The Hypocritical United States of Amnesia and Russia

During the mid-1980s, right-wing Americans loved to invoke President Reagan’s observation about the Soviet Union: “They reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat,” in order to attain a one-word Socialist or Communist state. The Soviet Union was the “Evil Empire.”

But, it was the Reagan Administration, you’ll recall, that ordered the execution of Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in October 1983. Eleven of the twelve members of the United Nations Security Council called the invasion a “flagrant violation of international law.” The only Security Council member to veto the condemnation was the very country accused of the flagrant violation.

It also was the Reagan administration, you’ll recall, that was hauled before the International Court of Justice in 1984 by Nicaragua, and found to be “in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to use force against another State”, “not to intervene in its affairs”, “not to violate its sovereignty,” “not to interrupt peaceful maritime commerce”, and “in breach of its obligations under Article XIX of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the Parties signed at Managua 21 January 1956.”

Moreover, when the Reagan Administration gave the CIA the order to mine the harbors of Nicaragua, it was legally obligated to inform the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Barry Goldwater. When it failed to do so, Goldwater went ballistic. In a letter written to Secretary of State, George Schultz, Goldwater wrote: “But mine the harbors in Nicaragua? This is an act violating international law. It is an act of war.”

But, such criminality, lying and cheating was nothing when compared with Reagan’s Iran-Contra Scandal. In order to circumvent the funding prohibitions, which the U.S. Congress (with its Boland Amendment of 1984) placed on the covert war that the Reagan administration was waging against Nicaragua, Reagan and his right-wing zealots decided to sell weapons to Iran secretly, initially through Israel, and use those funds to continue the war that Congress refused to finance.

Time magazine put it well when it asserted that Reagan “stands exposed as a President willfully ignorant of what his aides were doing, myopically unaware of the glaring contradictions between his public and secret policies… unable to recall when, how, or even whether he had reached the key decision that started the whole arms-to-Iran affair… the President has consistently and vehemently denied that the U.S. was swapping arms for hostages, though the voluminous record assembled by the Tower commission leaves no question that that is what happened.”

Reagan probably escaped impeachment due to his reputation for stupidity, lax management, and inability to remember his own actions. People genuinely believed him when he attempted to explain his lies: “I’m afraid that I let myself be influenced by others’ recollections, not my own…the simple truth is, I don’t remember – period.”

Thus, the very President who accused the Soviet leaders of reserving unto themselves “the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat,” in order to achieve their broad objectives was at least as immoral as the doddering Soviet gerontocrats he slandered. Reagan became a monument to U.S. hypocrisy in international affairs.

Today, America’s conservatives ignore his crimes and, instead, credit President Reagan with ending the Cold War and precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union. They are wrong on both counts. Moreover, that was not the tune they were singing when Reagan left office.

Some felt that Reagan had been duped by Mikhail Gorbachev. For example, Henry Kissinger, William Safire and George Will accused Reagan of “creating a false ‘euphoria’ that would give breathing space to an unchanging enemy.” Mr. Will went so far as to claim, “Reagan has accelerated the moral disarmament of the West – actual disarmament will follow.”

Nevertheless, the criminality continued under the leadership of President George H.W. Bush when, in December 1989, the United States invaded Panama and deposed its dictator, Manuel Noriega.

The invasion sparked international outrage. On 22 December, the Organization of American States passed a resolution that denounced the invasion. Seven days later the General Assembly of the United Nations condemned the invasion as a flagrant violation of international law. When the UN Security Council drafted a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Panama, it was vetoed on 23 December by France, Great Britain and the U.S. – which cited its obligation to protect some 35,000 Americans in the Canal Zone. (Sounds eerily similar to President Vladimir Putin’s justification for Russian troops in the Crimea today, does it not?)

In February 1990, President Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, flew to Moscow to discuss the peaceful unification of Germany. He promised Gorbachev that there would be no further eastward expansion of NATO if he assisted the West in the peaceful unification of Germany under NATO. According to Jack Matlock, America’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, “We gave categorical assurances to Gorbachev back when the Soviet Union existed that if a united Germany was able to stay in NATO, NATO would not move eastward.”

Secretary Baker subsequently denied making such a deal. In addition, some American diplomats, policy wonks and news reporters noted that, even if there was such a deal, no such deal was put in writing. Apparently, none of them understand what it means to be a man of one’s word.

Mikhail Gorbachev, however, claims that there was such a deal – and his word counts, especially when assessing Russia’s attitude about NATO then and today. Moreover, supporting his claim is German archival evidence, publicized by three writers for Der Spiegel.

According to a 26 November 2009 article in Der Spiegel, “On Feb. 10, 1990, between 4 and 6:30 p.m., [German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich] Genscher spoke with [Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze. And, according to the German record of the conversation, which was only recently declassified, Genscher said: ‘We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.’ And because the conversation revolved mainly around East Germany, Genscher added explicitly: ‘As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.’”

President Clinton came to office in the wake of a scandalous draft Defense Planning Guidance, written under the supervision of Paul Wolfowitz. The draft called for the exercise of diplomacy, backed by unassailable military power, in a quest for America’s “benevolent domination” of the world. It sketched “a world in which there is one military power whose leaders ‘must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.’”1

(After Mr. Wolfowitz’s abomination was leaked to the press, President Bush rushed to repudiate it as un-American. But it was resuscitated by neoconservatives during the presidency of George W. Bush.)

President Clinton had no plan as obnoxious as Wolfowitz’s Defense Planning Guidance. Instead, on 22 October 1996 he asserted: “America truly is the world’s indispensable nation. There are times when only America can make the difference between war and peace, between freedom and repression, between hope and fear. We cannot and should not try to be the world’s policeman. But where our interests and values are clearly at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must act and lead.”

During that same speech, Clinton acknowledged: “At the first NATO summit I attended in January of 1994, I proposed that NATO should enlarge steadily, deliberately, openly.” By doing so, Clinton reneged on the pledges made by Baker and Genscher to Gorbachev and Shevardnadze.

Clinton made what George Kennan called a “fateful error.” Writing in the New York Times on February 5, 1997, Kennan asserted: “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”

“Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”

I received a dose of such anti-American sentiment during my first and only meeting with Igor Sutyagin on 7 September 1998 at Moscow’s Aerostar Hotel. A senior scholar in the Department for Military-Political Studies at the Institute for the USA and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dr. Sutyagin had answered a series of questions about the economic crisis in Russia, before I asked him, “What do you make of President Clinton’s recent decision to permit the expansion of NATO”

Much to my surprise, Igor’s face turned crimson as he reached into his wallet to withdraw a folded newspaper article that described a deal struck between former Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

According to the article, Baker assured Gorbachev that, in return for the Soviet leader’s assistance in accomplishing the peaceful unification of Germany, the United States would not pursue any further expansion of NATO. (Gorbachev reiterated Baker’s promise as recently as March 2009) Having read Baker’s promise, Igor characterized Clinton’s decision to expand NATO as a “stab in the back.” He quickly added: “Why should Russians trust the United States to honor any of its agreements?” Why, indeed?

Earlier in the year, a book edited by Ted Galen Carpenter and Barbara Conry and titled NATO Enlargement: Illusions and Reality suggested that Sutyagin’s anger wasn’t an isolated incident. “The rhetoric coming from Moscow suggests a continuing seething resentment about the West’s determination to expand NATO and a growing determination to prevent any further rounds of enlargement. The danger is that, when Russia recovers economically and militarily, Russians will remember that the West exploited their country’s temporary weakness to establish a dominant position in Central and Eastern Europe and seek to overturn that outcome.”

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2004. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009. Russians could do little but seethe at the cumulative impact of Clinton’s perfidy. (Yet, one could hardly blame these countries for voting with their feet, given their recent experience with the Soviet Union.)

Aggravating Russian sensibilities further was the fact that these countries were joining a NATO that was in the process of jettisoning the solely defensive posture of its organization. Its central stipulation, found in Article 5, was defensive. An armed attack against one member would be considered an attack on all. In 1991, NATO affirmed, “The Alliance is purely defensive in purpose; none of its weapons will ever be used except in self-defense.”

Yet, it was impossible for NATO to claim self-defense when, on 30 August 1995, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force – the large-scale bombing of Serbian targets that constituted “NATO’s biggest military assault in its entire history.” After all, Serbia hadn’t attacked a single NATO member.

According the Beverly Crawford, author of the 1998 working paper titled, “The Bosnian Road to NATO Enlargement,” in the spring of 1994 a few top policy makers in the Clinton administration made the decision to support the enlargement of NATO as a way on strengthening it and keeping Russia out. (p.13)

Why? Because, as Ms. Crawford concludes, “The Bosnian war provided NATO with the renewed legitimacy that it needed to expand eastward. It left no doubt in the minds of both European and American leaders, that other institutions in which Russia participated would be too conflict-ridden and too weak to provide a common security umbrella for Europe. NATO enlargement was thus an unambiguous strategy to keep Russia out of the security institution in Europe that really counted.” (p. 16-17)

Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program on June 22, 1994. But, President Boris Yeltsin justified the move this way: “NATO’s plans to expand eastward…became a threat to Russia’s security…The task was to minimize the negative consequences of the North Atlantic alliance’s expansion and prevent a new split in Europe.”2 Unfortunately, NATO’s decision to bomb the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 quickly demonstrated to Russia that it had little power to control NATO from within.

Russia’s relationship with NATO took its most serious nosedive in 1999, when NATO began bombing Serbia to make Serbian forces stop their unconscionable and criminal ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Serbian forces were in the process of killing some 10,000 Kosovar Albanians, raping and gang-raping countless women to produce Serbian offspring, and forcibly displacing some 1.5 million people from their homes.

In her examination of Russia’s relations with NATO during the late 1990s, Sharyl Cross noted: in 1999, “Russian officials responded to the first full-scale intervention in the 50 year history of the Alliance by suspending relations with NATO. NATO’s representative was asked to leave Moscow immediately and Russia’s military liaison representatives were removed from Brussels. Objection to NATO airstrikes in former Yugoslavia generated adamant and even emotional outrage throughout the Russian political-military elite and society. The revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept to enable NATO to intervene in situations beyond the borders of member nations led Russians to conclude that the Alliance had become an offensive, rather than solely defensive, military organization that could one day threaten the Russian Federation.”3

In 2003, using the false pretexts of weapons of mass destruction and ties to al-Qaeda to manipulate an American public still angry about and fearful from al-Qaeda’s attacks on 11 September 2001, the administration of George W. Bush ordered the illegal, immoral invasion of Iraq – perhaps the worst war crime since those committed by Nazi Germany during World War II. The invasion precipitated an incipient civil war between the Sunnis and Shias, give rise to an anti-American insurgency, caused a massive destruction of property, cost Iraq the lives of least 100,000 innocent men, women and children and forced the displacement of at least 4 million people from their homes. (Thus far, Putin’s intrusion into the Crimea has caused nothing like that.)

France, Germany and Russia ended up on the right side of history when they opposed America’s invasion. But, none of them threatened economic sanctions against the U.S. for its brazen violation of international law. Their feckless behavior brings to mind the observation made by an Athenian in Thucydides’ “Melian dialogue:” “You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (But, Russia can play that game, too.)

In 2008, Russia finally began to defend its national interests against the West’s never-ending attempts to encircle it with states incorporated into the European Union and NATO. President Putin did so in Georgia by seizing upon Georgia’s reckless shelling of Russian peacekeepers in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, to invade Georgia. As the New York Times reported on November 6, 2008, “The brief war was a disaster for Georgia. The attack backfired. Georgia’s army was humiliated as Russian forces overwhelmed its brigades, seized and looted their bases, captured equipment and roamed the country’s roads at will.” Ultimately Russia supported the right of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to secede from Georgia.

Georgia’s bigger mistake, however, was it publicly expressed desire to join NATO. Professor Stephen F. Cohen – who, in my 47 years of studying Russia, has probably been the most astute expert about that country, with the exception, perhaps, of George Kennan – probably got it right when he observed: “…the fundamental issue here is that, three or four years ago, Putin made absolutely clear he had two red lines. You remember Obama’s red lines in Syria? But Putin was serious. One was the former Soviet republic of Georgia. NATO and NATO influence couldn’t come there. The other was Ukraine. We crossed both. You got a war in Georgia in 2008, and you have got today in Ukraine because we, the United States and Europe, crossed Putin’s red line. Now, you can debate whether he has a right to that red line, but let’s at least discuss it.”

I’m no fan of Vladimir Putin. I made my first public protest against him in 1999, when he permitted my friend, Igor Sutyagin, to be arrested on the trumped-up charge of espionage. Moreover, I’ve temporarily ceased visiting Russia – even the St. Petersburg that I love – due to my outrage about political repression in Russia and its slide from incipient democracy toward autocracy.

But, I reject the views of Madeleine Albright, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Hillary Clinton who recklessly compared Putin to Hitler. I also reject the facile allegations made by Rachel Maddow and Martha Raddatz (a so-called “journalist” whose mind has been completely captured by sympathy for the U.S. military) who assert that Putin is “mad.” After all, as Henry Kissinger has observed: “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”

Moreover, I resent the hypocrisy of President Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry. On March 2, 2014, Kerry commented on Russia’s intervention in Ukraine by making the following observation: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.” (Germany’s Angela Merkel said something similarly hypocritical.) Yet, Mr. Kerry voted to support America’s illegal 21st century invasion of Iraq and Ms. Merkel did nothing to stop it.

Why my rejection and resentment? Because, I completely understand how President Putin could believe that Russia’s national interests have been under an unrelenting assault by an expansionistic NATO and European Union. There’s solid evidence to support that point of view. And it goes back to President Clinton’s decision to renege on the promise that James Baker made to Mikhail Gorbachev.

  1. New York Times, March 8, 1992. []
  2. Leon Aron, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, p. 667. []
  3. Sharyl Cross, Russia and NATO Toward the 21st Century, p. 2. []

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including Dissident Voice, The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: waltuhler@aol.com. Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.