranoia" in reaction to neoconservative analyses of contempory security issues.

If we unpack the statements of Max Boot and Condoleezza Rice, for example, there's nothing particularly exceptional about them.

When Boot suggests today's Russians have mastered the "big lie" propaganda style of the old Soviet Union, he's essentially making a straightforward reference to the longstanding Kremlin practice of authoritarian control of political information for the external consumption of Moscow's antagonists.

Sullivan and Marshall's critique of Boot on this point is especially strange, since most observers of the Georgian war argue that Vladimir Putin - who was an internal security operative in the Soviet KGB's Fifth Directorate - has played a central role in Kremlin military policy, both before and after Dmitry Medvedev's accession to the Russian presidency. The undeflected similarities in Putin's personal role in the crisis - his personal embodiment of institutional path-dependence, from the Soviet era to the present - is astounding

Sullivan's jab at Rice is also highly ill-conceived, as the Secretary of State is a widely-respected expert on Soviet politics and foreign policy. Her reference to 1968 is to Moscow's crushing of Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring," which was the shift toward a pro-democracy stance in the Czech communist regime, independent of Moscow, on the part of leader Alexander Dubček (and history records uncanny parallels between the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Georgian crisis of 2008, especially the similarities in the world corellation of forces, finding American power in both cases occupied in massive wars on the periphery - Vietnam and Iraq - which functioned to distract U.S. attention from the power-political machinations of the leaders in Moscow).

But beyond these points lies the larger historical context of current Russian international relations.

State power in Russia today reflects an amalgam of Soviet nostalgia and tsarist-era chauvinism. A key variable of concern is the role of Russian political culture dating back centuries. From Peter the Great to Joseph Stalin, leaders of the Russo-Soviet state emerged from a history of economic backwardness, cultural isolation from pivotal events in West (the Renaissance and Reformation), and the strategic vulnerability of Moscow's location along the great plains leading from Central Asia to Western Europe. Repeated wars and conquest subjugated ethnic Russia to external domination and enslavement. Threats of Western encirclement, from Napoleon to Hitler, contributed to a heightened need for psychological security in the Russian state, which in turn contributed to a widespread acceptance of authoritarianism in politics and the home.

Whereas Peter the Great sought to build Russia in the mold of the Western powers, attempting to import the most efffective state-building techniques to the nation (such as commercial and military organization), Stalin, at the height of World War Two - when the Soviets faced totalitarian defeat - appealed to the culture of Mother Russia, knowing that bland calls to defend Leninism would be less effective than the cultural glue of Great Russian Nationalism.

Thus, Moscow's politics in the post-Soviet era has returned in many respects to an earlier, tsarist-nationalist version of perceived strategic isolation and chauvinistic appeal. Indeed, Vladmir Putin's very popularity rests on his shrewd manipulation of popular Russian resentment at the loss of Moscow's previous great power status.

So, when prominent bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall attack contemporary neoconservatives and GOP officials as hatching some newfangled AEI-style military gambit, it's evident that their goal is not careful analysis of realistic American reactions to genuine Russian brutality and hegemonic assertions, but to attack and delegitimize ideological opponents, amid an election where voters' perceptions of foreign policy experience and judgment may be decisive.

This neocon demonization might be expected among the lower-level hordes of the netroots, but these two are respected and award-winning mainstream journalists.

Donald blogs at American Power