An Ominous U.S. Model

September 22, 2004 • Commentary
This article was published in the Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2004.

Up and down the East Coast diplomatic corridor, heated meetings are taking place to critique what some are describing as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s “slow‐​motion putsch” to snuff out Russia’s fragile democracy. Both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell have voiced cautious but unambiguous disapproval. And rightly so.

There is no doubt that Putin’s moves represent a disturbing revival of traditional Russian autocratic centralism. It is clearly in the U.S. interest to moderate any acceleration of this trend. Harsh words are unlikely to work. Instead, a moment of U.S. self‐​reflection may provide guidance about how best to achieve this interest. After all, the developments in Russia are not taking place in a vacuum.

Over the past weeks, the Russian people have been subjected to terrorist assaults and losses on a scale broadly equivalent to 9/11. In critical ways, therefore, the two countries are coping with a parallel challenge. If Russia’s leaders looked to the U.S. response to 9/11 as a model, what would they see? Most likely, two core themes.

First, they would note that the American response to 9/11 has been almost exclusively military. Other instruments of American policy — political, economic, social, allies — have fallen by the wayside. All other priorities of government have been subordinated to the “war on terrorism.” This approach of total “with us or against us” war derives much of its ideological underpinning from the intensely pessimistic neoconservative worldview based on an absolute division between good and evil.

Schooled by the failure of liberal democratic institutions to head off either Nazism or Soviet communism, neoconservatives argue that there is no point in analyzing the root causes of a phenomenon like terrorism; the only thing to do is to get your shot in first and worry about the consequences later.

The result is an embrace of a no‐​holds‐​barred approach to terrorism that neoconservative organizations like the newly revived Committee on Present Danger dub “World War IV.” Under this model, military force trumps all else, and input from the international community counts for little.

Naturally enough, this approach tends to place increased power in the hands of the central executive, as many a frustrated member of Congress has observed. Time will tell whether this is a legitimate and effective response to terrorism. But if the United States chooses this path — with all that implies for American leadership over the last 50 years, which resorted to war as a last option rather than as the default choice — then others like the Russians can and will follow.

The cry of war will echo around the world and, opportunistically, the war‐​makers will invoke the American model in so doing. The facts do not matter. The prospects of Russian restraint in Chechnya, never rosy, are now minimal. American appeals for politically based solutions will seem hypocritical.

Second, the Russians will see that, for U.S. policymakers, 9/11 legitimated unrelated policy objectives, notably the attack on Iraq. Conceived in the mid‐ 1990s, this neoconservative scheme for Iraq was based on a pipe dream of imposing U.S.-style democracy throughout the Middle East. A noble enough aspiration about which a national debate would have been in order, but one that the neoconservatives knew would never stand critical public scrutiny. Hence the obfuscations about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorism to take advantage of the in‐​theater presence of American forces in Afghanistan for the purposes of a war against Iraq.

Again, the Russians can claim they are just following the U.S. example of using terrorism as the justification to implement a long‐​cherished but unrelated objective. In the neoconservative case, this was the Iraq invasion. For Putin, it is the chance to indulge his anti‐​democratic streak.

None of this excuses Putin’s power grab or lessens the need for U.S. measures to deflect it. The real lesson is that the American actions cast a long shadow. If, as many would argue, 9/11 has encouraged some of the bleaker elements in U.S. policymaking, it is unsurprising that similarly uncompromising patterns will emerge elsewhere, as in Russia.

The challenge for American leaders, as they go about the grim business of combating terror, is to bear in mind that American choices will attract copycats. If, alongside the military option, the U.S. adheres as closely as possible to the codes of international conduct it has fostered for the last half a century, then the rest of the world will probably follow. But if the eager advocates of World War IV take charge of American policymaking and American policy disappears down a military cul‐​de‐​sac, then the idea will spread with unpredictable consequences.