Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”
The center is not holding, things are falling apart. We have moved on from mass psychosis over vaccines to mass psychosis over the urgent need to go to war with Russia.
The sanctions are bad enough; the early economic fallout from them is already causing pain for working and middle-class Americans. But we did sanctions last week, the public demands more. Do something, even if that thing is horrifying in its implications. Two years of pent-up dissociated rage is being channeled and redirected at an external target by the same people responsible for the response to COVID-19, among the worst atrocities in American history.
Americans of Russian descent—the vast majority of whom have no association with Putin or the Russian state, not that their mistreatment would be justified if they did—are bearing the brunt of a particularly vicious campaign of racial hatred and attacks. Quite the contrast to the early days of COVID when liberals were tripping over themselves to get to their nearest Chinese restaurant to prove that racism was the real virus. Joe Biden couldn’t find time in his State of the Union address to mention the 13 Americans killed in Afghanistan but he did find time to celebrate the idea of Ukrainian pensioners throwing themselves under the tracks of Russian tanks. It is hard to imagine a more ignominious end to Pax Americana.
Pax Americana is dead and we have killed it.
It didn’t have to be this way. I am reminded of a quote from Condoleezza Rice about the morning of 9/11. She knew that U.S. forces going to DEFCON-3 would trigger a similar escalation by Russia so she called President Putin and told him our military would be going on high alert. He told her that he knew and that he had ordered his forces to stand down. Then he asked if there was anything he could do to help. Rice recounted that she had a moment of reflection: “The Cold War really is over.” But the choices made in the aftermath of that day by people like her unleashed a destructive zeitgeist in Washington foreign policy that has led us to this point where the specter of nuclear war now hangs in the air as it did during the tensest moments of the Cold War.
The September 11, 2001 attacks were the beginning of the end for the window of opportunity we had to forge a partnership with Russia. Just one year earlier, President Putin had expressed interest in joining NATO during President Clinton’s visit to Moscow. Clinton’s exact response has not been publicly reported but it was not affirmative. In retrospect, it was exactly the partnership the West needed to counter the rise of China. But Washington had spent the previous decade treating Russia as a colonized vassal, there was little interest in allowing such a backward and humiliated country into the gilded halls of NATO.
Russia in the 1990s was a wreck. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s government became a puppet state of America and the West and its economy was a monumental disaster. People stopped getting paid, monthly inflation was in the double-digits, life savings disappeared overnight, banks disappeared overnight. The fertility rate plummeted, along with life expectancy, with over five million excess deaths recorded over the decade—mostly from deaths of despair. During post-Soviet privatization, large state enterprises were sold for pennies on the ruble to the politically well-connected, which is how most of the oligarchs acquired their fortunes. And politically well-connected Americans made fortunes in Russia as well.
Wayne Merry, a U.S. official at the embassy in Moscow in the 1990s said later: “We created a virtual open shop for thievery at a national level and for capital flight in terms of hundreds of billions of dollars, and the raping of natural resources and industries on a scale which I doubt has ever taken place in human history.” It was against this backdrop that Putin rose to power. Funny enough, when Boris Yeltsin picked Putin as his presidential successor, he called Bill Clinton to get approval. Putin came to power with one burning desire: to Make Russia Great Again, and to keep it from ever being humiliated the way it was in its lost decade.
As Putin was rebuilding Russia, America was carrying out national remodeling projects in Iraq and Afghanistan that were abandoned just past the demolition phase. The idea was to spread American “values” and our “way of life” no matter how horrifying the consequences were for the people involved. My friend Sam Finlay described the situation as one in which the aggressive actions of a normal country are like those of a wolf: it kills to eat. The aggression serves the material interests of that country in some way. But American foreign policy is like a big dumb dog, it catches a rabbit for fun, kills it in the process, and then loses interest and comes back inside to eat kibble.