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Lies of Our Times, October 1991
Letter from Lexington September 8, 1991
The important events of late August in the Soviet Union have elicited some curious coverage and commentary. The U.S. was a distant and passive observer, and Washington basically had no policy, simply watching events run their course. That picture, however, is not acceptable.
The required version is that the U.S. is a benign if sometimes stern guardian of international order and morality, guiding errant elements along a constructive path. George Bush, in particular, has been assigned the image of Great Statesman, with extraordinary talent for diplomacy and global management. The picture is about as plausible as the tales of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, who initiated a modern revolution -- a construction quickly put to rest when this pathetic figure was no longer useful, and it could be conceded that he hadn't a thought in his head and was scarcely able to read his lines. With regard to Reagan's successor, the evidence for his consummate skills, to date, reduces to his unquestioned ability to follow the prescriptions of an early National Security Policy Review of his administration, which advised that failure to defeat "much weaker enemies...decisively and rapidly" would be "embarrassing" and might "undercut political support," understood to be thin (Maureen Dowd, NYT, Feb. 23, 1991).
To reconcile reality with preferred image, there were some gestures towards Bush's allegedly critical role in bringing the August crisis to a successful conclusion. But the efforts were pretty feeble, and lacked spirit. Some, however, deserve credit for trying. Take regular Boston Globe columnist John Silber, the president of Boston University and a likely aspirant to high political office ("Democrats' disarray boosts Bush's apparent invulnerability," BG, Sept 1, 1991). Silber repeats the standard doctrine that "the president's skill in dealing with the demise of communism heightens the disarray of the Democratic Party." In particular, "President Bush's handling of the failed coup in the USSR has been masterly. His well-publicized telephone calls to Boris Yeltsin put the United States firmly on the side of the democratic resistance, a position cemented by the shrewd decision to send Ambassador Strauss to Moscow immediately, with instructions to ignore the junta."
In the face of such brilliant and imaginative moves on the diplomatic chess board, what can the opposition do but wring its hands in despair?
The lack of policy was evident from James Baker's briefing after the coup had collapsed ("Baker's Remarks: Policy on Soviets," NYT, Sept. 5, 1991). The Secretary of State presented a "four-part agenda." Three parts were the kind of pieties that speech writers produce while dozing: we want democracy, the rule of law, economic reform, settlement of security problems, etc. One part of the agenda did, however, have a modicum of substance, the third item, on "Soviet foreign policy." Here, Baker focused on his "efforts to convene a peace conference to launch direct negotiations and thereby to facilitate a viable peacemaking process in the Middle East." As Times diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman explains in an accompanying gloss, the Soviet Union should "work together with the United States on foreign policy initiatives like Middle East peace."
What is of interest here is what was missing. "Soviet foreign policy" does indeed have a role in the Bush-Baker Middle East endeavor. The Soviet role is to provide a (very thin) cover for a unilateral U.S. initiative that may at last realize the U.S. demand, stressed by Kissinger years ago, that Europe and Japan be kept out of the diplomacy of the region. Baker's phrase "direct negotiations" is the conventional Orwellian term for the leading principle of U.S.-Israeli rejectionism: the framework of the "peace process" must be restricted to state-to-state negotiations, effectively excluding the indigenous population and any consideration of their national rights and concerns. They offer no services to the U.S. and, accordingly, have no meaningful rights. That is the core principle of the rigid rejectionism that the U.S. has upheld for 20 years in virtual international isolation (apart from both major political groupings in Israel), and now feels that it may be in a position to impose.
These matters, however, fail the test of political correctness, and therefore are given no expression in the mainstream. As noted earlier in these columns, even the basic terms of the Baker-Shamir-Peres plan, to which negotiations are restricted, have fallen under this ban.
With the USSR gone from the scene, another foreign policy goal may be within reach: "replacement of the Castro regime with one more devoted to the true interests of the Cuban people and more acceptable to the U.S.," a goal that we must achieve "in such a manner as to avoid any appearance of U.S. intervention." These are the words of the March 1960 planning document of the Eisenhower administration that set in motion the subversion and economic warfare sharply escalated by John F. Kennedy and continued by his successors (Jules R. Benjamin, The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution, Princeton, 1990, 207).
If Washington is to achieve its longstanding goals in the required manner -- avoiding "any appearance of U.S. intervention" -- the ideological institutions must play their part. Crucially, they must suppress the record of aggression, vast campaigns of terror, economic strangulation, cultural quarantine, intimidation of anyone who might seek to disrupt the ban, and the other devices available to the superpower overseer dedicated to "the true interests of the Cuban people." Cuba's plight must be attributed to the demon Castro and "Cuban socialism" alone. They bear full responsibility for the "poverty, isolation and humbling dependence" on the USSR, the New York Times editors inform us (Sept. 8, 1991), concluding triumphantly that "the Cuban dictator has painted himself into his own corner," without any help from us. That being the case, by doctrinal necessity, we should not intervene directly as some "U.S. cold warriors" propose: "Fidel Castro's reign deserves to end in home-grown failure, not martyrdom." Staking their position at the dovish extreme, the editors advise that we should continue to stand aside, doing nothing, watching in silence, as we have been doing for 30 years, so the naive reader would learn from this (quite typical) version of history.
The enhanced ability of the U.S. to achieve its goals without deterrence or interference is not exactly welcome news in most of the world. But we are unlikely to hear very much about the trepidations of the Third World over "the breakdown of international military equilibrium which somehow served to contain U.S. yearnings for domination" (Mario Benedetti, La Epoca, Chile, May 4, 1991). Nor were we informed of Third World reactions when Dimitri Simes, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observed in the New York Times that the "apparent decline in the Soviet threat...makes military power more useful as a United States foreign policy instrument...against those who contemplate challenging important American interests" -- the "threat" being the deterrent to U.S. military power and the support afforded targets of U.S. subversion and violence ("If the Cold War Is Over, Then What?," NYT, Dec. 27, 1988). The fears, however, are very real, particularly after the U.S.-U.K. operations in the Gulf. They will be readily understood by anyone who can escape the doctrinal straightjacket.
The improved conditions for U.S. subversion and violence do not, however, offer the right note to sound on the occasion of the demise of the official enemy. For reflections on more exalted themes, we may turn to New York Times correspondent Richard Bernstein, who muses on the "New Issues Born From Communism's Death Knell" (_NYT, Aug. 31, 1991, p. 1).
For more than 70 years, Bernstein explains, "the fiercest arguments and the sharpest conflicts among intellectuals" have been "about Marxism-Leninism and social revolution, about the nature of the Soviet Union and about the existence of Communism as a major ideological force in a bipolar world." "The most obvious power exercised by the Soviet Union over the Western mind," he continues, "was its extraordinary power of attraction, its capacity to instill idealistic visions of a new world in which exploitation would be swept away by a tide of revolution." After the appeal of the USSR itself faded, "the debate took on new forms": "from the 1960's to the 1980's, an argument raged...about...countries like China, Ethiopia, Cuba and Nicaragua, which seemed to many on the left to embody the revolutionary virtues admittedly tarnished in the Soviet Union itself." Throughout, the Cold War conflict "had the effect of polarizing the domestic debate" in the U.S. between these two ideological extremes, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye observes. But with "the debate about Communism" losing "its force and centrality," Bernstein asks, "what issues will consume left and right, liberals and conservatives, in the future?" Perhaps the newspapers and journals of opinion will expire, now that the all-consuming issues are dying away, no longer "raging" in their pages.
Let us put aside the accuracy of this account of "the left"; and, for the sake of argument, let us also accept the picture of "the arguments and conflicts" that have "polarized the domestic debate" for over 70 years. We now ask a simple question. How has this central debate of the modern era been reflected in the New York Times, the Newspaper of Record, dedicated to the highest standards of journalistic integrity, free and open to all shades of thought and opinion?
The question has, in fact, been investigated, beginning with the classic 1920 study of Times coverage of the Bolshevik revolution by Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz, who demonstrated that it was "nothing short of a disaster...from the point of view of professional journalism," merely vulgar jingoism and subservience to the state both in editorial policy and in the news columns that this policy "profoundly and crassly influenced." Moving to the present, there has been extensive study of Times coverage of the "raging" issue of Nicaragua, demonstrating that the Lippmann-Merz critique remains quite accurate. News coverage was, as usual, "profoundly and crassly influenced" by the doctrine of service to state power that defines the editorial stance. Even columns and op-eds were restricted, with startling uniformity, to the politically correct doctrine that the Sandinista curse must be expunged and Nicaragua restored to the "regional standards" of such more acceptable models as El Salvador and Guatemala. In the years between, the record is much the same as in these two extraordinary cases.
Not every topic has been investigated. Thus, I do not know of studies of Times coverage of the "raging debate" over the revolutionary virtues of Ethiopia or of Times expositions of the "extraordinary power of attraction" of Marxism-Leninism and its "capacity to instill idealistic visions" of revolution and utopia. Even if we translate these rhetorical flights to something resembling reality, however, we know exactly what we will discover about just how open the Newspaper of Record has been to debate, discussion, even inconvenient fact.
In brief, for more than 70 years the New York Times (hardly alone, of course) and state-corporate power have marched in impressive unison. Now, hearing "Communism's Death Knell," it is permissible to concede that there were some burning issues, though not to present them in a sane and meaningful form. And it must pass entirely without notice, not even a faint flicker of recognition, that the real issues have been virtually excluded from the doctrinal system. It's an intriguing performance.
The "death knell" of Soviet tyranny has indeed sounded, though what takes its place may also not be too pleasant to behold. But Stalinist values remain alive and well, and the cultural commissars have no end of work ahead of them.
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