I’ve always been a Russia-watcher. Since I was a teenager, I’ve followed the Soviet Union’s long fall into a cold grave, only to rise as an ascendant greater Russia. So with all the hoopla about President-elect Trump and his Russian connections, I’ve been forced to go back and reconsider some of the first principles driving this whole “Oh no! It’s the Russians!” panic infesting the press and Trump critics. (Aren’t they really the same thing?)
I have to ask myself if Russia is really our forever enemy, to be feared, opposed and defeated at all costs? Similarly, I have to ask if radical Islam is our forever enemy, or can we coexist?
Trump’s moves may make a whole lot more sense in light of the answers.
Is Russia our enemy?
Like a typical Russian, I answer yes, and no. Russian society is fundamentally different than American society. By “fundamentally different” I mean in the same way I get half smiles and laughs from Brits when I talk about how my sister-in-law’s church in New England was founded in 1638. They’ve got socks older than that.
In the steppes of eastern Europe and the vast forests, wastelands and tundra spanning from Moscow to Vladivostok and Mongolia, the Russians have a very long and painful history. None of it particularly involves self-governance, independence, or rugged individualism. Russian ruggedness is the ability to accept serfdom, hardship, cruelty and poverty with alacrity (and alcohol). In many ways, the Russian (and the various ethnic groups including Udmurts, Tartars, and the various “-stans”) citizen has a peasant mentality which befuddles American cultural thinking.
Russians (in the larger national sense) are not America’s enemy. They’re just as likely to listen to western music, watch American movies, buy American stuff, and envy our so-called “decadence” (as the Soviets called it) as any other group in the world. Many Russians also suffer quite a bit of Napoleon syndrome–measuring up to America is important.
Russia won the space race up until Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. This kind of Soviet nostalgia is very hip right now among Russians. Russia currently has 21 official billionaires (some of whom have loaned money to or invested in Donald Trump).
Russians don’t want to go to war with America. They rather look up to us, culturally (with one exception).
The Russian government, on the other hand, is America’s serious rival. And the Russian government is embodied in the person of Vladimir Putin. Putin is no dummy, no wooden apparatchik. He may very well be the richest man on earth.
Russia is ruled by a kleptocracy: A modern equivalent of a feudal system, where fiefdoms are handed out along with cash, property, and ownership of capital. Instead of the all-powerful State owning everything, as the Soviets did, now Russia is owned by a very select group of individuals, with some degree of upward mobility available to those willing to play hard. (Contrary to American stories, upward mobility and opportunity within the old Soviet regimes was quite open–many “regular” people rose to incredible rank, including Putin himself.)
It’s a given that a kleptocracy with nuclear weapons and the second biggest military on the planet is counter to America’s interests and foundations of justice, opportunity, and all the goodness poured into our founding documents and principles. Kleptocracies have as their goal the continuation of their own power, and the increase of that power.
Russian national pride, economic prowess, military power, and cultural cohesion are used by Putin and his cabal to manipulate his people toward the ends that Putin wants, which are necessarily selfish. Having American (western, NATO, coalition, etc.) symbols and projectors of power sitting around near Russian borders might hinder Putin’s pursuits to do as he pleases. Therefore, wherever Putin can outmaneuver the west, he does so.
Having Trump in the White House is decidedly better for Putin than having Hillary Clinton there, so it’s no surprise the Russians did what they did. What is a surprise is the fact that they didn’t attempt to hide it.
I won’t get into the philosophical question of whether it’s America’s role to “liberate” Russians from their peasantry and oppression of living under a kleptocracy. The main question is if America can eliminate Russia as a threat to our way of life, and stop them from interfering with our democratic processes.
Trump wants to eliminate the Russian government (Putin) as our enemy by making it our friend through “deals” where both parties get some of what we want and give up something to get it. Trump always wants to come out on top, and so does Putin, so we are in for some conflict.
But it’s not the kind of conflict we saw with President Obama. This will be more like sparring among two friendly rivals than the kind of jockeying America did with the Soviets during the Cold War, when ideology drove the conflict.
Through deal-making, Trump and his Russia-friendly nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, may find enough common ground to hold the Russians to many of their promises. And Trump will publicly and through the military do what Teddy Roosevelt advocated: “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Lots of praise for Putin, but always a behind-the-scenes threat if things don’t work out.
This is the polar opposite of Obama’s foreign policy, which relied on public statements and empty threats that were rarely backed up by action. The open question, of course, is whether Trump will pass the inevitable test the Russians will give him.
Is radical Islam our enemy?
President George W. Bush took great care to tell America and the world that we are not at war with Islam. That was carried through in spades by the Obama administration, which for nearly eight years would not even refer to the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”
There is a reason for this: The long war against radical Islamic terrorists requires at least the tacit support of many radical Muslims.
It sounds strange. But as Emile Nakhleh, who was one of the CIA’s top experts on political Islam between 1993 and 2006, told me, there was a recognition following the 9/11 attacks inside the Bush administration that many supporters of the Wahhabi strain of Islam favored by al-Qaeda and its allies were not plotting attacks on the West. In some cases, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the purveyors of Wahhabism were longstanding American allies. “There was the two-ton elephant in the room, and that is Saudi Arabia,” Nakhleh said.So Bush for the most part opted instead to talk about the enemy as “evildoers” or “extremists,” even though on some occasions he went off message. It’s why Bush’s second secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, condemned as “offensive” the Danish cartoons of Mohammed in 2006 after they sparked riots across the Muslim world.
Obama took this approach even further. In 2009, he delivered two important speeches addressed to the Islamic world, quoting Koranic verse, and sent an envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Bush didn’t want a quarrel with Islam, and in his first term, Obama wanted Islam to be a strategic partner against al-Qaeda.
So to defeat radical Islamic terror, we recruited moderate Muslims along with those who share radical Islamic beliefs but don’t support the specific groups we are targeting.
This is in fact a dangerous path, as we found out after we armed the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. Then we got the Taliban, whom we are now fighting.
Islam is a tribal system of government, social structure, economics and religion. It’s very much based on “jungle law” in its application. As Nafisa Haji wrote in “The Sweetness of Tears,”
“There is an old Arab Bedouin saying: I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world. That is jungle law. It is the way of the world when the world is thrown into chaos. It is our job to avert that chaos, to fight against it, to resist the urge to become savage. Because the problem with such law is that if you follow it, you are always fighting against someone.”
When we (who are “the world” outside Islam) arm one brother against another, or one set of cousins against another, we are only arming them to fight us later. Islamic law and thought always brings us to the point of conflict where the Muslim world must conquer and subdue the infidels.
There’s no removing radical Islam as an enemy by making them our friend. The only way to really do that is to become like them. And if we became like them, we submit to jungle law and end up fighting other cousins and brothers. This is why the bulk of ISIS victims are other Muslims. This is why Sunni and Shi’a and Alawite sects fight each other.
Western thought has little to compare this with. The Catholic/Protestant “troubles” in Ireland pale in comparison to the constant churning and turmoil within the Islamic community. And we don’t see that problem replicated over all of Christendom. In Brazil, for instance, we don’t see the 123 million Catholics murdering the 42 million (and rising) Protestants. But in Syria, were Bashar Assad to be defeated, the nation’s 2.3 million Alawis would be in serious danger from Sunnis (like ISIS), who make up nearly three quarters of the population.
There is every reason to believe that for the foreseeable future, as long as America, our very culture, diversity, and liberal morals is seen by Wahabists, the Shi’a ayatollahs in Iran and other radical elements of Islam as the “Great Satan,” they will be dedicated to our defeat.
This is the opposite problem that we have with Russia. We can negotiate all day long with Arab and Islamic governments, but we cannot stop the non-state actors, terrorists, oil-rich financiers and bored millennial radicals who are looking to be part of something from striking at America wherever they can.
In this way, radical Islam is a much greater, much more intractable enemy to America than Russia. Russia has nuclear weapons, but they don’t really want to use them against us. If ISIS had a nuke, they’d pop it over the closest American city they could find.
A smart, consistent play
Trump’s play toward Russia’s leader and against the grassroots jungle law of radical Islam is therefore a smart, consistent play. We let Obama try his solution for eight years. We know how that worked out. Maybe we should give Trump a chance now.