By Jim Miles
(From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia. Michael McFaul. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018/2019)
“From Cold War to Hot Peace” is a difficult book to discuss. There is much about it that is illuminating and well stated but there is the other side that represents the blinders of being a true American patriot. McFaul is pro-Russian in that he believes that better relationships with Russia would benefit both countries, and his desire to promote democracy appears to be well-intentioned. In contrast, some of his descriptive applications of how events occurred, while generally accurate, tend to fall into the “America can do no wrong” line of thinking.
McFaul’s descriptions of his personal interactions with various political figures in the US and in Russia add new dimensions to the understanding of how discussion, decisions, and actions between the two occurred. His portrayal of Obama in particular for the US and Medvedev and Lavrov for Russia provide strong images of their individual characters. The animosity he describes between himself and Putin – as he sees it naturally stemming from Putin alone – is not as well developed mainly because of the few direct interactions he had with Putin.
McFaul served as promoter, advisor, aide, and ambassador to Russia during the Obama era and had close personal contact with Obama. The two are ideologically aligned and their speechcraft and rhetoric are both highly developed. Together they were able to promote a better vision for the world, and during the Reset of the Medvedev, presidency succeeded in making some good initiatives to a more cooperative world.
The Reset worked as far as it went, but when Putin came back into the Presidency, future progress stalled and is now awaiting future events. McFaul quite naturally tries to explain why the relationship soured and puts the blame squarely on Putin. He describes Putin as irrational and seeking revenge against himself personally and against the US as a whole. Putin may be the root of the closure of Reset, but he is far from an irrational actor, and while revenge may be a motive, it also is protection against a naturally conceived idea of US interference in internal affairs and U.S. containment of Russia.
McFaul interprets several large occurrences and passes them off as something Russia does not need to be concerned about, and should be able to overlook, or has completely missed US intentions in each area.
Russia, as exemplified with Putin, has and had many reasons for concern about US intentions.
McFaul protests that NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy is just that, all for democracy while denying that he never gave any money to support Russian dissident groups. That may be true, but it is a government-funded agency, and has worked hard to disrupt non-US aligned countries around the world. I could give an example but McFaul would more than likely critique the critique for being “what aboutism”, one of his favorite rebuttals.
He lightly dismisses Russia’s concerns about the missile defense projects in Poland and Romania, part of Putin’s “irrational” concerns. It is obvious to most who study geopolitics outside the US mainstream that these ‘defensive’ operations can easily be converted to offense and are only ten minutes away from Russia’s heartland. (Can we say Cuban missile crisis? No, that is “what aboutism”).
NATO is mentioned mostly in passing, again represented as an irrational fear of Putin. Nothing is said of the promise to Gorbachev about NATO not moving an inch closer when Germany reunited. After all, NATO was set up to deter, contain, and attack the Soviet Union – mission accomplished so far – and now it has become a US pawn in its imperial endeavors around the world.
Which brings me to one outright lie: “President Carter failed to deter Brezhnev from invading Afghanistan in 1979.” From many sources, including U.S ones, it is well known that Carter and Brzezinski used the CIA and the mujahideen to foment problems within Afghanistan, inducing the government to ask the Soviets to intervene – and retrospectively, foolishly they did. And where are we now after twenty years past 9/11? (More “what aboutism”? From textual context, yes, on McFaul’s side).
Here’s another “what aboutism”: what about the 800+ military bases spread around the world in over 125 countries, many of them encircling the ‘world island’ as required by the heartland theory of geopolitics by MacKinder in order to control the global resources for the western empires?
Two Biggest Mistakes
McFaul’s two biggest interpretive mistakes are with Syria and Ukraine. It starts with Medvedev supporting US intervention in Libya presumably on humanitarian intervention grounds (more realistically on petrodollar oil versus an African gold-based money). Lesson learned – the U.S. and its NATO cronies do not live up to their promised intentions. Hilary Clinton is mostly favored by McFaul, but he avoids the “We came, we saw, he died” comment, which the Russians correctly viewed as a turn to barbarism caused by US intervention.
McFaul’s interpretation of events in Syria follows the mainstream media line of protesters being shot and escalating into civil war. That could be partly true, but as McFaul likes to say – especially when he has difficulty explaining a situation – “truth is murky” – indeed. Without going into detail, there is little accounting of Russia’s pre-existing military alliance with Syria, little said of the mujahideen – Taliban – al-Qaeda – ISIS connections in Syria (or Libya for that matter). The other large factor of course is Israel and its position vis a vis Syria (and Iran), an area not discussed at all.
Ukraine is another area where “truth is murky” as again his outline of events follows that of the mainstream media (which is obviously mainly controlled by pro-US oligarchs). NATO is mentioned but only in denial that the EU did not want Ukraine in NATO – perhaps not the EU, but it is an intended US outcome. As for all the fighting and annexation and all that, yeah, well it is indeed murky with no full accounting of Victoria “F**k the EU” Nuland and the neonazi backgrounds of many of the people the NSA supported with its billions of dollars, nor the threats made by Tymoshenko to nuke the Russians in the Donbas…and on.
Overall It’s a Good Read
Another whole argument could be made about the nature of US democracy, but McFaul can hardly be faulted for his perspectives. He is a true patriotic son and is imbued with American exceptionalism and indispensability – he does not use those words in the book, but he did advise and help write speeches for Obama. His writing is engaging, and the anecdotal nature of his presentation makes it easy to follow his activity, his thoughts, and perceptions of those around him. I liked “From Cold War to Hot Peace” for the different perspective it gives on the political actors and on the drawbacks and advantages of being an advisor and ambassador in such a contested relationship.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.