Sometimes I think that America, in addition to being “the single greatest, best, freest country God ever gave man,” is also the breeding ground of an unusually high number of foreign policy narcissists. Not personal narcissism; there aren’t a bunch of Americans living their lives convinced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is obsessing about them personally. But an astonishing number of Americans in important, public roles just can’t process it when the leader of a country with which we’re not already in a state of hostility does something that runs counter to American interests. Why? Why is it so hard to understand that foreign leaders might have national and/or personal interests that don’t align with America’s?
People have been talking about an interview that Lawrence O’Donnell did last night with New Republic editor and Russia expert Julia Ioffe on the Edward Snowden affair and Russia’s decision to grant him asylum, which prompted the Obama administration to cancel a summit between President Obama and Vladimir Putin that was supposed to happen next month.
The interview is cringe-worthy on many, many levels. O’Donnell is obviously out of his depth talking about internal Russian politics, but when Ioffe, who is precisely in her depth on that subject, corrects him, he decides to repeat his Scary Putin pablum louder and more forcefully, as though that will make what he’s saying true. The optics of O’Donnell shouting over a female guest are not pretty, but in the little I’ve watched him it seems like he interviews everybody like this if he disagrees with them, so I don’t attribute this to sexism as much as just kind of being a jerk (I know people used to criticize Olbermann for only bringing on guests with whom he agreed, but I never minded because I figured if he’d ever had a contentious interview it would’ve been just like this mess, but I digress). He just embarrasses himself with the over-the-top characterization of Putin; he’s apparently convinced that the Russian president is some kind of superhuman cartoon villain, an all-powerful tyrant who controls the lives of everyone in Russia down to the tiniest details yet somehow still finds time to write copy for all the propaganda networks his government owns.
But I don’t want to dwell on O’Donnell’s treatment of his guest, or his infantile knowledge of Russia and Putin; Ioffe herself already did a nice job of that. What I find interesting is the seething rage O’Donnell seems to have over this. His “Putin is in complete control and he’s lying about everything” rhetoric starts from the top, before Ioffe gets her first chance to talk. He vents at Ioffe later in the segment, but he’s clearly mad to begin with. O’Donnell isn’t even the only one on his network reacting this way; watch the gang on the Cycle talk about Russia’s decision to harbor Snowden here (scroll to the end for Luke Russert’s take, which is particularly SMRT). Leading DC politicians like John McCain (of course), his dummy (I mean that in every sense of the word) Lindsey Graham (of course), and Chuck Schumer (not really a surprise here either) can’t denounce Putin enough over this. Even Obama’s decision to cancel the summit, which is the right thing to do but for reasons that have nothing to do with Snowden, seems like a decision reached in anger, or maybe “disappointment” as Jay Carney so patronizingly put it. My question is, why? Digby thinks in the case of O’Donnell that he’s venting some pent-up Cold War rage, but I think it’s more the narcissism thing. Forget the fact that America refuses extradition requests all the time! We’re allowed to do that, while expecting that all other countries honor our extradition requests, because, I guess, we’re the boss of everybody? How dare Vladimir Putin defy us? Who the hell does he think he is, the leader of a separate country or something?
Well, yes, in fact that’s precisely what he is, and there’s no expectation that he should fall in line for America just because We Say So. The world doesn’t work that way, for anybody; ask the Saudis, who just offered to spend billions on Russian weapons and to guarantee that they won’t try to undercut Russian gas sales to Europe, all in exchange for Russia backing off its support for Bashar al-Assad. Putin refused the deal. The Saudis, pretty used to being able to buy what they want, lost out because Russia, or her president at least, has other interests.
But we don’t just get mad at the Russians for not following directions. Consider what happened when the Palestinian Authority held free elections in 2006, elections that we’d been demanding, and the Palestinians “defied” us by electing Hamas: to reward the Palestinians for their free exercise of the universal right of self-determination, we slapped sanctions on them. Or consider our current (albeit minor, so far) beef with Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Iraq, which continues to allow (or, rather, claims that it “can’t stop”) Iranian materiel to reach Assad and his fighters via Iraqi airspace. We are clearly put out by this, despite the fact that, like it or not, Iran and Iraq are allies now, and Assad, despite being a Ba’athist like Saddam (not exactly like Saddam; the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Ba’ath Party split completely in 1966 and remained hostile to one another thereafter, so they were never in the same party), is a natural regional ally for Maliki, considering that they’re both fighting the same regional Al-Qaeda(ish) branch at present. Isn’t Maliki empowered to run his country the way he wants? If you want to watch this process unfold before your eyes, consider what’s happening right now in Yemen, where we’re playing some kind of shell game with President Hadi and the Yemeni people. He pretends to be battling al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on behalf of Yemen’s socioeconomic development in order to cover for American military activity there, since the Yemeni public is increasingly angered by our drone campaign and more and more sees Hadi as a US puppet. Meanwhile, behind the scenes we’re criticizing Hadi for his inaction and he’s begging for more US military aid so that he can “fight the terrorists,” by which we mean AQAP but he means “anybody who opposes his government.” But we’ll keep propping Hadi up, sending him weapons to defend himself from his own people (who elected him, yes, but because he was the only guy on the ballot), because if there’s ever a fair election in the Yemen, they might elect somebody who wouldn’t dance to our tune, and obviously we can’t have that.
The one country that breaks this pattern is Israel. No single thing would do more to calm relations between the United States and the Islamic World than settling the Israel-Palestine dispute on true compromise terms, with both sides satisfied, if not exactly ecstatic, at the outcome. Reaching such a settlement would be extraordinarily challenging in the best of circumstances, because the issues that divide those parties are very large and very bitter. But there’s no chance of ever reaching a settlement so long as Israel continues to
steal settle more and more West Bank land. Every time the Israeli government permits more settlement construction, or decides to provide financial assistance to illegal settlements, it quashes any chance for peace and acts in direct contradiction of American interests. Why? Because Bibi Netanyahu prioritizes his domestic political over doing what America wants, just like Putin and Maliki do. But where the latter two get our anger, disappointment, and annoyance, Netanyahu’s transgressions warrant legalese about how we “[do] not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.” Why? Because our domestic politics don’t permit harsh action against Israel, no matter what. I don’t expect Lawrence O’Donnell to project his rage over Israeli settlement activity onto any of his guests anytime soon, and Obama may not get along with Netanyahu but the thing that really matters, American aid to Israel, will never be questioned, let alone cut.
I really do believe this is a country that knows its hegemony is slipping and doesn’t know how to respond. We’re flailing, and taking offense when other countries (Israel excepted, as it always is) act in their own interests rather than ours is part of it.