Hat tip: Earl Aagaard
The past hundred years have seen two worldwide ideological wars: The Cold War and the current war between the West and Islam, which Norm Podhoretz calls World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism.
In both of these wars, the world has been a battle ground between opposing forces, one of which seeks to enslave the world’s citizens before a socialist or theocratic government, and the other of which seeks to prevent that enslavement. (I was going to say “seeks to maximize individual freedom,” but I don’t believe that we can say that anymore about America and we never could say that about Europe.) The fact that the Islamic war has been going on intermittently since the 7th century, with innumerable individual Muslim nations leading the charge, doesn’t change its essential ideological nature.
The same hundred years have seen two worldwide “regional” wars, as well as uncountable small regional wars. The worldwide ones were, quite obviously World Wars I and II. Some people are a bit confused about WWII’s inclusion in this category. While Hitler definitely had an ideology, he was not seeking to spread that ideology. He simply wanted to expand his nation as far as possible, bringing some geographical regions into Germany, and enslaving others to Germany.
World War I was also about zones of power rather than advancing an ideology throughout the world. The myriad other 20th and 21st century regional wars have pitted communists against non-communists, but the warring nations, rather than seeking to spread their ideology, were simply working to expand their regional power bases.
Which gets me to what Obama had to say about Russia, where he managed to be both sort of right and entirely wrong. Since Putin first zeroed in on Ukraine and the Crimea, Obama has been on defense about the fact that Mitt Romney, all the way back in 2012, accurately predicted that Russia would be a geopolitical foe.
Understandably, Obama cannot now concede that Romney was right. (Much as I dislike and distrust Obama, I think any president in his shoes would never acknowledge that his former opponent was right and would do anything and everything to spin the situation.) So Obama spins and spins and spins with the inevitable result — the more he talks, the more foolish he appears:
[Obama:] With respect to Mr. Romney’s assertion that Russia is our number one geopolitical foe, the truth of the matter is that America has a whole lot of challenges.
Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neigbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness.
Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong, cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.
So my response then continues to be what I believe today, which is: Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.
To the extent Obama’s logorrhea disclaims a new Cold War, he’s correct. Putin may mourn the old Soviet Union, but he’s not backing a new Cold War strategy of using guile, stealth, and proxy warfare in order to spread communism throughout the world. He’s a strong Russian nationalist who has no ideology he wants to market. In terms of ideological warfare, our enemy remains Islam, which wants to take over the world with a ferocity that even the communists couldn’t muster.
For Obama to dismiss Russia as a mere regional power, however, and to state that this power base is a “weakness” reveals Obama’s profound historical ignorance and intellectual insularity. It’s as if, in his mind, when the Cold War ended, all possible wars ended. In reality, throughout history, countries seeking regional dominance have successfully wrecked havoc on the world. After all, as they increase their geographic scope, they increase the “region” in which they operate.
In ancient times, Persia wasn’t selling ideology. It was just spreading its wings, seeking Persian lebensraum, an effort that saw it work its way across the entire Aegean until the Spartans stopped it. It’s regional reach managed to go from Persia itself to almost the entire known world. The same was true for both the Greeks and the Romans. While they thought that their ways were best, they weren’t selling an ideology when they conquered. They wanted power and wealth, aka Greek and Roman lebensraum. The Mongol hordes? Ditto. Louis XIV’s France? Ditto. Napoleonic France? Ditto. World Wars I and II, as mentioned above? Ditto.
None of the above aggressor nations conquered a nearby “region” and then stopped voluntarily. Each was emboldened by regional victories and sought to expand the territories it controlled. All were stopped only when their reach exceeded their grasp or when they met a foe more implacable than they were. For Obama to assume that Putin, having stretched his wings a little bit in the Ukraine, will now stop his territorial aggression is woefully or willfully naive.
For Putin, this expansion is a marvelous offset to his problems at home. Dying, aging population? Get a new population. Weakened, corrupted economy? Prop it up with wealth acquired using arms against other nations. An increasingly unpopular, undemocratic rule? Become a successful warrior king and watch your poll numbers shoot up.
The fact that Putin’s armed conquest is unsustainable in the long run (all warrior conquerors have a reach that exceeds their grasp), doesn’t mean in the short run that it won’t be successful. For a time that can run into decades, Putin will control vast swathes of reasonably productive land — something that will give him power far beyond his region. He’ll be able to meddle in Western Europe again. He’ll hold over the world the threat of an alliance with China. He’ll continue to be a power player in the Middle East, especially since Arab nations will always ally themselves with the strong horse.
America’s endlessly naive peace party, which has Obama as its perfect leader, has always assumed that if America makes nice with the world, the world will suddenly become a nicer place. That this isn’t how the world works eludes these peace makers, as it did after World War I and during the Cold War and during our current World War IV.
Since time immemorial, the world has been a balance of powers. If one power weakens, other step up to fill the vacuum. The world is in bad shape when the dominant power is evil and the world is in good shape when the dominant power is less evil. I would say America is the best dominant power ever to have walked the earth (with the Pax Britannica probably a good second), but we don’t even need to award a dominant power with the label “Best Dominant Power Ever.” It’s enough to know that civilization advances (wealth, health, and innovation) if a particular reigning dominant power is simply better than the alternatives.
It’s not quite clear what Obama’s thinks, but both his ideas are wrong. He either loathes America so much that he believes, contrary to the entire weight of history, that she has been an evil dominant power or, as I said, he’s so naive and stupid he believes that, if a dominant power voluntarily departs the scene, peace will reign eternal. Either could explain his deliberate decision to remove America from the world stage, despite global success under her mostly benignant leadership and his conscious refusal to acknowledge the forces of evil hastening to fill the vacuum America has left in her wake.
When I think about the American Lefts’ moral and historical blindness, I keep being reminded of the rebooted Twilight Zone, which ran for two seasons in the mid-1980s. One of its episodes was called A Small Talent for War:
An ambassador (John Glover) from an alien race arrives, claiming that his race had genetically engineered the people of Earth. He tells the quarrelsome members of the United Nations Security Council that his race is displeased over Earth’s “small talent for war”, having failed to produce the potential that the aliens had nurtured. When the alien ambassador announces that his fleet will destroy Earth, the Security Council earns a 24 hour reprieve to prove Earth’s worth. With survival at stake, the Security Council negotiates, and the General Assembly acclaims, an accord for lasting global peace and presents it to the alien ambassador.
The global peace agreement brings great humour to the emissary. The aliens were, in fact, seeking a greater talent for war, as they had genetically seeded thousands of planets to breed warriors to fight for them across the galaxy. Humanity’s “small talent” for war (crude weapons, petty bickering over borders) is not significant enough to be of any use to them, and he laughingly states that – worst of all – the people of Earth long for peace. As the ambassador calls down his fleet to destroy the Earth, he thanks the Security Council for an amusing day and their “delightful sense of the absurd”, and his parting comment is “…as one of your fine Earth actors, Edmund Gwenn, once said, Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
Humans are never closer to animals than when it comes to their passion and ability for war. Only two things stave off war, especially when these two things operate simultaneously: free trade between nations, so that peace is more beneficial than war; and a dominant world (or regional) power that acts defensively, not offensively. It’s only Twilight Zone script writers and Democrat Party members who think that we will erase war if we successfully stifle the free market and then create a power vacuum that any tin pot tyrant can fill.
As I was driving home from the swimming pool today, I heard that Russia’s representative was refusing to accede to John Kerry’s request that the Russians sit down for face-to-face negotiations with the Ukrainians. My first thought was that the report was way too polite. Kerry’s not requesting, he’s begging.
My second thought was that this is what happens when the President of the United States spends five years making it plain that America will not use its power and, worse, that the president’s word cannot be relied upon. Kerry has no leverage.
As for my third thought, I didn’t actually have a third thought. Instead, I’m borrowing from a friend, who forwarded his thoughts on the matter to me:
Obama and Kerry attempting to use diplomacy with Putin is like trying to use reason with robbers during a home invasion. As they are talking, he’s filling his pockets and getting the tactical advantage. If he gets away with this who’s next? Further, why would anyone choose to negotiate over something they can simply take?
All of the above would be amusing if it was written into a lunatic novel. (By the way, if you’re looking for a wonderful, clever, laugh-out-loud funny lunatic novel, I highly recommend Akhmed and the Atomic Matzo Balls: A Novel of International Intrigue, Pork-Crazed Termites, and Motherhood.) But this is isn’t a lunatic novel. It’s real life, and Obama has managed to destroy in five years almost 70 years of American influence.
Every time a Leftist media rag has a momentary epiphany that Obama isn’t the messiah, all I can think is “Too little too late.” Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that those epiphanies don’t make a point. Such is the case with the WaPo’s observation that Obama’s foreign policy is built upon a fantasy of the world as it should be, rather than the world as it is.
The fact that Putin may also be living out a fantasy, as Angela Merkel surmises, is irrelevant. Putin is living out his fantasy with guns and tanks, which makes him an extremely dangerous fantasist.
In any event, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything fantastic about Putin’s plan. As every Russian leader has wanted since at least Catherine the Great’s time, Putin needs a warm water port, this time to export Russia’s energy reserves. He also knows that, while his nation is in demographic and economic decline (a) selling reserves will at least offset the economic losses and (b) aiming a gun at people unwilling to fight back is a good way to offset a demographic drop.
Apropos that warm water port, a liberal asked me “Why is Putin doing this?” My response aside from the obvious “because he can,” was “because he wants a warm water port.” The liberal sneered at me that this isn’t the 19th century anymore. I suspect that he hadn’t read that Lurch er . . . Kerry said exactly the same thing. Instead, this is just a default Leftist sneer. In fact, as I noted above, a warm water port is an excellent thing for the Russians and Putin knows it. He is therefore following State Craft Rule 101: act in your own self-interest. As Tom Rogan explains, no airy-fairy theory in the world will override this number one rule of governance.
(I can’t resist an aside here, which is that Obama’s policies have not been to America’s self-interest, unless our nation’s self-interest demands bankruptcy, security weakness, and cultural collapse. This means that because he’s clearly following a game plan, his self-interests are at odds with America’s. He sure is some president.)
Everyone acknowledges that nobody is going to run for their guns to defend Ukraine. David Goldman astutely points out that Ukraine has never had a history of true independence, that it lurched from one oligarchy to the next, that it’s completely bankrupt, and that no one has a real interest in engaging with Russia over it (as Putin knows).
Still, the U.S. and the world are not entirely helpless. While it’s unlikely that America or the EU can pry Putin away from his warm water port, they can constrain him. Timothy Snyder, who wrote the devastating Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, thinks that Europe has a lot of soft power that it can bring to bear on a nation whose leisure class loves to travel to and spend money in Europe.
I wonder, though. What Europe wants above all is cheap energy — and Putin’s Crimean takeover promises them that. I think the EU will huff and puff for a while, and then wallow in the black gold flowing its way.
That’s my two cents. Drew, at Ace of Spades, didn’t futz around with two cents worth of links and thoughts. He goes all out in an excellent post that I see, after reading it, heads in much the same direction as mine, only with much more data and analysis.
The Diplomad ties everything up in a neat package with a very important observation: our foreign policy will continue to fail unless we, at home, create a true commitment to liberty. As long as the weak, America-hating, internationalist, Islamophilic, socialist Obama controls the government, that’s not going to happen. We therefore have to hope that we can weather a few more years of Obama at the helm and then hope even more that a true leader runs for the White House and that the American people have the sechel to elect him.
One more thing. Remember the young Kerry who included in his Congressional testimony during the Vietnam War a reference to “Jen-gis Khan”? Jen-gis Khan! Huh! It took a moment for most people to realize that Kerry was speaking about a historical figure everyone else in America called (and calls) “Gen-gis Khan”?
That snotty reference to a commonly named figure warned us long ago that Kerry is a self-involved, arrogant, elitist poseur. Knowing what we know about him, are we surprised that, while the rest of American is focused on Kiev, Kerry is focused on Kyiv?
Breaking news: The Obama State Department is blaming the Russian invasion of the Ukraine on this obscure YouTube video:
(I’m very proud of my wonderful brother-in-law for coming up with this one.)
If you’re a true believer, it’s very hard to admit that your idol has feet of clay. For some, it may be impossible. Andrew Sullivan currently falls into the latter category. He has written an almost pathetic post assuring his followers that Obama cleverly baited a trap for Putin and Putin, that preening fool, fell into it.
According to Sullivan, everything we think we know about Obama’s apparently feckless Syria policy is wrong. Sullivan is willing to concede that Obama was careless when, a year ago, he mentioned a “red line” about Syria. Once Obama had done that, however, Sullivan assures us that Obama instantly knew that he had the perfect bait with which to hook his fish.
In Sullivan’s world, Obama wasn’t flailing when he said that he intended, on his own executive initiative, to bomb Syria. He wasn’t being a rank amateur when he announced the intended date, time, and location of his “muscular,” yet delicate, attack.
Obama wasn’t backtracking when he abruptly announced that, despite the urgent need to bomb Syria, he would wait until Congress convened, deliberated, and voted on an attack. Obama also wasn’t prevaricating (some might say “lying”) when he explained that he hadn’t drawn a red line; the world had drawn a red line, and he was simply helping the world enforce it.
Likewise, Obama wasn’t guilty of rank hiring malpractice when he put before the world a Secretary of State who announced that any US attack against Syria would be so infinitesimally small that a toddler could withstand its impact. That same potential malpractice was inapplicable when that same Secretary of State remarked, to the administration’s explicitly expressed surprise, that Bashar al Assad could make everything good by turning over his weapons which, said Secretary of State hastened to add, could never actually be done.
And of course, no one in the administration was made to look like a fool when Russian President Vladimir Putin instantly announced that he had brokered an agreement with Assad by which Assad agreed that he’d be pleased to turn over all his nasty weapons, at a date, time, and location of his and Putin’s determining. In the same vein, Obama didn’t look like a fool when he went before the American people on Tuesday night and said that war was the only answer, except that he’d be happy to wait on Putin’s proposed peace plan.
Finally, says Sullivan, there was no humiliating slap in Obama’s face when Putin hired a PR firm that wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which Putin threw all of Obama’s words back into his face, including Obama’s 2009 statement that there was nothing exceptional about America.
Instead, according to Sullivan, everything went according to Obama’s carefully laid scheme. America hasn’t bowed out of being the top power broker in the Middle East, and Putin hasn’t leveraged his Third World nuclear power into being the Big Dog in a region that responds well to loud barks. Obama won! We’re just too stupid to recognize victory when it’s clothed in such subtle garb.
Here’s what Sullivan says really happened: Obama engaged in a strategic game that would have made Machiavelli proud. He’d cleverly figured out that Syria is unsalvageable, so he’s now foisted responsibility for it onto Putin. You heard me. That’s what Sullivan says:
If the end-result is that Putin effectively gains responsibility and control over the civil war in Syria, then we should be willing to praise him to the skies. Praise him, just as the far right praises him, for his mastery of power politics – compared with that ninny weakling Obama. Encourage him to think this is a personal and national triumph even more than he does today. Don’t just allow him to seize the limelight – keep that light focused directly on him. If that also requires dumping all over the American president, calling him weak and useless and incapable of matching the chess master from Russia, so be it. Obama can take it. He’s gotten used to being a pinata.
All this apparent national humiliation is worth it. The price Russia will pay for this triumph is ownership of the problem. At some point, it may dawn on him that he hasn’t played Obama. Obama has played him.
It’s now all so clear. The Great and Powerful Obama willingly put his credibility and America’s stature on the line in order to lure Putin closer and closer to the Middle Eastern tar baby. Obama understood that it was never in America’s interest to go in. Being wise beyond all mortal recognition, however, he also understood that America, because she’s got the best military in the world, was always expected to go in. The only way Obama could avoid that horrible fate (a fate, incidentally, that the vast majority of American people think is a lousy idea), was to appear like a bumbling, incompetent idiot, thereby inveigling Putin to step in. Well played, Obama! Well played!
Sullivan’s theory about Obama’s wonderfulness is really quite perfect, until one realizes that he’s wrong about a central fact: Putin’s and America’s goals are different. Unlike Obama, with his anti-American “responsibility 2 protect” doctrine (America can only step into another nation’s war if it’s not in America’s interest to do so), and unlike the American people, who have soft hearts, and hate to see innocents massacred, Putin doesn’t care at all if Syrians engage in a slaughter that leads every man, woman, and child to the grave.
What Putin cares about is (a) humiliating Obama, which he did magnificently; (b) humiliating America, which I’m sorry to say he also did magnificently; (c) becoming a player in the Middle East for the first time since the Cold War, another magnificent accomplishment; and (d) finally, having access to Syria’s chemical weapons, while keeping Russia’s arms market afloat by selling to Syria and Iran.
Put another way, Obama was no Machiavelli. He was one of those dumb dogs playing poker with a master strategist and tactician. As for Sullivan, he’s got his head so far up . . . well, you know, that he’s blinded by the light shining through Obama’s tonsils every time the President opens his mouth to spout another lie or prevarication.
Mark Steyn looks at what was going on in Obama’s brain‘ when he drew the “red line” and at the fall out from that moment:
Charles Crawford, Britain’s former ambassador in Serbia and Poland, called last Monday “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began.” Obama set it in motion at a press conference last year by drawing his famous “red line.” Unlike, say, the undignified scrums around the Canadian and Australian prime ministers, Obama doesn’t interact enough with the press for it to become normal or real. So at this rare press conference he was, as usual, playing a leader who’s giving a press conference. The “red line” line sounds like the sort of thing a guy playing a president in a movie would say — maybe Harrison Ford in Air Force One or Michael Douglas in The American President. It never occurred to him that out there in the world beyond the Republic of Cool he’d set an actual red line and some dime-store dictator would cross it with impunity. So, for most of the last month, the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment has assured us that, regardless of whether it will accomplish anything, we now have to fire missiles at a sovereign nation because “America’s credibility is at stake.”
One of the things that the Left loved to do during the Reagan presidency was to say that he was a senile old coot who couldn’t distinguish the real world from a Hollywood script. In fact, Reagan was completely in touch with reality, and the reality of politics. It’s Obama who has entered a little cocoon in which he’s pretty sure an enterprising scriptwriter will enter stage left and save him.
And indeed, that’s exactly what happened, except that the script writer was Vladimir Putin who, rather than being a creative genius, is a former KGB agent with an agenda antithetical to American interests and world stability.
If you doubt me, the New York Post managed to get its hands on a first (ahem) draft of Putin’s ultimate editorial:
MOSCOW — Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and your leaders. After the president’s speech Tuesday night, let me say what you all know to be true:
Barack, I own you. Or as we say in Russia, the wolf felt pity for the lamb, so he left the skin and bones.
Mr. President, we have much in common. People fear what we might do. We each have a media eating out of our hands. We both hate George W. Bush.
I also share with you the outrage at President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on women and children. And I have made Russia’s displeasure clear to him. Bashar, I said, if you have to murder women and children, conventional arms like the ones I used at Grozny or the rescue at Beslan are just as deadly. Lord knows I have supplied Syria with more than enough weaponry.
Be sure to read it all.
Some people are gracious winners. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not one of those people. After humiliating President Obama before the world when he pulled Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire regarding Syria (a move, incidentally, that turned a leader of a third-world nuclear nation into a Middle Eastern power broker), Putin took to the pages of the New York Times to rub Obama’s face in his embarrassing failures.
In stilted, but still effective language, Putin chastised Obama for his bullying and his ignorance, and even managed to throw Obama’s own words back in his face.
First, Putin gave the United Nations’ loving Obama a little history lesson:
The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
Next came a veiled threat about the imminent collapse of world stability should Obama continue to ignore the United Nations (something, incidentally, that George Bush never did):
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. [Paving the way, Putin implies, for World War II.]
Putin takes Obama’s “humanitarian plea” (e.g., we’ve got to do it to save the children of Syria) and turns it upside down, by reminding him that escalating a war ends up with more deaths rather than less:
The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.
(Incidentally, while Putin is correct, sometimes a nation, fighting in its own defense, needs to inflict punishing damage against its enemy in order to save itself. Here, of course, Obama only half-heartedly and belatedly made the argument that America has a dog in the Syrian fight.)
After giving a rundown on the Syrian war, Putin puts himself and Russia on the moral high ground, without bothering to mention that he’s pouring money into Russia’s empty coffers by selling weapons to Assad’s government:
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.
Having established to his own satisfaction Russia’s subordination to the rule of law, Putin goes in for the kill, castigating Obama’s American policies in the harshest terms. There can be no mistake but that Putin is saying that Obama is simply a repeat of George Bush, the man against whom Obama is still running, five years after the 2008 election:
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
I think the expression that applies here is “bitch slap.” President Putin just bitch slapped the president of the United States of America.
Putin wraps up his peroration about both international law and order and about Obama’s failure to meet those norms by throwing Obama’s own insulting language about American exceptionalism right back in Obama’s face.
Back in 2009, while speaking at a NATO summit, Barack Obama completely trashed the notion of American exceptionalism:
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.
In his schizophrenic speech on Tuesday night, which was part war mongering and part pathetic gratitude to Russia, Obama sang a different tune:
America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.
Putin sneers at Obama’s reference to American exceptionalism, and does so in words that must deliberately echo Obama’s earlier snide and dismissive take on America’s unique devotion to the cause of freedom:
I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.
And that’s a KO in the final round, folks. Putin’s practical and rhetorical victory over Obama is complete. For an pathologically egotistical American president who has long believed that he has only to speak magic words to make things happen, to have Russia’s leader (and, increasingly, its dictator) run rings around him on the ground and in the war of words must come as a horrifying shock.
That the White House doesn’t know how to deal with this reality is reflected in its tepid official response to the opinion piece: “That’s all irrelevant.” Right, because it never matters when the American President demeans himself and the nation before an opponent delighted to glory in his victory.
(This piece originally appeared in slightly different form at Mr. Conservative.)
If you were looking for a break from the Zimmerman trial (verdict good; race riots bad) here are my notes from St. Petersburg, Russia. Please forgive any typos. It’s hard to write essays on an iPad.
It’s been 24 hours since we left St. Petersburg, and I’m still struggling to decide how to describe it. It’s a city that one sees on so many levels: the sprawling (yet surprisingly well-organized) layout; the wealth of history; the wealth of wealth, as seen in all those palaces that history left behind; or the bizarre spectacle of overwhelming capitalism in a city that was, for so many decades, including a significant part of my own life, Communist.
St. Petersburg is HUGE. Not only is it home to 6 million people, it covers a vast expanse of 600 square kilometers. Everything is built on a gargantuan scale. This is not some cozy European town. It is as sprawling as Russia itself. It has more straight vistas than any place I’ve ever seen. When you look down the the Nevsky Prospect, your view seems endless. It reminded me of Washington DC, with planned streets that stretch out forever — except that it makes DC look small.
There’s also water everywhere. In addition to the Neva River, there are canals (long, perfectly straight canals) all over the place. It’s no surprise that St. Petersburg is called “the Venice of the north.” However, just as its layout dwarfs Washington’s, its canals dwarf Venice’s. These canals are so vast that motor boats can speed along them.
St. Petersburg is a planned city — and it was Peter the Great who planned it. His monarchy spanned the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century. It was Peter who yanked Russia out of her medieval Russian ways and bullied her into being an 18th century, European-style player. As part of that modernizing, he moved the capital from Moscow (too old, too Russian) to St. Petersburg, which was just a swamp when he picked it.
Peter wanted the world to know his new capital’s greatness. In addition to mandatory buildings along Swedish lines (even though Sweden was a perpetual enemy), he built the overwhelming Peterhof, the official palace, with its vast gardens. We never even saw the inside of the Peterhof. Instead, after taking a hydrofoil there, we simply wandered the grounds. Some of the fountains were so large they were bigger than the average urban swimming pool. As was the case with all the royal palaces we saw, the exterior was blue, with white trim — exxept that the Peterhof also had golden statues.
It was, frankly, gaudy, but it was also very impressive, which was the whole point. Peter himself had a small house on the grounds where he could live without the burden of a palace so vast it couldn’t possibly be a home.
While Peter planned the city, it was his daughter, Elizabeth who gave it its distinctive Russian baroque look as well as its overall ostentation. We toured the Catherine Palace in the Tsar’s Village (the same village in which Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children were assassinated), and it was overwhelming. Huge, of course, and covered with so much gold it was blinding. Versailles looks shabby in comparison. There were a few rooms that Catherine designed, and she preferred a more classical style, but most of it is a testament to Elizabeth’s penchant for gold and curlicues.
Here’s the amazing secret about both the Peterhof and Catherine Palaces — they are meticulous re-creations. During WWII, the Germans blew up the Peterhof on the very day they first reached it as they headed to St. Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then known). This was pure spite. There was no strategic reason to do so.
The Nazis then occupied the Catherine palace all during the long and terrible siege of Leningrad. (If you’re unfamiliar with the siege, it was the most destructive in history. A third of the city’s citizens were evacuated, a third — about one million, I believe) died, and only a third survived. When the Germans were finally routed, they blew up the Catherine Palace for the same reason they blew up Peterhof — sheer spite. They also stole all the inlays from the beautiful amber room.
Working for decades, first the Soviets and then the Russians returned both palaces to their former exquisite glory. They did an amazing job, relying for guidance on what remained after the bombing, on photographs, on paintings, and on written descriptions.
Within the city limits, the damage came, not from German bombs (because the Germans contended themselves with starving out a city they thought they’d own), but from intentional Communist neglect. Palaces were stripped or used as schools, while churches were turned into swimming pools, ice skating rinks, storage areas, “museums of atheism,” etc. (With regard to that last, the Communists also turned one of Tallinn, Estonia’s ancient churches into a “museum of atheism.” That didn’t last long, though. As our charming guide in Tallinn said, there’s not much you can put in a museum dedicated to atheism.)
The church that suffered the worst destruction because of the Communist disdain for religion was the Church on the Spilled Blood. Yes, that’s really its name. In 1881 (or was it 1882?), revolutionaries, or reactionaries, or anarchists (I’m not sure which) assassinated Tsar Alexander II. He was a genuine reformer, who reformed too much for some and too little for others. Of course, that made him a target. There were seven assassination attempts against him, with the eighth finally being successful.
Immediately after he was killed, the spot at which he died became a shrine, and it was a short step to consecrate it as a church. Construction on the church began in 1882 or 1883 and continued through 1907. Both inside and outside, the church rejects St. Petersburg’s western-style architecture and, instead, is built in the neo-Russian style popular at the time. Outside, it has those marvelous turnip-shaped towers lacquered in beautiful blue and green colors. Inside, every square inch is covered with gorgeous mosaics. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
We were also so fortunate to see it. The Communists used the Church of the Spilled Blood as a storage area. They never heated it. It was also hit by a bomb during WWII, but fortunately the bomb was a dud, which lodged in the ceiling over the altar. They didn’t fix that either, allowing water damage on top of the general neglect. By the early 1960s, those exquisite mosaics were so ruined, they looked like they’d been buried under sand for a thousand years.
In 1960, when Khrushchev had eased off a bit on the extreme communism, historians, and museum archivists and archeologists petitioned the government for the right to restore this architectural gem. They got that right and began work. Our guide told us that the church vanished under scaffolding and remained that way for decades. It was re-opened only in 1997 — in other words, it took longer to repair than to build originally. In its current state, it represents a triumph of restoration.
We also went to the Hermitage, of course, which is one of the world’s great museums — as well as being the former Winter Palace. In my humble and snotty estimation, large parts of the collection are garbage. As I tell my kids, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s good. What was good, though, was wonderful. The Hermitage has an especially impressive Impressionist exhibit, because Russian merchants liked this modern art and brought it back to Russia before the rest of the world caught on.
Our final destination was the Yusopov Palace, which was a rich family’s home, rather than a royal palace. It reminded me of Hatfield House in England, in that it managed to be both magnificent and cozy. It also had the distinction of being the place in which Rasputin was killed. (Poisoned, shot, and beaten, only to die from drowning after his body was dumped in a canal.)
One of the most bizarre things about St. Petersburg as far as I was concerned was the rampant capitalism. Even though the Soviet Union has been gone roughly 20 years, I just couldn’t get over seeing American movies advertised everywhere, HP printers touted on subway ads, and designer labels on billboards and storefronts (Amani, Prada, Gucci, etc.). The kids couldn’t understand the adult sense of wonderment about this sea change to a former Communist country.
The people to whom we spoke don’t miss Communism, they hate Stalin, and they fear Putin. They’re worried that the freedoms they’re enjoying will vanish again. One young man told us that elections are completely corrupt. It sounded like Tammany Hall days as described a friend of his who was paid to cast seven votes for Putin. Everyone who spoke of the Putin threat mentioned his KGB past as a sign that he will stop at nothing to retain power.
I’ve now exhausted my St. Petersburg reminiscences and probably exhausted you as well. More later, but for me right now, a much needed rest.
UPDATE: You, my readers, are clearly right, and you’ve shown once again that context is king. Obama is introducing Medvedev to his people and not vice versa. Although this still does not account for Obama’s exasperated expression.
This is a fairly shocking 13 second video showing myriad Russians refusing, quite blatantly, to shake Obama’s hand:
It’s understandable that Obama is exasperated. It’s appalling that he, the leader of the free world, let’s that exasperation show, as if he’s a 13 year old who just got rejected at the middle school dance.
I’m actually at a loss to understand the video. I don’t believe Bush was ever on the receiving end of such blatant rudeness. And yet he never matched Obama when it came to setting a conciliatory, if not totally self-abnegatory, tone. Either the Russians are showing their deep lack of respect for someone who comes to them crawling on his belly, or those enlightened non-American, post-Communist citizens are racists in a way that would never be accepted in America.
“Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
You’ve probably noticed that I’ve said nothing about Russia invading Georgia. This is, in part, because the exigencies of the past week have deprived me of time to read in detail about it. I only know headlines and, since I have absolutely no background in the geography or the conflict, this means I’m abysmally ignorant.
The silence is also because, to the extent I have managed to grasp what’s going on out there, I don’t have anything to add to the discussion, or anything that I feel I want to voice personally despite the fact that so many others are saying the same thing. Yes, Putin is a totalitarian dictator, but we’ve known that about him for a long time, and many of us have just been sitting here waiting to see how is old KGB attitudes end up merging with his megalomaniac traits. Yes, this is all about oil. Yes, this represents a very dangerous trend, although it’s as unclear now as it was during the Cold War whether Russia has the ability to back up its aggressive initiatives. It’s easy to go in with the remaining guns from your former glory and squash a teeny little Republic. It’s harder to maintain any long campaigns. And yes, McCain showed leadership abilities, with Obama showing, first, ignorance (which is excusable in me, but not in him) and, second, the ability to follow McCain’s lead.
And yes, I’ve run out of echoing other, wiser people on the terrible tragedy, at the hands of a gross, bullying dictatorship, that is playing out in Georgia.
There was a round-up of illegal aliens in Marin County. The story included the obligatory reference to the children who had to watch their parents being arrested for illegal activity:
Wilson said children watched while their parents and other adults were taken away by authorities. Some were removed while accompanying children to the school bus, he said.
“They are taking parents of citizen children,” Wilson said. “Most people are just dealing with the shock and the loss and trying to find their loved ones.”
One point and one suggestion. The point is that one never reads stories about the trauma suffered by children whose parents are arrested for crimes other than being illegal aliens. Apparently it’s only the children of illegal aliens who suffer newsworthy emotional trauma. And the suggestion: why don’t we say that, if Mom and Dad are illegally here, so are you, regardless of where you were born? That way parents and kids can stay together, here or there.
America is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. China and Russia used to castigate her for her temerity in developing missiles. Now they scold her for her temerity for developing defenses to their (and others’) missiles. Since American can’t win, one does get the sense that she could go ahead and do whatever the Hell she deems best for her security.
Speaking of Russia, I find it somehow amusing that Russia is upset that finally, long after the Cold War ended, an American movie once again reverted to its pre-Leftist roots and depicted the Communists as bad guys. (And yes, I know that during WWII, the Lefties in Hollywood went nuts making movies glorifying Communism, but that stopped for a while when the Cold War actually began.) I thought the Russians had abandoned Communism, having recognized that it wasn’t beneficial for them. Why, then, are they taking it personally now? Could it be that, when it comes to Putin, once a KGB apparatchik, always a KGB apparatchik?
Hillary is historically accurate that things can happen in a primary between there and now (whenever that here and now is) and the actual convention, where the delegates place the final imprimatur on their candidate of choice. Nevertheless, with a woman as calculated as Hillary, it’s hard to believe that it was coincidence that she mentioned that a primary candidate could be assassinated in the June before the convention. It’s a nasty thing to do, and it’s also a horrible thing to say about Americans, especially conservative Americans, with the implication that they’re still racist enough to do something like that.
Israel wiped out Iraq’s nascent nuclear arsenal, and the world has had cause to be grateful. Israel probably wiped out Syria’s nascent nuclear arsenal, and the world ought to be grateful. There’s talk now about Israel once again taking on responsibility for the world and wiping out Iran’s nuclear arsenal. Many are afraid that, if she does so, Iran will strike back like a wounded, but still dangerous, animal. Tellingly, one pair of experts isn’t that worried. Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote a paper called “The Last Option,” in which they discuss the possibility of a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In an interview about their conclusions, Clawson had this to say:
And what will be a possible result of an Israeli attack?
Again, my answer is that it depends. Israel has to create the circumstances in which world public opinion will understand Israel and its motives, even if it regrets the attack.
That’s more or less what happened with the attack against the nuclear facility in Syria?
Yes, it is quite similar. Israel benefited from President Assad’s hostile attitude to the world, and therefore the international community showed understanding of the Israeli air force’s attack. Israel did not have to do much because Assad did the job for it. In this respect, Israel also benefits from Ahmadinejad and his statements. They help Israel present its position to the world and explain the threat it faces.
Do you share the sweeping assessment of most experts that Iran’s reaction if attacked will be harsh and painful?
No. Iran’s record when it comes to its reactions in the past to attacks against it, or its important interests, is mixed. When the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan and persecuted the Shi’ite minority there, Iran mobilized military forces on the border and threatened to respond, but in the end it did nothing. The same occurred when the U.S. shot down an Iranian passenger airline in 1988: Iran threatened to avenge the incident, but in the end the exact opposite happened. Not only did Iran not respond, but also the incident hastened its decision to agree to a cease-fire in the war with Iraq for fear that the U.S. was about to join the war on Saddam Hussein’s side.
In another incident during the war, Iranian boats attacked an American naval force that set out to mine the Gulf. The U.S. did not expect Iran to react, and was surprised. This did not stop it from sinking half of the Iranian fleet in response.
Iran has lately been threatening that if it is attacked it will close the Straits of Hormuz and block the flow of oil, and thereby damage the world economy. But this is a problematic threat, since it would also affect Iran’s friends and supporters, such as China and India. I have no doubt that in such a case, they would be angry at Iran.
But most experts estimate that in the event of an Israeli attack, the Iranians will respond with force and launch Shihab missiles at Israel.
It is possible, but first, the Shihab missiles are not considered particularly reliable. Iran deploys them without having done hardly any significant tests. Second, the Shihab’s guidance system is not very accurate. The missile’s range of accuracy is up to a kilometer. And finally, Israel’s aerial defense system – the Arrow missiles would certainly intercept quite a few Shihab missiles. Moreover, Iran’s firing missiles at Israel would enable Israel to respond in a decisive manner.
You can read the rest of the interview here.
And as a reminder of what the statists housed in today’s Democratic party are all about, I leave you with this video of the lovely Rep. Maxine Waters talking to America’s oil companies:
Just as the Soviet Union’s fingerprints were all over the local wars that were the testing areas for the Cold War, it’s becoming apparent that both the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s fingerprints are all over the Middle Eastern wars that the testing areas for World War IV (the War Against Jihadism). Here’s some of what Ion Mihai Pacepa has to say about Russia’s involvement in today’s turmoil:
Today’s international terrorism was conceived at the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB, in the aftermath of the1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East. I witnessed its birth in my other life, as a Communist general. Israel humiliated Egypt and Syria, whose bellicose governments were being run by Soviet razvedka (Russian for “foreign intelligence”) advisers, whereupon the Kremlin decided to arm Israel’s enemy neighbors, the Palestinians, and draw them into a terrorist war against Israel.
Pacepa then gives names, dates and places to support this strong accusation.
Given Russia’s decade’s old investment in destroying Israel, and her centuries’ old investment in destroying the Jews, I shouldn’t be surprised by Pravda’s decision to run the following virulent editorial by Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey in today’s edition:
Exactly when Israel’s international image hits rock-bottom and when the international community sees for itself the depths to which Tel Aviv will sink while claiming it is a State yet acting like a terrorist organization, a new militant group pops its head up in Gaza, kidnapping western journalists. In a flash, the 1-0 victory becomes 2-1 against in the hearts and minds of the western international community.
Curiously, exactly when Israel had proved once and for all beyond any doubt whatsoever that it is incapable of behaving like a State but rather like a terrorist organization, losing any little sympathy it had left in the international community (what after all is the difference between Hezbollah launching rockets against Israeli civilians and Israeli military forces blasting civilian homes and then claiming the civilians should not have been there?) an unheard-of militant group called Holy Jihad Brigades appears in Gaza and says it is behind the kidnapping of two western journalists on August 14th.
The Fox correspondent Steve Centanni and his cameraman Olaf Wiig were seized by masked raiders in Gaza City on August 14th. The Holy Jihad Brigades now demand that the Moslems held by America be released within 72 hours: “Release what you have and we will release what we have”, reads the fax.
If the Palestinian cause wanted anything which could so rapidly neutralise the propaganda victory in the aftermath of the Israeli massacres in the Lebanon (strafing funerals, slaughtering children in their homes, targeting power stations, committing acts of environmental terrorism, targeting civilian structures with military hardware) it is this.
There’s more, but it’s sickening and it’s all to the same point: Israel is a terrorist nation that murders people en masse and the foolish Palestinians obscured this fact — just when the world was finally figuring it out — by kidnapping those inconvenient reporters.
I’ve done just a little digging, by the way, and was able to discover the following about Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey: He’s a permanent member of Pravda’s editorial staff although, as his name demonstrates, he’s not Russian. In fact, he’s a British songwriter with a degree from Leeds (which clearly makes him qualified to write on all matters political). Although the link for his bio is dead, nothing really dies in cyberpsace, and I was able to find that “USS Clueless” provides extensive quotations from Bancroft-Hinchey’s defunct biographical site:
I incidentally became involved with the world of music and even became one of the leading English song-writers of the 1980s. I took part in three Eurovision contests, released three albums, two maxi-singles and five singles. That was the time when I started establishing contacts with the press. “I had to give a lot of interviews for television and newspapers. I noticed that facts were reinterpreted on numerous occasions, almost always, in order to make an article correspond to ideas of a reporter. One fine day I realized that there was only one way to strive for the truth: to write a true story and to send it to mass media outlets. That’s what I did.”
I showed my first articles to a friend, a reporter, who expressed his interest in them and asked my why I did not take up journalism seriously. After that, I finished journalism courses, and worked as a freelance journalist at Portuguese, Spanish, Latin American, English and Romanian media outlets. However, journalism was not my only occupation. “I believe that there is nothing more boring for a journalist than to sit at table, working on the so-called news, which has already been picked out from the Internet by someone, retelling someone else’s stories. In addition to that, it is proof of the absence of professionalism, it is not worth it, in the long run. I like to visit new places, to collect new material for my own articles.”
As USS Clueless points out, it’s very bizarre for someone in his own bio to include quotations around his own statements. I’m sure Bancroft-Hinchey is one of those who, when speaking, refers to himself in the third person. USS Clueless also provides links to some of B-H’s past articles, all of which display a startling animus towards America — which sort of makes for a matched set when paired with his animus towards Israel. (If you type B-H’s name in Google, you’ll get a million more articles hostile to America and Israel.)
I’m sure a little more digging would reveal plenty more dirt about this man. It’s sufficient, though, that he has Pravda (which is still Russia’s leading newspaper) as his forum for spouting off his vile political opinions to a nation that is still one of the major weapons dealers in the world.
UPDATE: Although I suspect B-H’s savage antipathy towards Israel arises because he is a Brit educated at a Leftist University (as they all are in England), one can’t help but believe that part of his hostility is because he accepts at face value the propaganda that poured out of Lebanon. Even though it’s too late to remedy the damage — damage that resulted in a ridiculous ceasefire — two websites have done yeoman’s work at exposing the falsehoods the press swallowed hook, line and sinker (or that the press created), and that the world media willingly promulgated. The first is the EU Referendum, which has dragged apart and exposed the rot in the supposed Qana massacre (which will join the supposed Jenin massacre as one of the great anti-Israel frauds); and the second is Zombie’s deconstruction of the totally false “Red Cross Ambulance Incident.” As Michelle Malkin rightly says (and it was from her site that I got these links) these two posts deserve whatever the Internet equivalent is for the Pulitzer — only something more worthy, since the Pulitzer has become too debased to remain as a standard for quality reporting.