NEW YORK – It was all suits, ties, wine and cheese at the Asia Society on the Upper East Side the night before Halloween. The old money and big names had gathered at a Park Avenue museum to debate whether or not Russia is once again an enemy of the United States. The evening, which turned out to be a harrowing Halloween eve, was set up in a classical debate-style format, much like how high school and collegiate debate clubs do it. Before it began, a kind elderly gentleman asked me if I'd ever "debated before." I had not.
The Motion: "Russia is Becoming Our Enemy Again." Three experts (all Americans) argued For, and three experts (two Americans, one Russian) argued Against. Then the audience voted through keypads that were attached to our seats to judge the victor, like test groups at presidential debates. Your eXile correspondent found himself seated in the front row for this grand battle.
The debate was essentially rigged. Columbia University professor Robert Legvold (on the Against side) stated at the outset, "Nobody is here to defend what's happening in Russia. It's reprehensible what's happening." So it was agreed from the beginning that Russia and Putin are, in a word, bad. The question of its enemy-ness was thus one of degree.
So, given the awful things that are happening Russia, and we all know the wicked list, what shall "we" do about the place? (We being Americans and Brits.) Should we treat Russia as a potential enemy (the For side) or should we abandon rough talk that courts further confrontation and continue to seek common ground (the Against side)?
Wearing the scariest mask of the evening was the hawk hack Claudia Rosett, a writer for the neocon rags Commentary and the Weekly Standard. Among other idiocies, Rosett condemned U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s, not for ruining the Russian economy, no, but for focusing too much on Russia's needs rather than America's. Her teammate J. Michael Waller (better not forget that "J") added that the U.S. has done everything it can to be friends with Russia, including "subsidizing the economy," but that Russia has "looked the other way" and behaved like an ungrateful bastard.
Ms. Rosett began her talk by reading the definition of the word "enemy" from the American Heritage Dictionary. (Some serious intellectualism at this place, folks!) Then she matched up that definition with the list of abuses she imagines Russia has committed: killing Litvinenko, poisoning Yuschenko (she bizarrely showed photos of the two men), "completely co-opting" the media, transferring nuclear technology to Iran, etc. She also argued that it makes no sense to partner with Russia in the war on terrorism since Russia is a supporter of Iran, a pro-terrorist state in her view, despite its opposition to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
When asked if Russia had a right to be upset after NATO reneged on its promise not to expand eastward, Rosett huffed and stalled, and then snapped, "For Russia, that's just another convenient excuse" (to go on behaving badly).
Listening to these people it all became very clear: when Russia does what powerful U.S. interests want it to do, it's a good, promising, growing country; and when it doesn't, it's an evil and criminal enterprise.
Professor Legvold was fair enough to make the following point, which I think is crucial. "Russia wants respect for its national interests as defined by Russia, not as defined by the United States." For some reason, most Americans just don't get this elementary point. Legvold then sensibly argued for more diplomacy and understanding with Russia rather than "premature containment" and "empty hectoring" or posturing.