Mikhail Gorbachev Sets the Record Straight

News Abroad

Mr. Palermo is Associate Professor of American History at CSU, Sacramento. He's the author of two books on Robert F. Kennedy: In His Own Right (2001) and RFK (2008).

On the op-ed page of this week's New York Times, Mikhail Gorbachev, in an article entitled "Russia Never Wanted a War," lays out the underlying reasons for the recent events in Georgia and the chill they have caused in U.S.-Russian relations.

Gorbachev writes: "Russia has long been told to simply accept the facts. Here's the independence of Kosovo for you. Here's the abrogation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, and the American decision to place missile defenses in neighboring countries. Here's the unending expansion of NATO. All of these moves have been set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership. Why would anyone put up with such a charade?"

Since taking power in 2001, George W. Bush and the neo-cons who run his foreign policy have treated the Russian Federation like a banana republic. They never made any attempt to recognize Russia's legitimate interests, especially along its frontiers. Today, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gleefully announced Poland's acceptance of a U.S. anti-ballistic missile system. She claims it is "defensive" in nature. But no one in the world believes her, nor should they. Rice's credibility is in the negative integers. The sooner we are rid of her the better. She even made the ludicrous claim that the Polish system is not aimed at thwarting Moscow's influence in Eastern Europe. The only "accomplishment" of this move will be to make Poland a prime target for the Russian military.

Compounding the many other foreign policy failures of George W. Bush is the United States' current state of brain-dead bluff and bluster against Russia. When John McCain talks about Russia he sounds like he thinks the Berlin Air Lift happened last Tuesday. He appears to be more stuck in the dangerous, outmoded Cold War paradigm than anyone else in the Establishment. And we might elect this guy president.

But McCain is not alone. There is a "consensus" emerging among American foreign policy elites, which posits that everything Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his government have done in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is nearly divine in its perfection and everything the Russians have done in response is close to unalloyed evil. Everyone I've read lately, from Samantha Power and Zbigniew Brzezinski to Strobe Talbott and Thomas Pickering have willfully chosen to ignore the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and what that has done to America's ability to exercise its so-called soft power to counter Russian behavior. This kind of Manichean thinking brought us bloodbath after bloodbath in the 20th century. The Cold War was always cast in the light of "good" versus "evil" with disastrous results in Vietnam, Central America, Indonesia, and the Middle East.

Gorbachev also points out that the news coverage of recent events "has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis." The bloody assault by Georgian forces on the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali beginning on August 7th went all but unnoticed by the corporate media. The "planners of this campaign," Gorbachev writes, "clearly wanted to make sure that, whatever the outcome, Russia would be blamed for worsening the situation. The West then mounted a propaganda attack against Russia, with the American news media leading the way."

Mikhail Gorbachev was formerly the rightwing's favorite Russian because he presided over the final dissolution of the hated Soviet state. Now we are sure to hear full-throated denunciations of Gorbachev for being naive or worse. It's amazing how uniform American elite opinion and media commentary have become regarding the recent Russian incursion into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Iraq war is all but forgotten; airbrushed out of our recent history. Part of "diplomacy" is supposed to include the attempt to see the world through the eyes of others, especially one's adversaries. The neo-cons running Bush's foreign policy apparatus, especially Condi Rice, have never made any attempt to do that with Russia.

Back in 1967, the great Cornell historian Walter LaFeber published, America, Russia and the Cold War, and he has updated the book with new editions ever since. It has become part of the canon in college courses on 20th century foreign policy. But when the book first came out right-wingers of all stripes were incensed that LaFeber acknowledged Russia's perspective of the world and did not gloss over American actions that contributed to the Cold War. The conservatives denounced him as a "revisionist," which always gets a laugh from professional historians because it is a meaningless label since we are constantly "revising" our historiography. But hearing the recent commentary among foreign policy elites and the corporate media tells me that we have learned nothing from the history of the Cold War (other than Ronald Reagan single-handedly "won" it for the USA). People should read LaFeber's book before pontificating about "isolating" Russia.

Also, we should keep in mind that we would need a military draft in this country, and soon, if we were to act on any of these aggressive postures we've been hearing from foreign policy elites lately.

Toward Russia and many other countries U.S. policy has been little more than ham-handed attempts at bullying and intimidation. It's depressing to find "liberal" foreign policy gurus like Power, Brzezinski, and Talbott on the same page as neo-conservative crazies like Dick Cheney, William Kristol, and John Bolton. The mindset of these "experts" is stuck in the outmoded Cold War paradigm. They seem to have learned nothing from the two world wars that destroyed most of Europe in the 20th century, or the Cold War itself, which nearly bankrupted the United States and wired up the world for Armageddon with nuclear missiles. They also fail to see how the United States' invasion and occupation of Iraq has profoundly shifted the international dynamic. The United States has killed far more innocent people in Iraq than Russia has killed in Georgia.

But foreign policy "experts" from both Democratic and Republican administrations are expending a lot of energy right now denouncing the Russians. They claim that the missile defense systems in Eastern Europe are necessary to counter Iran's non-existent missiles; they say that nations have a right to join any multilateral organization they wish (like NATO); and they claim that borders must be respected and military action should not be employed to secure geopolitical objectives. Their battle cries might even influence the outcome of the November elections.

George W. Bush recently said: "Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century." It would have been nice if he had sincerely recognized this truth about eight years ago. The human costs of the First and Second World Wars show that "bullying and intimidation" didn't work out so well in the 20th century either. We fought on the same side as the Russians in the two biggest wars of the last century. Did the fog of the Cold War erase this fact from our collective memory? Russia is not our enemy. And a shooting war with the Russians is unthinkable. So let's take a deep breath and not allow the Republicans to use this latest increase in East-West hostilities to their domestic political advantage like they did for decades during the Cold War.

Landing on aircraft carriers wearing a flight suit and declaring "Mission Accomplished" doesn't send out a warm and fuzzy message to the world. And what is "Shock and Awe" but bullying and intimidation? We must not overlook the international ramifications of the U.S. invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. It undermines everything the U.S. government has said about Russia's much smaller scale military action in its border state of Georgia. The United States no longer has the credibility in the eyes of the world to play its former leadership role. This state of impotence could be Bush's most lasting "legacy."

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    Lorraine Paul - 8/25/2008

    Mr Gaston, if you believe Serbia was broken up for 'humanitarian reasons', then the foundation of your argument is deeply flawed.

    Serbia was 'broken up' because of its geo-political importance to western powers. Further, the region needed to be under the control of a friendly and acquiescent government to further the exploitation of the oil known to be in the Caspian region.

    Do you really think that wars are fought on such a lofty premise? However, after closing one's eyes and ears and refusing to listen to even basic common-sense, we will assume you are correct. Because I am mightily labouring under this assumption, I can only agree with you that, yes, once a standard is done away with, another standard has to take its place.

    This was exactly my thinking when the 'humanitarian bombing' started in Kosovo and Serbia. Aghast, I knew this would be the 'new' benchmark excuse for invading and occupying another country.

    To my surprise, it was not. It was an even more manufactured excuse - weapons of mass destruction! Which excuse metamorphosed into the even loftier premise of spreading democracy and bringing about regime change, when said weapons failed to materialise.

    Governments lie, Mr Gaston. They lie all the time because they can! No-one challenges them in the media because they also are part of the lie. Fortunately, there are people like Mr Palermo who see through their lies. Unfortunately, there are people who like being lied too, it makes for a more comfortable life.

    Lorraine Paul - 8/25/2008

    The only 'debate' that could possibly be relevant to Apartheid was that it was immoral, inhumane, ruthless and the world took far too long to reach that conclusion.

    Mainly because too much money was to be made out of it by vested interests.

    Finally, to the best of my memory the main economic sanctions against the Apartheid regime were at grass-roots level. I remember at the time I had a list of companies who did business with, and in, South Africa. I made sure I never bought their products.

    Jon Martens - 8/25/2008

    "What side were we on during WWII?"

    The Western Allies. Distinct from the Soviet Union despite a measure of cooperation.

    Robert Lee Gaston - 8/24/2008

    The economic sanctions placed against South Africa were the first such action taken by the United Nations to implement a change of government. As such, the debates at the time contained enough verbal gymnastics to exclude the likes of other inhumane regimes in the area.

    All I am saying is that once a standard is done away with, a new standard is automatically established, and it applies equally to all actors. For example, once Serbia is broken up for humanitarian reasons any other state can be broken up for humanitarian reasons. The only thing that appears to matter is the relative military power of the actors. So, we may be going back to the nineteenth century.

    However, for Gorbachev and Mr. Palermo to lay it all at the feet of GW Bush simply ignores the fact that the log roll started long before GW Bush became president, and that he (Gorbachev) cannot be described as one of the world’s leading democrats.

    It would indeed be refreshing if he would have said, Russia moved into Georgia because it could, and there is not a damned think you can do about it. However, the Russian general who threatened Poland with a nuclear strike may have been a little bit beyond the pale.

    Lorraine Paul - 8/24/2008

    Mr Gaston, the last time I read such a skewed argument I needed oxygen I was laughing so hard.

    Further, please tell me when and where the UN-UK-USSA-USSR interferred in the internal matters of South Africa? My memory is bad but I am sure that I would remember any invasion or even sanction against that inhumane white supremacist government.

    In fact, it was the black population of South Africa which was calling for sanctions, and it was Thatcher and Reagan who refused to intervene. Their weaselly excuse was that it would hurt the black people more than the white ruling elite. The black people cried out...but we can't be hurting any more than we are already. However, their cries fell on deaf ears as the real reason for non-intervention was that it would harm British and US business interests.

    I'm curious as to which 'system' you are referring too when you write...'So, it is quite hard to ascribe too much nobility to the system established by the likes of Misters Gorbachev and Putin.'.

    Do you mean the one in place now? If so, Gorbachev has been out of power since 1991. How is he to 'blame'?

    I am probably more aware than you are of the 'social cost' to the peoples of Russia and throughout the former Soviet Union. May I suggest you read the relevent chapter in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine.

    In the old days pirates only managed to loot, rape and pillage isolated villages, nowadays they can do it to whole countries!!

    Lorraine Paul - 8/24/2008

    Yes, Mr Rodden, it was an uneasy alliance, however, you are perfectly correct when you state that these countries did put their idealogical differences aside and turned together to face, and defeat, the threat of Nazi Germany and its allies.

    Australia was part of that expeditionary force, although we didn't actually fight as Australian soldiers but as part of the British contingent.

    Mr Rodden, for some reason my reply to you has not sorted itself into its correct sequence. Just in case you missed it, I replied that your hope is my hope.

    Lorraine Paul - 8/24/2008

    Mr Jones, It is quite obvious from your comments that you are one of those who see the world in black and white. "Brutal invasion', indeed.

    Have you actually read widely, and wisely, regarding the events? Events which you obviously lay the blame for at the feet of present, and past, world leaders. It may interest you to know that it was Georgian forces who first attacked, at about 1 o'clock in the morning and without any prior warning to the civilian population. In fact, the civilian population was their primary target.

    Georgia wants the region, it just doesn't want it full of ethnic Russians!!

    Further, may I suggest that your 'partisanship' is a big issue in my comments. You definitely need to get over what appears to be a knee-jerk reaction every time Russia is involved and immediately declaring 'it is their fault'. All done without any broad knowledge of the occurance.

    I do not have 'friends' in Lithuania, as I stated - during a certain period in the early nineties I had reason to contact the leaders of the Lithuanian community. One of those leaders had just returned from a fact-finding delegation consisting of himself and a conservative member, at that time, of our federal parliament. For the life of me the parliamentary member's last name escapes me, however, I do remember his first name was Jim, and he was Shadow Minister. Previous to this, I also had the pleasure of working with 'Jim's' wife, so you can see this is a bit embarrassing for me to be unable to recall their surname.

    As I said, two conservative men, who had no love of Moscow, still felt it was in the best interests of Lithuania to keep close ties, with Moscow. This was when neither of them could foresee the "rape" and pillage which would occur once the Soviet Union collapsed. If they had, both would have done their utmost to help avoid it. As would all those who put humanity before profits.

    Grant W Jones - 8/24/2008

    OK Lorraine, the Russians also get to re-invade Lithuania, since your friends from there were in favor of "close ties" with Moscow.

    The issue is The Gorbmeister's credibility regarding his apologia for the brutal invasion of Georgia, not my "partisanship"(?).

    Robert Lee Gaston - 8/24/2008

    Actually, the title should have been "This is Scholarship?" The emotive language is roughly equivalent of that used by Mr. Palermo. My comments are also more supported by facts.

    Russia seems to be marching from Communism to National Socialism via some corrupt capitalist nightmare. The European press is even reporting on kick-back and bribe price lists being available for those wishing to do business in Russia. Current estimates are that there is a 2% “leakage” (theft) in oil production. There is also an oil partnership consisting of “Friends of Vlad”.

    What has been the social cost of all this? Consider the following:

    There are more abortions than live births in the country.

    The average life expectancy of a Russian man is 59 years.

    HIV/AIDS drug addiction, TB and a skyrocketing suicide rate have been added to alcoholism as major public health concerns.

    There are some demographic estimates that indicate that the European Russian culture may become extinct, and will be replaced by an Asian Islamic culture.

    It is hard to estimate the economic impact of all this, but I would suspect that the Russian workforce is shrinking toward a point of no return.

    So, it is quite hard to ascribe too much nobility to the system established by the likes of Misters Gorbachev and Putin.

    Having said all that, there is still the question of Georgia. The Paris Peace conference of 1919 led to the establishment of two basic international legal principals; territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

    These principals were formally established by the League of Nations, and later by the United Nations. They were necessary because many states, all over the globe had been established by arbitrary lines on a map.

    However, Items such as Local oppression and mistreatment of minorities was considered preferable to what had gone on in Europe between 1914 and 1918. Indeed, one of the war crime charges brought against government officials in Nazi Germany was the illegal occupation and annexation of the German Sudetenland. Those norms held up until the 1970s.

    The principal of non-interference held up until the United Nations, backed by the United States and the Soviet Union decided to bring an end to the white dominated government of South Africa. So now the norm is something like: There is a principle of non-interference so long as internal state behavior meets with the approval of the United Nations or the International community, whatever that is. That is: Zimbabwe is okay, Kosovo is not okay. Don’t ask me to explain it, but I warn you, thinking through it will lead to cynicism. It seems that the truth is something like, states can interfere with the internal affairs of other states to the extent their military power permits it.

    The EU, NATO and the United States may have given the principal of territorial integrity its final blow in Kosovo. The Russian argument is that if we in the West can carve up the Balkans to please ourselves, then Russia can carve up the area between the Black and Caspian Seas to Russia's advantage. One should note they used the same humanitarian arguments for the partition of Georgia as the West used to partition Serbia.

    Mr. Palermo attempted to ascribe this entire situation to GW Bush when, in fact, Jimmy Carter was president when the principal of non-interference was shredded and the Clinton administration was the father of Kosovo.

    Lorraine Paul - 8/23/2008

    Your hope is also my hope, Mr Rodden.

    Glenn Rodden - 8/23/2008

    The American Expenditionary force arrived in Siberia during September 1918.

    I realize that the US-UK-USSR alliance during WWII was not perfect. My point is that during that war the US and the USSR often put ideology aside and concentrated on defeating Nazi Germany. My hope is that once again US and Russian leaders can find common ground and stop a small conflict from turning into a larger conflict.

    Lorraine Paul - 8/23/2008

    Lisa, to answer your question they are the ruling elite and their minions. Ever ready to go anywhere in the world to protect their interests. If that means that they have to have their minions murder a few million around the world people, well you can't make a 'profit' without breaking eggs!!

    Lorraine Paul - 8/23/2008

    Maarja, why do you rebuke Lisa and leave the outrageously partisan remark made by Mr Jones unchallenged.

    A remark which certainly reveals to me that his understanding of the complex relationships with the former Soviet Union are next to nothing. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union I was involved with the Lithunanian community in my city. No-one could ever accuse a Lithunanian who settled here after WWII as a friend of Moscow! However, many agreed that the interests of Lithunania and Lithunanians were best served by retaining close ties with Moscow.

    This seems to give a different perspective to the 'official story' regarding the Baltic states disaffection with Moscow. One can intensely dislike but at the same time accept that that is where one's best interests lie.

    Consider yourself rebuked by me, Mr Jones.

    Lorraine Paul - 8/23/2008

    I fail to recognise the 'scholarship' in your comments, Mr Gaston. Emotive language holds sway in every paragraph.

    Lorraine Paul - 8/23/2008

    I think it was in 1919 when 22 nations invaded the fledgeling Soviet Union.

    As for 'being on the same side', that section of the US ruling elite who, at that time, characterised themselves as isolationists and appeasers (although many were outright collaborationists with Nazi Germany) never really accepted the SU as allies. One might even say that this section of the UK and the US elite were instrumental in stopping the opening of a second front in Europe. It was only when the Red Army was almost at the gates of Berlin that the Normandy landings finally eventuated.

    As for the second half - The corrupt (see US State Department recent report on Georgia) government in Tblisi, hand-in-glove with Washington, refused to allow South Ossetia to secede from Georgia even though the majority of the population identified with Russia. This denial by Georgia necessitated a Russian peace-keeping force to protect the ethnic Russian community.

    As any fool with half an eye to read would know, there was a belligerency against many ethnic Russians in the Republics when the SU collapsed. I encountered the first signs of it when I was travelling through Georgia and also Moldova in 1988. Georgia may not have wanted the people of Sth Ossetia but it certainly wanted the land the Russians were living on.

    Georgia, as the 'guardian' of 'another' strategic oil pipeline (see Afghanistan) could definitely be said to be an important base for US oil interests. Therefore, attacking South Ossetia certainly kills two birds with one stone. Killing being the operative word as very little has been said about the Georgian military killing 1200 South Ossetians during their rampage. BBC World News did report it, also gaining interviews with refugees from South Ossetia who put the blame for the incident firmly on the shoulders of the Georgian government.

    Finally, it could be said that the Israeli 'advisors' in Georgia, the Georgian parliament and US vested interests have all badly mis-calculated Russian acquiescence to their invasion.

    The last two decades have seen the unchallenged rise of US hegemony around the world. The creation of this inhumane hegemony has only benefitted a very small percentage of the population, I, for one, will be cheering any country which brings a halt, even if only temporary, to its brutal expansion.

    Maarja Krusten - 8/23/2008

    Liza, your response makes no sense in an historical context. No historian would respond so simplistically by casting the argument as being between a foreign affairs expert affiliated with a political party you apparently don't support personally and the former leader of a country which once forcibly occupied previously sovereign nations. That's a false dichotomy. Historians have more choices than that, they would not limit themselves that way.

    To argue the issue so flimsily is akin to you being a member of a police investigative unit and saying to a police colleague about a detective whom you happen to dislike that the CEO under investigation for fraud by the unit has more credibility because he is or was in charge of a company. And dismissing without basis the evidence the detective you dislike has gathered through a professional process of interviewing subordinates in the company who provided credible evidence of fraud.

    The detective you are dismissing as lacking in credibility may have beaten you out for a promotion and you may bear a personal grudge against him, but a professional would not handle evidentiary matters by automatically deferring to the CEO under investigation because he "was in charge."

    History is like detective work. Political and personal likes and dislikes should not come into assessments of these issues. HNN is disappointing because so few historians try to live up to that standard. Perhaps it no longer is valued the way it was when I was in graduate school. But good historians look at events on the basis of what occurred over the decades, the motivations that underlay those actions, and how they fit in with international law and diplomatic norms. Personal likes and dislikes are irrelvant.

    Glenn Rodden - 8/22/2008

    If the US did not intervene in the Russian Civil War in 1918, what year did we intervene and hwo is that relevant to this discussion?

    What side were we on during WWII?

    Lisa Kazmier - 8/22/2008

    It is NOT about praise. It is about context and recognition of realpolitik. If you want to talk Kosovo fine. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting self determination for a group with territorial integrity that is being oppressed by a central govt. And the same should be said for S Ossetia, btw. Those folks declared independence in 1991! Kosovo never exactly did that, did they? Georgia won't give up on forcing S. Ossetia back into Georgia. Where is an equal principal of self determination?

    And do you not agree that the Georgian president has shown his own capacity for thuggishness? Maybe that has something to do with the fact Georgia remains Stalin's birthplace, a thing that's cleverly forgotten when Putin is compared to him.?

    Lisa Kazmier - 8/22/2008

    You really think Rice has more credibility than the guy who was in charge of all territories in question? That is laughable.

    Lisa Kazmier - 8/22/2008

    This is fantastic and I sure wish Obama would stop listening to these old Cold Warriors and recognize that he has to understand the other side as well as how Boosh has baited Russia. The Neos seem to want confrontation and directly pushing Russia only leads to pushing back.

    Who are these bumblelinizes???

    Robert Lee Gaston - 8/21/2008

    I realize it helps to portray G.W. Bush as the antichrist to be published on HNN, but this one goes a little beyond the pale. There are a few factors Mr. Palermo has decided to overlook, and that he should consider before heaping too much praise on Mikhail Gorbachev and Mr. Putin, and condemning G.W. Bush and Secretary Rice.

    The model the Russians used for their invasion of Georgia seems to be Kosovo. That was a Clinton/Albright/Clark affair. It may yet prove to be ill conceived because it impacted an area of the world where Russia has traditional national interests. If we were to consider Russian sensibilities that was the time to do it.

    Mr. Putin is a KGB trained hood who views everything as a zero sum game. As an aside there are rumors that our boy Vladimir has skimmed about 40 billion dollars from various Russian businesses. I suppose it is a savings account in the event the boys at home get sick of seeing him, and he needs it to buy a cool seat at an American university.

    There are few in the Baltic States who would view Gorbachev as a democrat. You must remember his sponsor was a fellow named Yuri Andropov. Mr. Andropov was another KGB trained hood who was higher in the state security food chain than Vladimir.

    Why should Russia fear Poland and the Ukraine joining NATO? That’s simple. Those countries know the comfort of being in the bosom of mother Russia. Therefore, they would rather fight than go back under the yoke. Russia also knows that Western Europe especially Germany, and the Benelux would not fight to save their own mothers much less a non-aligned Eastern European country. At least NATO membership might embarrass them into some kind of action.

    Grant W Jones - 8/21/2008

    The Soviet/Russian apologists are back in all their glory.

    And Gorby never really wanted to indulge in thuggish tactics in the Baltic Republics, either. The Devil made him do it.


    Gorby's the guy who said the Latvia and Estonia lacked a "legal basis" for independence. What Stalin has joined, let no man put asunder. This old Commie has no credibility on this, or any other, issue.

    Jon Martens - 8/21/2008

    It wasn't in 1918 when we intervened in their Civil War and had a shooting war with the Russians.

    And we may have both fought against Germany in the World Wars, but even a cursory study of relations between the Big Three in WWII show that we really weren't on the same side.