Jacob Heilbrunn

Chechen Terrorism and the Vindication of Vladimir Putin

So the two suspected bombers—if suspect will even be the operative word later this day—are Chechens. Nothing illustrates the hollowness, the grandstanding of American foreign policy better than the fact that America has antagonized the one country that might have been able to help avert the blasts in Boston. One can only speculate what Russian president Vladimir Putin is thinking as he sees Chechen terrorists wreaking havoc in a major American city.

Over the past few months in particular Congress has been engaging in reckless posturing toward Russia, which is itself incontestably behaving in ways that are often repugnant. Congress' response has been to pass the Magnitsky Act which, as Matthew Rojansky astutely pointed out on National Public Radio this morning, targets some of the very intelligence officials who might have been more inclined to cooperate with America when it comes to stopping terrorists. The act is pyrrhic, an expression of disapproval that is counterproductive. Russia and America have a common interest in stopping terrorism. When it comes to Chechnya, Russia knows more about the region than anyone else. Has it employed brutal methods to try and subdue it? Absolutely. But it is a hotbed of Islamic militants who also fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they appear to be heading toward America itself in their deluded belief that they're waging a battle against the evil Western empire.

The Obama administration will have to study what went wrong. Part of studying that should include a reassessment of relations with Russia—not an ally under the Putin regime. But surely a country that America can cooperate with on mutual matters of national interests. Halting, as far as possible, terrorism is one such interest. No one can expect that the Obama administration will have a perfect record. But this event is another wake-up call. Only a few days ago the Washington Post featured an article with security experts who claimed that the threat from abroad had diminished perceptibly. But if these two Chechen brothers trained abroad—and are there others as well?—then that sanguine assessment suggests that the expertise of some experts may be wanting.

It is also revealing to listen to the contortions of National Public Radio, which has gone out of its way to avoid dubbing the brothers Tsarnaev "Islamic militants." This delicacy is touching. They may hail from Chechnya. They may not smoke or drink. But are they militants? Who knows is the response from NPR.

This won't do, and the political correctness will only prove temporary even if it reveals a timorous mindeset. But by the same token, this is not evidence of a vast Islamic uprising that some more excitable conservatives purport to detect abroad. We are not in war against the Islamic world even if some on the right would like to provoke one. Clarity, not panic, is required. But when an entire city has to batten down the hatches because of a sinister duo from Chechnya, then it's abundantly clear that the worst terrorist incident since 9/11 is taking place on American soil. It's a time for introspection, for grieving for the victims, and for getting serious about foreign policy rather than trying to score cheap political points. The costs are too high, the price too exorbitant for America to spurn a potential helping hand from abroad. President Obama needs to call Putin ASAP.