As the political crisis in Ukraine has continued to unfold, we've heard a lot from right wing ideologues about what "we" should do in terms of East-West relations. Indeed, time and time again conservative media pundits and far right hawks tend to frame international politics as a zero sum game in which "we," meaning the U.S. government, must prevail over Vladimir Putin's Russia. Not only have the hawks managed to destabilize Russian-U.S. relations through their inflammatory rhetoric, but they also adopt a bogus and severely limiting semantic framework.
Tuning into the likes of CNN, some Americans might find it somewhat puzzling that "their" interests have already been defined and are even identical to the views of Washington's political elites, which in any case don't pay much heed to the general public on foreign policy matters. On the surface at least, such semantic sleight of hand doesn't seem all that consequential. Yet over time, such narrow-minded chatter takes its toll by seeping into the media and public consciousness, severely constraining debate on international issues of vital importance.
It's an unfortunate state of affairs, yet such a mindset can be easily overcome with a bit of common sense. Instead of imagining the Crimea crisis as an "us" vs. "them" government to government scenario, why not simply envision what individuals can do to provide solidarity with Russian and Ukrainian progressive civil society which is doing its utmost to resist political repression? Look around, and there are plenty of people in both countries who'd like to receive such support, though the western response has hardly been forthcoming [in a previous column, I examined the current status of the independent Ukrainian left, for example, which is battling a number of domestic and international forces].
Left Little Better Than the Right
Like the right, the international left is also constrained by its own ideological straightjacket. Stephen Cohen, a Russian studies professor at NYU and columnist for The Nation magazine, indulges in over-simplified "us" and "them" juxtapositions only this time from the opposite side. That is to say, Cohen delights in defending so-called "Russian interests," which are frequently conflated with Kremlin foreign policy. Cohen's ill advised columns, which verge on offering apologetics for Putin's aggressive behavior, ignore the day to day struggle of many Ukrainians and Russians who are resisting the Kremlin and other reactionary forces.
Cohen appears so frequently on the mainstream media that you'd think he was the sole and official voice of dissent on the Ukrainian issue. The media ought to find less dogmatic figures on the left, yet such voices are unfortunately few and far between. Indeed, if recent developments are any indication, the left is perfectly satisfied with its own axiomatic positions and sees no reason to change. It's a truly outlandish spectacle to see leading left figures go through their ideological contortions, which are becoming more and more bizarre by the day.
From Chomsky to Greenwald
Take, for example, Glenn Greenwald, an investigative journalist whose rigid positions lead to questionable political commentary. A muckraking reporter, Greenwald recently received a big scoop in the form of Edward Snowden's leaked National Security Agency (N.S.A.) files. In piece after piece, Greenwald has exposed U.S. spying on key diplomatic allies such as Germany and Brazil. Greenwald has rendered a great public service in bringing such material to the public's attention, and many researchers including myself have benefited from the disclosures.
Perhaps Greenwald should stick to his investigative reporting. A rigid dogmatist, the journalist is an intellectual follower of MIT professor Noam Chomsky. In a recent column in the Guardian, Greenwald favorably quotes his mentor who recommends that the international left focus solely upon the crimes of the U.S. government. As a purely tactical matter, Greenwald may be correct in assuming that American journalists stand to have more of an impact on the course of U.S. foreign policy than political developments in other countries, yet such assumptions can easily lead progressives down a slippery slope.
A master of the bait and switch, Chomsky can be relied upon to predictably and reflexively change the subject whenever the conversation turns to events outside of the traditional U.S. sphere of influence. Apparently, Chomsky believes that the only people who are worthy of his moral attention are those who have been victimized by Washington or U.S. client states. At best, such rigid orthodoxy has boxed the left into an unfortunate straightjacket. At worst, such a mindset has even led some to offer apologetics for anti-U.S. despots.
What's wrong with condemning all human rights abuses instead of picking and choosing in a partisan manner? Greenwald however embraces Chomsky dogma with a moralistic fervor, remarking sternly that reporters who report on abuses committed by non-U.S. governments represent "an abdication of one's primary duty as a journalist." Going somewhat off the rails, Greenwald adds that such reporters are "cowards." Here Greenwald seems to be referring to the likes of CNN which to be sure goes easy on U.S. foreign policy. One need not endorse the pro-U.S. bias of the mainstream media, however, to bring independent judgment to bear on world events.
Questionable Response to Russia and Its Satellites
Having bought into the authoritarian left's dogmatic playbook, Greenwald is ill-equipped and compromised when it comes to discussing anti-U.S. despots. Bizarrely, he criticizes media outlets which attack Bashar al-Assad, whose regime is "said to be slaughtering its own citizens" [emphasis mine]. Come again? Is Greenwald actually questioning whether Assad has launched a genocidal offensive against the Syrian people? Like other axiomatic left commentators, the journalist seems to be soft-pedaling Assad simply because the Syrian leader happens to be on the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy [we've been here before with Greenwald, who has also been evasive when it comes to addressing the role of repressive former Soviet satellites like Belarus].
Not surprisingly, Greenwald also hems and haws when it comes to Russia, a nation which has backed up the brutal Assad regime in Syria, not to mention the likes of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. In his Guardian column, Greenwald at first condemns Putin for his clamp down on punk rock group Pussy Riot. True to form, however, the journalist cannot help but pivot reflexively once again, remarking that the western media is hypocritical. Even as it condemns repression in Russia, Greenwald writes, the media turns a blind eye to clamp down on the likes of the Occupy movement at home. Committing a key mistake, Greenwald then writes that U.S. abuses are "much more consequential" than violations in Russia. For good measure, Greenwald then seems to venture down a slippery slope, implying that Pussy Riot may have gotten what it deserved since the rock band engaged in culturally provocative acts.
Some of Greenwald's fellow journalists seem to be growing weary of such somersaults. Take for example reporter Thomas Ricks, who asked Greenwald to comment over Twitter about Vladimir Putin's aggressive acts. Nonsensically, Greenwald again changed the subject and invited Ricks to denounce Peruvian police corruption and American drone strikes. Exasperated, Ricks remarks "I am no longer going soft on Greenwald," adding that if his colleague has any moral beliefs, then now would be the time to speak out against Putin.
Is the U.S. left willing to break out of its straightjacket and do some actual reporting on real issues that matter? Right about now, the Crimean Tatars might appreciate some solidarity from the progressive media though unfortunately such support seems to be in very short supply. When Russians in the Crimea called for a referendum on the region's future status, the Tatars largely boycotted the vote. Those few Tatars who chose not to boycott were turned away at the polls while their ID papers were confiscated.
Then, in the wake of the referendum which led Crimea to separate from Ukraine, local authorities asked the Tatars to vacate their land. Since then, the Tatars complain that their homes have been marked with ominous crosses on their doors. Meanwhile, a Tatar activist has gone missing and another was discovered murdered in a forest after last being seen in the clutches of menacing Russian militias. Fearful of a full-scale style ethnic cleansing, some Tatar men are reportedly relocating their families abroad.
Wrong Side of History
Curiously, even as the status of the Tatar minority continues to worsen, progressive media has chosen to largely ignore the story. It would seem that for the international left, the Tatars are on the "wrong side of history" and don't merit much attention. Not surprisingly, Greenwald has chosen to engage in his usual reflexive analysis, remarking that U.S. media pundits are hypocritical for attacking Putin on Ukraine since they previously endorsed American forays into Iraq.
What will it take for the likes of Greenwald and others to take up the cause of Tatars and others who wind up on the wrong side of Putin's stick? It is to be hoped that in the days and weeks ahead, the international left will throw off its ideological blinders and provide more solidarity to those who need it most.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.