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    Sunday, April 22, 2007

    Paul Wells on The New Cold War (review of a review)

    The latest issue of Macleans magazine features a full-page review of The New Cold War by premier columnist Paul Wells. (Oddly, it appears to only have run in the print edition, I can't find it online.)

    Paul's impression is, uh, mixed. He compliments my "formidable reporting" in the book, then sharply takes me to task for the "moral failure" of not saying "America good, Russia bad" often enough.

    I hardly think that I let the Kremlin off easily - the book opens by once more raising the question of whether the FSB carried out the 1999 apartment block blasts that killed more than 300 people, and goes on to chronicle the country's rapid descent towards dictatorship under Vladimir Putin.

    "By using mass murder to convince Russians that they needed to put their trust in the secret agents that they had so long despised, the old KGB had effectively carried out a coup in the Kremlin." I write that on page 3. Roughly half the rest of the book is spent despairing at what Russia has become and where it's headed.

    Paul's complaint is that even though I establish that Putin and Putinism are dangerous, I don't go the extra step and on cheer freedom-loving America as it helps topple governments that the State Department doesn't like. And I don't.

    A large part of the book is dedicated to exposing how America uses supposedly non-partisan "democracy promotion" groups to advance its interests. American-funded NGOs played essential roles in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine.

    My argument is not that this is entirely a bad thing - only that the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine need to be understood (along with the more recent streetfights in Minsk and Moscow) for what they were: the first battles in a renewed struggle for influence between America and a resurgent Russia. And both sides are more concerned with who controls the lucrative oil and gas fields of ex-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus than the will of the people.

    Paul rightly points out that the current occupants of the Kremlin are prone to thuggery and have even been known to start wars based on false premises when it suits their grander political aims. What he oddly neglects to consider is that the George. W. Bush's White House is guilty of the same charges, and is no more deserving of our trust and admiration than the current Russian government.

    Paul's a great writer and I appreciate his interest in the topic.

    But his complaint is an odd one: I as a journalist stand accused of failing to take sides.

    In this business, that's usually a compliment.


    La Russophobe said...

    I can imagine where Wells is coming from. If you say "sure Russian killed hundreds of it's citizens to whip up support for a war in Chechnya, but America uses "supposedly non-partisan 'democracy promotion' groups to advance its interests" you are asking to be called out on this equation and shouldn't be suprised when you are, especially not in the context of a "war" where you haven't clearly announced what side you are on. Do you really believe these two acts are worthy of simultaneous discussion? I'd say they're two entirely different books.

    I'm a bit confused by your "supposedly non-partisan" statement. If they are pro-democracy, that's a side, isn't it? Can you given an example of such a group advancing American's interests beyond those of democracy (though they may often be the same, America can hardly be blamed for that). By saying this, you're asking the Kremlin to quote you, and use your statement to justify further crackdowns on these groups. Is that really what you want?

    markmac said...

    Hi Russophobe - I had a hunch you'd agree with Paul (your review copy is coming in September... my US publisher asks that I wait until then).

    That said, my aim with this book was to show how and where this new cold war is being fought, not to advocate for one side or the other.

    But I promise you that even if I never say "I'm rooting for this side," the pro-democracy movement comes out smelling a lot nicer than the neo-autocrats in the Kremlin.

    Raymaker said...

    I haven't read the review, and my copy of The New Cold War is currently drying out after all the martinis spilled on it last Wednesday.

    But that hasn't stopped me from going off half-cocked before, nor should it now.

    We can accuse Putin of a lot of things, including innate despotism and outright thuggishness, but we can't accuse him of concealing any of this. His rhetoric and actions have always skewed toward ressurecting Russia's imperial past. None of this seemed to bother George Bush, Bill Clinton, Jean Chretien or any other G7 leader when Putin first came on the scene.

    What I did not know until recently is that U.S. Democratic and Republican Party operatives gladly worked hand in glove to prop up the opposition in the recent sham Belarussian elections.

    It was a noble exercise, but somebody's got to ask: is this just about spreading democracy, or is there something more on the table? It's a valid question, and one with an fluid and unclear answer at present.

    So here's another question: Is Vladimir Putin a bad dude and a threat to peace and democratic development? I think those books have already been written.

    La Russophobe said...


    I guess it all depends on what you mean by "George. W. Bush's White House is guilty of the same charges, and is no more deserving of our trust and admiration than the current Russian government" for instance. Looking at it now, perhaps you can see that's a pretty harsh and certainly very risky statement to make. Are there rumors that George Bush has ordered the killing of America's version of Politkovskaya? If so, I must have missed it. Reading your sentence now, it seems possible you're not really on "our side" and makes Wells' concern seem justified.

    I'd be the first one to condemn Bush for "looking into Putin's eyes" and misleading the West as to the nature of his regime and his trustworthiness. I've done so often on my blog. And if you're arguing that Bush's mistakes need to be corrected so we can win the coming war, I think that's great.

    Having said that about Bush, I think it would be outrageous and utterly false to claim he is even remotely as dangerous to the world as Putin. No matter his intentions, his power is strictly limited in America. Putin's isn't. Bush isn't crushing American TV and newspapers, they are crushing him. He just lost control of both houses of congress. Can you say that about Putin? You yourself admit that charges Putin killed Russians to promote the Chechen war are credible. Would such charges be credible about Bush? He can be accused of too much violence in Iraq, but killing Americans at 9/11? You know you'd rather live the rest of your life in America under Bush than in Russia under Putin if that was your only choice, and your book ought to reflect that.

    If you're not careful, the words you intend to be "objective" can be used by neo-Soviet propagandaists to help the side you're not cheering for win. Perhaps you didn't always remember the title of your book while you were writing it. Perhaps "war" calls for a slightly modified view of objectivity (and, after all, a book isn't a news article, it's supposed to have a point of view, even a history book).

    In the end, you're just not an expert on the United States; your book ought to help us shed light on Russia and the problems it is presenting the world, not America. That's another story (unless of course you want to help the world fight and beat America just as much as you want to help it fight and beat Russia, of course -- and maybe you do? -- if so, that would be pretty unrealistic even if justified).

    America has lots of friends in the world still and I guess you met one of them. Perhaps it says a lot that Russia, quite rightly, doesn't.