Magazine Politics

October 22, 2003 Topic: Media Tags: BeslanBusinessHeads Of StateSecond Chechen War

Magazine Politics

Magazine editorials like to present a simple world of good and evil, of right and wrong.

Magazine editorials like to present a simple world of good and evil, of right and wrong.  Two examples this week highlight this trend of dumbing down complex issues into slogans, something that does not serve the national interest.

While his back-page editorial comment was undoubtedly written prior to the launch of the "Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy," an event that was covered in a special "Realist" column released this past Friday, David Frum's comments in the latest issue of National Review (October 27, 2003), originally directed against Democratic candidates for the White House, are equally apropos to the CRFP.  He writes, "George W. Bush remains far and away the most trusted political figure on issues of national security … So the voters will want to know: What's the alternative? You don't like the Patriot Act? Iraq? Fine, what would you do instead?"

The comment is a red herring.  In its inaugural issue (September 11, 2002), In the National Interest featured authors who not only endorsed the policy actions ultimately taken by the Bush Administration but also those who presented realistic alternative visions based on cool and rational assessments of America's interests and capabilities.  To argue that the Bush Administration's actions vis-à-vis Iraq were the "only" course of action (just as some argued that the Clinton Administration's policies vis-à-vis Russia were the "only" course of action) shuts down legitimate debate over how America's power should be utilized (and is a way for officials to avoid responsibility when their policies don't turn out the way they expect).

But there is an equally useless response which is quite tempting and which some people have already resorted to.  If "we" were running things, we could have gotten the UN on board, we could get the Europeans to send more troops and ante up more cash, etc.  In other words, "those neo-cons" in the administration simply are not adept at inter-personal relations.

In the National Interest and its mother publication, The National Interest, plan to remain places of vigorous and, yes, even heated debate.  We believe that people should be clear in their assessments of what America's interests are and the best way to achieve them and that other people are free to challenge one's assumptions about what vital interests are and the means used to achieve them.  But, as realists, we remain committed to the proviso that any action in foreign policy must be judged on the merits of its results, not the intentions of its progenitors.

Switching gears, I also have to take issue with this week's editorial "Soul Mates" in The New Republic (October 27, 2003).  I have already objected in an earlier "Realist" column to TNR's ongoing simplification of the conflict in Chechnya.  This week's commentary contains assertions, however, which in my mind border on outright deception.

The first is the insinuation that "Islamic radicals have begun traveling to Chechnya to fight Russia," implying that no such thing happened before.  Yet Charles Recknagel, writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on November 19, 1999, observed:  "Today, an unknown number of Arab and other Muslim holy warriors are already fighting in Chechnya, just as they did in the 1994-1996 Chechen war" and a number of news reports have detailed the attempts by Al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists to become involved in Chechnya, even during its period of independence from 1995 to 1999, prior to the current war.  (See, among others, reporting in Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 7, 2000; The Sunday Telegraph, January 9, 2000; The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002; and the Baltimore Sun, October 30, 2002.) Bruce Pannier's article "Russia: Dagestan's Religious Tensions--Analysis," (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, May 19, 1997) also discussed the attempts of radicals to enter into the Northern Caucasus.

But the whopper is the statement that by supporting Putin vis-à-vis Chechnya, "the United States is alienating itself from the very moderate Muslims who support it desperately needs."  Not by a long shot.  Every opinion poll and survey in the Arab and Muslim world makes it clear that it is perceived U.S. bias for Israel, and, more specifically, the belief that the Bush Administration unconditionally supports the Sharon government that erodes the standing of the United States among moderate Muslims.  (Again, Recknagel's analysis of reaction in the Muslim world still holds true: Chechnya is a rallying point for radicals, not for the moderates).  Certainly, no one denies that Chechnya is a problem, but it is the speck in the eye of one's neighbor compared to the log in one's own eye.

And the great irony is that Russia, like Israel, had its "Oslo" in the accords that ended the fighting in the first war.  The withdrawal of federal forces did not produce conditions that led to a crackdown on radical and criminal elements inside Chechnya.  No one I know in Russia opposes a settlement that would give Chechnya substantial autonomy within the Russian Federation, and I think it is a settlement that most Chechens would welcome as well, just as no one disputes the logic of a two-state settlement for Israel and the Palestinians.  The problem is getting there.  The Putin Administration's approach has much to be criticized for (and it is not dissimilar to the "eradicator" approach taken by the regime in Algeria).  But oversimplifying the issue to score political points is not the constructive way forward.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the editor of In the National Interest.