As tensions ratchet up between Russia and the U.S. over the Crimea crisis, the American left seems to be lost in the wilderness and caught in a silly intellectual straightjacket. Leveling a heavy indictment of Vladimir Putin's power grab in the Ukraine seems to be a no-brainer, but you would not know it from listening to the likes of Stephen Cohen, a professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University. A kind of hyper-partisan ideologue, Cohen is a columnist for The Nation magazine and constantly seeks to apologize and make excuses for Putin, who in Cohen's view is simply conducting a "reasonable" foreign policy in the face of underhanded U.S. aggression.
Cohen's many columns and media appearances on the likes of Charlie Rose, CNN, PBS and elsewhere are so misguided, erroneous and even ludicrous that it is difficult to even know where to begin. Intellectually, the professor seems to belong to the more authoritarian leftist set which has a mechanistic and knee-jerk view of global politics. No matter what is happening in the world, such folk can reliably be counted upon to blame U.S. imperialism while making apologies for authoritarian tyrants. Far too often, it is this doctrinaire crowd which drowns out radical yet independent leftists who buck the sectarian divide. Perhaps even more seriously, as they make the rounds of the major media, Cohen and his ilk make the left look foolish and even dupe-like by digging in and adopting rigid ideological positions, thus providing the right with a lot of fodder and political ammunition.
The Leftist "Playbook"
To be sure, criticizing and opposing right-wing foreign policy designs across the world while espousing a strong anti-imperialist ethos is a political necessity and moreover should be openly welcomed. Yet far too often, the sectarian crowd goes off the mark by openly embracing authoritarian tyrants or alternatively turning a blind eye to their abuses simply because certain countries happen to be in the crosshairs of Washington's foreign policy. When confronted with the abuses of authoritarian despots, leftist intellectuals like Cohen typically adopt a "bait and switch" strategy by changing the subject or talking about how the U.S. also has dirty laundry and props up repressive political elites within its own spheres of influence.
How did we arrive at this regrettable state of affairs? While no one person can be said to have developed the doctrinaire leftist "playbook," noted intellectual Noam Chomsky has certainly encouraged the development of such a rigid mindset. Revered as practically a demigod on the left, the MIT professor has done much to reveal Washington's unsavory agenda in the Third World and elsewhere over the course of several decades. Chomsky certainly deserves a lot of credit for elucidating such history, but the academic seems intrinsically unable -- or unwilling -- to extend his analysis much further and this has led the left into something of an impasse.
When discussing countries that have fallen afoul of Washington, Chomsky may make bizarre claims, even going so far as to imply that Americans simply don't have the right to hold an opinion. At other times, the academic may equivocate and nonsensically change the subject just like Cohen. Another preferred Chomsky tactic is to argue that commentators on the left don't want to join the right in lambasting countries that are critical of the U.S. Quite right, but one need not agree with Fox News and its right-wing spin machine to bring independent judgment to bear on world events once in a while.
Chomsky, Crimea and the "Relativist" Left
Unfortunately, through their doctrinaire beliefs, Chomsky and others have opened themselves up to attack from the right. Witness, for example, a recent piece by Nick Cohen in the conservative Spectator titled "Noam Chomsky in the Crimea." "Go to London or of any other Western capital," writes Cohen, "and here is what you will not see. You will not see mass demonstrations against the Russian invasion of the Ukraine swaying down the same streets in which the liberal-left marched against the invasion of Iraq."
Cohen links such attitudes on the international leftist circuit with Chomsky's maxim, which simply states that the United States is the main cause of disruption throughout the world. Indeed, the "relativist" left is only interested in the West, and has become indifferent to the atrocities of other nations. But human rights, argues Cohen, ought not to be a competition. What is worse, such doctrinaire leftist thinking can actually lead to the ruling out of solidarity and "when solidarity goes, all kinds of contortions become possible." It's a slippery slope, Cohen adds, and indifference can easily lead to endorsement.
The "breakdown of any coherent far left project" Cohen declares, has become palpably evident in the case of Russia's aggression upon the Crimea region. In a rather withering aside, Cohen writes, "the people of the Ukraine may not have much to be grateful for, but they should be glad that they do not have the support of the relativist left. Its principles are pliable. Its morality is parochial. For believers trapped in its ever-shifting ideology, it is not enough that a stranger is a victim of oppression; they must be the victim of the right sort of oppression. If they are the victims of the West, they have played their part well and are the Western left's object of compassion. If their country should have the misfortune to be invaded by Russia rather than the United States, their sufferings become...remote and distant."
From Chomsky to The Nation Magazine
In one way or another, The Nation magazine has adopted the left's doctrinaire and ideological constructs. Take for example columnist Robert Dreyfuss, whose coverage of the Arab Spring, and specifically Libya, has been sorely lacking. Unlike Mubarak, who maintained warm ties with Washington, Gaddafi had been at odds with the West until fairly recently, and this leads Dreyfuss into some complicated somersaults.
To be sure, Dreyfuss concedes in one of his columns, Gaddafi's departure "can't be bad, as far as the long-suffering population of Libya is concerned." He then, however, seeks to discredit the Libyan opposition, implying that it is a mere pawn of NATO and Western interests. In another column, the Nation columnist goes yet further, calling out the Libyan opposition as essentially traitorous dupes who promise to "hand over [Libya's] oil resources to its Western backers."
Another Nation columnist, the late Alexander Cockburn, went even further than Dreyfuss. Over the course of the Libya imbroglio, Cockburn sought to minimize the brutality of the Gaddafi regime while again casting aspersions on the opposition and its alleged ties to al-Qaeda. "Gaddafi was scarcely the acme of monstrosity conjured up by Obama or Mrs Clinton or Sarkozy," Cockburn remarked rather questionably.
In a bizarre twist, the veteran Nation columnist then proceeded to extol the Gaddafi regime for taking care of the Libyan people. "In four decades, Libyans rose from being among the most wretched in Africa to considerable elevation in terms of social amenities," Cockburn declared, perversely. The Nation writer might have stopped there, but opted to soldier on by calling his readers' attention to Libya's buoyant growth rate, literacy levels and life expectancy.
Stop Trashing My Putin
Fast forward now from Libya to the crisis in Ukraine, and history seems to be repeating itself yet again with Nation columnist Stephen Cohen. To be sure, no one wants a return to the Cold War and massive rearmament, and the NYU professor gets it half right by arguing that Washington hawks and NATO have been reckless and aggressive in Eastern Europe.
But then, Cohen goes off the rails by seeming to argue on behalf of Putin's positions. In sweeping generalizations, he frequently cites the "Russian" point of view, the "Kremlin point of view," or refers to "the Russians," "the Russian political class" and Moscow's "national interests" as a means of justifying or turning a blind eye to Putin's foreign policy.
Cohen's "schitck," if you will, is that Putin has been treated unfairly. In combative and fighting words, he argues that the mainstream media has issued a "tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles" portraying Russia in a narrow-minded way. "For nearly a decade," he laments, "the American media has so demonized Putin that we've lost sight of him."
Going off on the warpath, the NYU professor then slams the entire media establishment, including more liberal outlets such as MSNBC, for vilifying Putin and pushing "unfactual or illogical" reporting "which has nearly displaced serious, multi-dimensional analysis." Cohen adds that the media has been "hyperbolic" and "baseless," and has veered off into "mindless denigration" of Putin.
Useless Semantic Debate
Cohen is particularly unhappy that the media has used certain buzz words to describe Putin, like "thug" or "autocrat." Consulting the bookshelf and getting technical, Cohen remarks "the dictionary and political science definition of 'autocrat' is a ruler with absolute power, and Putin has hardly been that." When asked by PBS' Charlie Rose whether Putin could be considered some kind of KGB thug, Cohen gets visibly irritated and puts his head in his hands. "Personally," he answers, "I don't know if Putin has done anything thuggish."
Cohen seems to delight in criticizing the mainstream media, but when it comes to actually being candid about his own views the professor can be slippery. Speaking in cumbersome and vaguely worded academese, Cohen declares "well-informed opinions, in the West and in Russia, differ considerably as to the pluses and minuses of Putin's leadership over the years."
"My own evaluation," the professor adds at long length, "is somewhere in the middle." Setting up a ridiculous false equivalency, Cohen argues that one must view Putin dispassionately within the wider context of Russian history and cruel despots. Putin's no Ivan the Terrible, nor is he remotely akin to Stalin or Brezhnev, Cohen says, so it's time for us all to back off and get some balance and perspective.
Who is "We"?
When dealing with East-West relations, Cohen commits another key philosophical and semantic error which is unfortunately all too common on the left. Namely, the professor slips into a kind of ill-defined "us" vs. "them" narrative. In one Nation piece, he constantly refers to "we" in an apparent effort to conflate the interests of the U.S. government with that of all of its citizens. Aside from being just plain sloppy, such statements miss the mark since most Americans have little sway over Washington's world-wide agenda in the first place.
Such contortions limit the left's ability to think independently or to develop any kind of satisfactory solidarity with progressive elements within other countries. By Cohen's illogical reasoning, Americans are tainted through their association with the U.S. government, and therefore don't have the right to express any "meddling" opinions. Speaking on Charlie Rose, Cohen seems to echo Chomsky's own politically correct gobbledygook and resorts to classic left obfuscation.
When asked about Russia's discrimination of homosexuals, for example, the professor evades the question. Russia is behind other countries when it comes to gay rights, Cohen concedes charitably, but the West too has historically persecuted homosexuals. Switching the subject, Cohen then says Obama is hypocritical because Washington backs repressive governments in the Persian Gulf which are also anti-gay. In conclusion, Cohen declares, Russia will only make progress on its own and will not change as a result of "our" intervention. Meanwhile, during another interview on CNN, Cohen adopts a similar political line. When asked about Russia's clampdown on punk rock group Pussy Riot, as well as homosexuals, the professor pivots to Saudi Arabia. In that country, Cohen says, the authorities execute gays yet Saudi Arabia is still considered to be "our" ally.
Perverse on Syria
Given Cohen's overall position on Russia and Putin, it's not too surprising that the professor has staked out partisan and sectarian views concerning Kremlin foreign policy. When it comes to Syria, a country which has opposed the U.S., the left has gone awry by ignoring or downplaying President Assad's depredations on the civilian population [the Syrian President, who receives Russian military and diplomatic support, has predictably applauded Putin's clampdown in Crimea].
To be sure, Russia has helped to broker a settlement on Syria's chemical weapons which helped to avert a wider war and head off possible U.S. intervention. Such developments, however, don't cover up for the fact that Russia has armed Assad with conventional weapons. Indeed, Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has defended Moscow's arms support, and for decades the Kremlin has sold billions of dollars worth of missiles, combat jets, tanks and artillery to Syria.
Despite this history, Cohen has claimed that Russia deserves credit for preventing war, and "the greatest diplomat alive today is Sergey Lavrov." Writing in The Nation, Cohen adds that the U.S. media establishment has unfairly represented the situation in Syria while maligning Putin and "the alternative to war he represents." On CNN, Cohen seems to justify Putin's policies in Syria by arguing that the Kremlin has a "reasonable" fear of Jihad and wants to avert chaos in the Middle East. Russia, Cohen adds, holds 20 million Muslims within its borders and has a siege mentality.
To make matters even more bizarre, Cohen then went on Fox News O'Reilly Factor to talk about Russia's relationship to Syria. During a testy interview, host O'Reilly brought up Putin's support for Assad. Cohen dodges the issue of civilian casualties and instead pivots to Russian support for the dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons. Very questionably, Cohen then tells his conservative media host that "when we are all dead and gone Mr. O'Reilly, people will be debating the pluses and minuses of Vladimir Putin."
Backslide on Ukraine
Fast forward from Syria to Ukraine, and Cohen and the authoritarian left seem poised to commit many of the same historic mistakes of the past. To be sure, the U.S. has praised the EuroMaidan movement in Kiev which opposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. It is also true that some extremist right wing groups played a role in protests which led to the eventual ouster of Yanukovich. No one should minimize or attempt to downplay the role of such groups, nor their hateful and worrying anti-Semitic rhetoric for that matter.
Just because EuroMaidan protesters wanted to be rid of their government, however, doesn't mean they are all somehow pawns of the Obama administration; nor does right wing participation in EuroMaidan discredit an entire movement. Listen to Cohen, however, and you'd think for a moment that you were in the middle of some kind of strange alternate universe. In yet another media interview, the NYU academic is one-sided and claims that the entire Ukrainian opposition can be boiled down to ruffian youths with ski masks.
Having previously dismissed Kremlin homophobia, Cohen now rediscovers the issue and charges the EuroMaidan with being anti-gay. Moreover, Cohen says, Kiev mobs are tied to western interference and overall the mess in Ukraine was caused by the European Union and the U.S., not Putin. In a further attempt to soft pedal Putin's handling of the crisis, Cohen says that NATO has arrived at the gates of Ukraine, and "that's how Moscow sees it." "I think if you're rational and sitting in the Kremlin," the professor adds, "this is the narrative which makes sense."
A Pugnacious Commentator
In yet another Nation piece, Cohen again takes up the Kremlin's viewpoint by remarking that "Ukraine is central to Russian security." In the Crimea, many fear that Putin may opt to annex their territory at any time and are looking for western commentators to defend their interests. Apologist Cohen however never fails to disappoint, remarking that "a hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases on the Black Sea."
In light of western assertiveness, Cohen adds, Putin's fears "aren't irrational," and "no one should be surprised that Putin reacted negatively" to the Obama administration throughout the wider region. Speaking on Charlie Rose, Cohen declared that Putin merely sticks up for Russia's "national interest" in the same way that the U.S. stands up for its interests.
Cohen's pugnacious and partisan views were placed on even more vivid display during a recent segment of Democracy Now! Speaking with moderator Amy Goodman, Ukrainian researcher Anton Shekhovtsov admitted that the EuroMaidan movement had some far right elements. Nevertheless, he claimed, EuroMaidan was "basically a multicultural, democratic movement which is trying to build a new Ukraine." When asked to respond, Cohen got extremely testy, remarking that "Anton's characterization, to be as polite as I can, as half-true. But a half-truth is an untruth."
Cohen then proceeds to tar EuroMaidan and even goes so far as to question Shekhovtsov's veracity, adding that he doesn't know when his colleague was last in Ukraine. From there, the interview becomes very uncomfortable indeed, with Shekhovtsov remarking "I don't know if Professor Cohen has been in Ukraine. I've been to Ukraine just a few days ago. I haven't seen that the right-wingers have taken control of the streets. The streets are controlled by Euromaidan, which is ideologically very different."
The Left's Intellectual Crisis
The last thing the world needs is a return to Cold War tensions, but if East-West fissures do worsen then how will the left react? Judging by the likes of Stephen Cohen, we cannot expect much more than mere partisan knee-jerk positions. Yet look beyond the narrow ideological rhetoric and there's another clear path worth exploring. Indeed, the solution is so painfully self-evident that it is almost embarrassing to bring up in writing. In a nutshell, the left must continue to critique U.S. foreign policy while seeking out, identifying, and providing solidarity for progressive elements which are resisting Putin in both Russia and Ukraine.
At this point such groups are hardly in short supply. Take for example anti-war protesters in Moscow who were recently detained when they attempted to demonstrate against Putin's aggression in Ukraine. After calling attention to the plight of protesters, leftists might also support the work of independent journalism. Reportedly, the Russians pressured Black Sea TV, the peninsula's only independent channel. Indeed, the lead editor claimed that threats had been made against the station's journalists.
The left must also voice strong opposition to Putin's referendum in Crimea which is being imposed at the point of a gun, while simultaneously supporting the rights of Muslim Crimean Tatars. Currently, the Tatars stand to lose as a result of the referendum which could result in imminent Russian annexation. In Ukraine, the anarcho-syndicalist Autonomous Workers' Union has called on the left to support the Tatars. "It's high time that leftists and anarchists of the West cut ties with so-called 'anti-imperialism' which comes down to the support of Putin's regime against the U.S.," local activists declare.
It's now make or break time for the international left. Will it rise to the occasion, espousing independent yet radical politics while offering support to the likes of persecuted minorities like the Tatars? Or, will the left simply descend into its usual ideological contortions which have been perpetuated by the likes of Chomsky and Cohen? It's time for leftist intellectuals and activists to conduct a serious re-assessment and rethink of their movement. To do otherwise could relegate the left to irrelevance or, even worse, ridicule and embarrassment for some time to come.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left. Follow him on Twitter here.