False Narratives, Not ‘Fake News,’ Are the Real Cold-War Problem
Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen laments the escalation of neo-McCarthyism as exemplified by a November 25 Washington Post front-page article alleging that an array of American Internet sites have been propagating Russian-inspired “fake news.” The article even implies that these “peddlers of Russian propaganda” should be prosecuted. (For an exposé of the Post’s baseless allegations and First Amendment transgressions, see Ben Norton and Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, November 26.) Still worse, these kinds of censorious assaults on democratic discourse, which became torrential in the summer of 2016, have been coming from self-professed “liberals,” including the failed Clinton campaign and other mainstream publications and outlets aligned with the Democratic Party, such as The Washington Post, the The New York Times, and MSNBC.
As dangerous as this neo-McCarthyism is for our civil liberties, conventional false narratives of the new Cold War are no less dangerous for US national security and in particular the détente policies toward Russia that Trump has suggested he might pursue. Cohen identifies five that directly bear on the necessary rethinking and revision of US policy, which he and Batchelor then discuss:
1. That Russian President Vladimir Putin is solely responsible for the new Cold War and its growing dangers on several fronts, from the confrontation over Ukraine to Syria. If this is true, there is no need for Washington to rethink or change any of its policies, but it is not true.
2. That President Obama’s declared intention, in 2014, to “isolate Putin’s Russia” in international affairs has been successful, and therefore Putin is desperate to be released from the political wilderness. This too is untrue. Since 2014, Putin has been perhaps the busiest national leader of any major power on the world stage, from China and India to the Middle East and even Europe. Arguably, the world is changing profoundly, and Putin is more attuned to those changes than is the bipartisan US foreign-policy establishment.
3. That Washington’s Cold War policies toward Russia have strengthened the vaunted US-European “transatlantic alliance,” as exemplified by NATO’s buildup on Russia’s Western borders. In reality, a growing number of European countries are trending away from Washington’s hard-line policies toward Moscow, among them France, Austria, The Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, and others, perhaps even including Germany. And this does not include Brexit, which removed hard-line London from European policymaking. Cohen emphasizes that this does not mean these countries are becoming “pro-Russian” but instead less anti-Russian for the sake of their own national interests.
4. That “Russia’s aggression,” even its “invasion,” is the primary cause of the Ukrainian crisis, still the political epicenter of the new Cold War. In reality, the underlying cause is a civil war that grew out of Ukraine’s diverse history, politics, social realities, and culture. This means that negotiations, not more war, are the only solution.
5. The orthodox US narrative of the Syrian civil war has, on the other hand, suddenly changed. While Obama was negotiating with Putin for joint US-Russian military action in Syria, “terrorists” were said to be entrenched in Aleppo and other anti-Assad strongholds. Since that diplomacy failed, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and other mainstream media have rewritten the narrative to pit Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces against benign anti-Assad “rebels” and “insurgents,” while in Iraq, in Mozul, the US-led war is being waged against “terrorists” and “jihadists.” Thus, in Aleppo, Russia is said to be committing “war crimes” while in Mozul these are called “collateral damages.”
All of us, Cohen points out, live according to the stories we tell ourselves. When policymakers act according to false narratives, the result is grave dangers, as we are now experiencing with the new Cold War. To escape these dangers, Washington must first get the history right, particularly its own role in creating them. Whether or not President Trump and his national security team are ready for this kind of rethinking is not yet clear.