Stephen Ebert is the Russian language translator and political commentator.
My Russian friends periodically ask me what Americans think about Russia. Recent developments have given rise to a new round of questions: Putin’sinterview for CBS News’ "60 Minutes”, his UN speech, and the start of air support for the beleaguered Syrians.
I can best address by referring to the remark by an American journalist frequently invited to Russian political discussion shows to "explain” the US point of view. When asked "why don’t Russians have the same opportunity to be heard in the US?”, he responds – with a smug smirk – "Americans don’t care…they are not hung up on Russia as you are on the US”. The fact is this is nothing personal towards Russians – such indifference extends to pretty much anything outside day-to-day life.
This would not matter so much if Americans did not live in a country using its amassed wealth and military might to dictate world events. Even worse, as is true for those amassing great fortunes, there is no such thing as "enough power”. Americans are occasionally shaken out of this by natural disasters (when they have shown great compassion and generosity), huge increases in gas prices, or wars. In the last, they are typically awakened out of their slumber by "information war” propaganda "barrages” delivered by media "news coverage” and government statements. As such, today, they judge Russia by whatever so-called "news” leads to them to think, not by any independently acquired knowledge.
Leading up to his recent UN speech, Putin gave interviews to major global media. His answers for CBS’ very popular "60 Minutes” weekly news show were fully consistent with what I have observed as a close follower: well-reasoned, clear, and consistent. Given it could only "spare” 20 minutes for this interview, CBS cut quite a few remarks (not, however, various, failed "gotcha” journalism” moments) – among them several shorter, yet very telling ones:
- On Obama’s "demands” for Assad’s removal: "I consider this kind of outsider advice to be absolutely inappropriate, harmful, and in direct contradiction to international law”.
- On unilaterally (US) executed regime change in Libya: "The United States actively worked to destroy these government institutions”
Even these limited snippets might have prompted some viewers to say "what the heck, how can that be true”, and certainly would have helped those listening to Putin’s UN speech better connect the dots. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, since most people were not "hung up” on all this, very few bothered to listen. So, what Americans "think” about Putin’s – and Obama’s – speeches is totally based on what the media told them, which entailed oversimplified and misleading statements that the two leaders presented widely different visions or prescriptions for moving forward.
Those who did tune in heard Obama deliver an all-too familiar, platitude-laden sermon/lecture advocating continued US unilateral actions to enforce our vision – doubling down on already failed policies! This, mind you, delivered before the General Assembly of the UN, whose charter includes the following Articles:
1, 2: "To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”…
2, 1: "The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.
Assuming Obama appreciated where he was making his speech, he was either daringly insolent or astonishingly tone-deaf in essentially rejecting the very role of the UN.
On the other hand, viewers able to pierce the fog of propaganda heard in Putin’s speech a concise, well-reasoned, compelling call for:
- Absolute respect of, and support for, the UN and its role
- Obeying international law – not carrying out regime change by using proxy terrorist forces or bombing sovereign states
- Condemnation of US Mideast actions, asking "Do you even realize the mess you have made?”
Propaganda has been used by all countries since time immemorial to win hearts and minds. The use of one key tool – labeling and blocking any and all information from "outside” sources as lies and propaganda – deprives one’s own citizens, including policy makers, of vital information. We saw the tragic result of such self-deception with WMD, and are now approaching the same boiling point with Russia, first with the Ukraine, now Syria. If nothing else, either blocking the truth, or planting false or misleading information goes against the widely respected advice to "know thy enemy” from Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War”.
Not being "hung up” on the Mideast and Syria, and lacking access to Russia’s consistent, often stated position, the average man-in-the-street, aided by US government propaganda, will as desired see recent Russian initiatives as "aggression”. And, not coincidentally, fail to see clear US complicity in the rise of the scourge of ISIL aided and abetted by other "moderate” terrorists. The relentless US branding of Assad as an evil tyrant ensures no one will learn that under Assad’s totally secular rule, Christians have been totally protected – not murdered or forced to flee by Islamic extremists while ancient monasteries were destroyed. This self-deception further ensures no one will understand the absolute illegality of Western air attacks against the sovereign territory of Syria. I felt truly sorry for Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov as he patiently fended off stunningly misguided Western media questions about whether Russia was coordinating its totally legal operations (formally requested by the Syrian government) with the totally illegal ones being conducted by the West. Not being a diplomat, my answer would have been: there is no need for coordination – the US and NATO simply need to cease and desist carrying out their illegal operations.
The bottom line – ongoing, insidious self-deception prevents anyone from listening, hearing, and thinking critically. For example, thanks to this information "blockade”, US media have been frantically speculating as to Putin’s real, sinister motive in Syria: "Russia wants to get back into the US’s good graces after the Ukraine”. It is the US, not Russia, which seems to be living in the past when using clever "Kremlinology”, we sought to discern what was going inside Russia by the order of appearance of leaders atop the Lenin Mausoleum during parades.
Not being constrained by this information blockade, I find Russian actions in Syria no mystery at all – with intentions, motivations, and actions easily discerned by simply listening to Putin, the Russian foreign ministry, leading government officials, and knowledgeable Russian commentators. They are equally a result of decades-long friendship and resulting cultural, religious (the Christians in Syria are very much related to Russian Orthodoxy), economic and military ties, some defined by formal treaties, and a very real desire to nip terrorism in the bud. The latter juxtaposed to cynical Western efforts to use various "moderate” terrorist elements as an arm of foreign policy – one would think we would have learned from our sad experience in "using” Al Qaeda to counter the USSR in Afghanistan.
So, what does the average American think? A poll being conducted by the Daily News is showing "Putin winning” by a wide margin – 94% to 6% (61K+ votes).
However, leaving aside these not very scientific polling results, and recalling that people "think” what the media tells them to think, the media generally concede "Putin won”. In and of itself, the very idea of portraying this as some kind of "beauty contest” is quite telling. While for various reasons Obama likely sees things this way, Putin would surely say "this has nothing to do with me, or Barack, but everything to do Russia’s interests being addressed, countering the very real Islamic extremist threat, and ensuring a new, just world-order.
I would further caution my Russian friends about interpreting these results. The media determination and portrayal of the outcome is driven largely by "political commentators”, most being either "pro” or "anti” Obama. The latter, by far the most vocal, for largely political reasons have declared Obama suffered a huge, nationally embarrassing defeat. Even more disconcerting, media coverage of the UN speeches did little to draw attention to Putin’s vision, or move the American people to think "gee, maybe the Russians are right, and maybe Putin is not such an evil guy after all”.