They still want a new Cold War: What the New York Times won't tell you about Syria, Putin and the new battle against ISIS

We despise the foreign leaders a compliant media villainizes. It's worth looking for the real motivations

Published November 23, 2015 11:59PM (EST)


It is perverse to find good in the tragic events that took place in Paris 10 days ago, but they did force Washington and the European powers finally to take seriously Moscow’s proposal for a united front against the Islamic State. It is an almost unspeakable pity it took so devastating an act, given the thought that such an alliance might have been enough to prevent Paris altogether. In effect, we watch now as the West acknowledges that there is something, some irreducibly humane value, that supersedes the incessant search for advantage in a strategic rivalry that need not beset us in the first place.

Everything and everyone has turned on a dime since Paris. Russian, French and U.S. aircraft now coordinate bombing sorties over Syrian territory. President Obama conferred, by all appearances earnestly, with Vladimir Putin during the Group of 20 session in Turkey this past week. French President François Hollande will meet with Obama in Washington this week to come and then fly straight to Moscow to see the Russian president—Kissingeresque shuttle diplomacy, à la française. All minds—or most, we must say—are at last focused on defeating ISIS forces. Even Hillary Clinton, comfortable again with hawk’s claws out, is on for this. “We need to get people to turn against the common enemy of ISIS,” she said in a much-noted speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last Thursday.

A headline in the Guardian a few days ago caught my eye. “Vladimir Putin: From pariah to powerbroker in one year,” it read. A touch overstated, maybe, but Simon Tisdall’s column under it was on the money. “No longer ostracized and browbeaten, Putin was the man everybody wanted to meet,” the British daily’s foreign affairs columnist wrote just as G-20 broke up. “European leaders, backed by Obama, have come to an uncomfortable but, in historical terms, not wholly novel conclusion: They need Russia.” Tisdall’s piece, still much worth reading, is here.

Some of us saw the potential for something even larger than defeat of the Islamic State. A broad rapprochement between the Western powers and Russia—which for all practical purposes is to say between Washington and Moscow—suddenly appeared as a speck on the horizon. Unanimously, these people (I among them) put this prospect in the context of the new agreement governing Iran’s nuclear program. An inch at a time, the 21st century would force Washington to accept some measure of cooperation with those nations it casts as dangerous demons dwelling beyond its idea of where the civilized world’s fences stand.

Not a chance. Well, no chance now that Washington has seen any light, although I remain confident that the 21st century will eventually do its work.

In less than a week it is all too stupidly, stubbornly obvious that the policy cliques in our nation’s capital now attempt a cake-and-eat-it strategy. Post-Paris, there is no longer any room to deflect the argument that the Islamic State must be the No. 1 priority in Syria and that all available hands must join to the task of defeating it. But it grows clearer each day that Washington intends to take part in this effort, if with evident reluctance, while not easing up an iota in its campaign to isolate Russia and sustain the confrontation with Moscow that is in many respects the core of American foreign policy.

A few weeks ago I argued in this space that accurate accounts of the suddenly enlivened Syria crisis were going to be ever harder to come by. Obama had just sent Special Forces troops into Syria in an obvious response to Russia’s new bombing campaign; Secretary of State Kerry had just finished talks in Vienna with more than a dozen foreign ministers, during which a plausible peace plan with a logical sequence was tabled: Eliminate the terrorist threat, establish a ceasefire, then let the U.N. supervise a constitutional revision and elections. Syrians can self-determine Syria—the stated object, after all—and the Assad government’s fate will be in their hands, where it should be.

This was pre-Paris, you will recall, and there were two problems even then.

One, the U.S. priority from the first has been to cultivate a coup against Assad, and it has not altered this objective since the Islamic State’s emergence in June 2014. It only pretends to, and only sometimes, while continuing to arm extremist militias of nobody-has-ever-known-what loyalties. Two, Russia backed the peace plan tabled in Vienna. To support it would lessen tensions with Moscow, artificially sustained as they are, and acknowledge Russia as a world power, which it is. Neither of these is acceptable in Washington.

The fog machine has been firing on all eight ever since. Post-Paris the stakes run even higher and the smoke, hence, is even thicker. At issue now is a prospect far larger than the defeat of the Islamic State, in my view. The overarching confrontation between the West and Russia—the European powers being America’s conscripts—is suddenly open to resolution. Vienna threatens Washington’s war, and now Paris, much more directly.

Certain imperatives come clear. It is imperative that Washington’s policy in Syria be something of a blur. It is imperative that ordinary people trying to understand events cannot: We must misunderstand. It is imperative that we maintain our seething contempt for Russia and, magnitudes more important, its president. Russophobia and Putinophobia—yours and mine—are essential to maintain. The dangers are that we might recognize that a rational settlement in Syria is now under discussion and that we might realize that Cold War-ish animosities toward Russia make chumps of those who harbor them—having been poured into our heads just as they were 50, 40 and 30 years ago.

* * *

This column is blessed with some intelligent readers, and two recently wrote with thoughts worth passing on. (I will leave their professional affiliations out of it.)

“Putin is one step ahead of us, with Iran and now with Syria, but it still takes two to tango,” Sioan Bethel wrote after the second round of talks in Vienna (and pre-Paris). “The great powers, in concert, will sort Syria out, as well as the Israel-Palestine solution. Perhaps we are witnessing a return to the ‘Congress of Vienna’ modus operandi. It would make Metternich proud.”

This is the kind of larger-bore thinking I mentioned above. And Bethel’s reference to the Congress of Vienna is especially useful. It took place in the Austrian capital in 1814-15, just after the Napoleonic Wars, and was intended to stabilize Europe by fixing very messy borders and establishing a balance of power. It was high-conservative in outlook and far from perfect, but it brought Europe a period of peace based on a recognition of interests. (Klemens, prince von Metternich, was the Austrian emperor’s chancellor and chaired the proceedings.)

After the Paris events, a reader named Vladimir Signorelli sent this note:

A Franco-Russian alliance? Bismarck must be rolling over in his grave. Still, Hollande might be due for man of the year honors if his diplomatic overtures lead to a breakthrough:

1) He publicly expressed skepticism on Russian sanctions back in January, which made it acceptable for lesser E.U. states to stand athwart Berlin.

2) He was instrumental in getting Minsk II accords [on Ukraine] established, which, arguably, opened a path for normalization of E.U.-Russia relations.

3) He’s agreed to coordinate moves with Russia on Syria. A grand alliance could be in the making.

Again, I find this astute. If Hollande is a Second International socialist I must have lost the plot at some point, but we can set this aside. The chronology here reveals an intent on France’s part one never reads about in U.S. media. One, Europeans—and I think we can include many or most of its leaders—have long been restless, if irresolute, within the frame of confrontation the U.S. superimposes on relations with Russia. Two, Hollande appears to understand that Russophobic Washington could now prove an impediment to the united-front strategy to counter the Islamic State, not to mention all that could flow from it.

Hollande is right, as are these two readers. When we say “Paris changed everything,” we seem to mean more than what some of us understood 10 days ago. The complexities will be obvious, but there is a straight line now between a violence-adulating resistance movement in the Middle East, its attack on a European capital, a new resolve to defeat terrorism in Syria, the prospect of an orderly settlement and—dotted line here—a kind of latter-day Concert of Europe, which coalesced after the Congress of Vienna, included Russia and lasted a century. In effect, it was a conflict-resolution mechanism.

I would suggest we watch as this last materializes, but it is more likely we should keep our eyes on why it does not. As noted above, Vienna faced the Obama administration with a moment of truth, and Paris now another. It will be grim indeed to watch if, as one must anticipate, Washington dashes the very real prospects for a decisive advance toward peace in Syria and co-existence among Russia, Europe and America—three entities, three sets of interests, and much in common by way of shared objectives.

The clues to a disappointing outcome are so plentiful and plain one hardly recognizes them for what they are. Just one will make the point.

“Russia has intervened in Syria to establish itself as a world power,” some unnamed American official told the government-supervised New York Times a few days after Russian jets began flying sorties over Syrian territory. The theme ran through the media reports for many days. You can still find the thought here and there.

As a description of Russia’s motives this nothing more than stupid. More to the point, note the missing half of the quotation, as clear as the part you can read: “… and we have no intention of allowing Russia to act as a world power. We do not accept this. We will do all we can to block it.”

This is a problem—our problem. Denying reality never gets one very far, to state the obvious. One does grow tired to being represented in world affairs by people who do not know what time it is and refuse to look at clocks.

Let us stay with Russia’s motives in Syria for a minute. We can usefully divide them into two.

One, campaigns of terror led by extremists professing perverted versions of Islam are a very real threat to Russia. Syria is a lot closer to Russia’s southwestern border than it is to any Western nation’s. Saturday’s Times ran a revealing report on the heavy traffic between the Caucasus and Syria. It is here. It turns out that 7,000 radical Islamists from Russia now wage war in Syria and Iraq, and nearly a third are from the Caucasus region.

Two, Russia wants to avoid another Libya that much closer to its borders and has no reason to trust the U.S. on this point. Hence its opposition to Washington’s insistence that the Assad government must be toppled before anything constructive can take place. The Libyan reference is essential to bear in mind.

Libya’s post-Gadhafi descent into chaos was America’s doing, of course: Bomb now, figure the rest out later. In March 2011, Washington persuaded Moscow to abstain from vetoing a rigorously negotiated U.N. resolution authorizing a bombing campaign to protect civilians in Libya. The Western powers then proceeded to bomb Qaddafi’s government out of existence and Libyans into the hellhole you can read about in any news account (well, more easily in any non-American news account).

* * *

I find nothing sinister or difficult to understand in Russia’s increased involvement in Syria. In June, extremists declared the Dagestan Governorate of the Islamic State in Russia’s southernmost republic. Think about this for a sec. Russian jets started flying missions three months later.

As to Russia’s proposal that the Assad government remain in power until a transition is structured, I can identify no rational argument against it. Most of the world is not so allergic to history and its lessons as we Americans, and this includes the cliques in Washington who decide what we do abroad.

What you read in the Times is that Russia is in Syria “to prop up the Assad government” — a half-truth that functions excellently as a lie. As noted in this space severally, Moscow now protects what remains of the national government, not Assad per se, to avoid sheer chaos. It is a point Moscow has made countless times since at least 2012, but the distinction is never drawn in our media reports.

I have never nominated a “sentence of the week” taken from the Times—too many to choose from—but one published Thursday is beyond resisting. In a report purporting to explain the Islamic State’s rise, Ian Fisher, a former foreign staff correspondent, wrote, “America has been bombing the Islamic State for over a year. Russia has joined the fight, for its own murky reasons.”

I would say the reporter and his editor should be reprimanded simply for publishing the word “murky,” except that Fisher is now deputy executive editor and would, of course, be in on the disciplining. It is not a small matter, a copy editor’s nitpick. This is how the Times wants you to see Russia’s involvement in the Syria crisis: It wants to give you murk instead of the clarity its correspondents could provide were they clean of the influences of power.

There is plenty of murk as to motives in the Syria crisis, of course: It covers over Washington’s. Clear it all away, and you find that the policy cliques are still stuck on fomenting a coup in Damascus, a more or less standard CIA operation.

The shame and irresponsibility of this kind of practice at the Times—and the Times functions in part to cue all other American media—is writ even larger when one considers its consequences in the context of Washington’s confrontation with Russia. We can see Russia and its people and its aspirations no more clearly now than we could the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This is as desired. Russophobia is rampant, understanding very scarce. The arrangement keeps us acquiescent.

A simple exercise for the Putinophobes is in order. They might benefit greatly from asking themselves a few questions. Here are four examples:

Pre- or post-revolution, did you hold the Shah of Iran in furious contempt, as you do Putin? Did news reports encourage you to do so?

What about the Saudi monarch?

More specifically now: What about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, with whom Washington is now allied, although one cannot say for sure it is an alliance against ISIS, precisely.

What about Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister?

And, best for last, what about Boris Yeltsin? Did you despise Yeltsin? Were you ever urged to?

Conclusion: All of these leaders, drawn from a list longer than my years on earth, were or are American allies. Every one acted or acts toward his people—in Netanyahu’s case the Palestinians—more objectionably than Putin has in his very worst decisions. This is so by magnitudes. Every one has been either excused from close scrutiny or enjoys a more or less favorable press in America. And very few of us are the least bit exorcised about these leaders’ records in power.

Here is what too many of us need to know—somewhat urgently at this important moment: We are inflamed by, despise or obsess upon exactly those leaders we are told to and, generally speaking, few to no others. It is a simple question of crowd control, and I assume readers are familiar with this phrase’s associations. That our leaders are ever attempting to conscript our minds and sentiments, in effect making fools of us, is another way to put the point.

Consequential events in world affairs now unfold before our eyes. We must clear our heads of propaganda’s litter. There is plenty to understand, and anyone who cares to can, never mind how little help one gets from leaders and our press.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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