FLAILING

In political science there is a shrinking but still quite depressing group of academics who studied the internal politics of the Soviet Union ("Sovietologists") and, due to tenure, outlived the Evil Empire by a couple decades. This is sad to me because these people specialized in something that has zero useful applications at this point, yet some of them are still around. The art of Sovietology involved using what little information was available to Western academics to make predictions about the heavily opaque internal politics of the Communist Party leadership in the USSR. They looked for signs that certain individuals were gaining or losing power and made educated guesses about the conflicts within the system, hidden from public view. It was, to put it mildly, an inexact science. Critics said it wasn't a science at all. But given that the entire Soviet government was shrouded in mystery to most Americans (even the intelligence services were only marginally aware of what was going on in any aspect of Soviet government and society except for the military) it was a useful effort.

When the USSR fell, ideally all of these people could have just retired or something. Some tried to transition to post-Soviet studies, but this is in fact a very different endeavor, theoretically and methodologically. Some tried to peddle their analysis for the Russian successor state ("Kremlinology") but information about Russian politics is not nearly so hard to come by as it was for the USSR. For the most part these folks, all of whom are pretty old now, are like a rotary dial telephone; a relic from a previous era, interesting but useless.

This is not unique to academia – the State Department, military, and other government agencies were full of these people in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of them are gone now. Most of the institutions of our society and government have come to grips, a quarter-century later, with the fact that the Cold War is over. But not everybody. Some people – neocons, for the most part – just can't let go. Either they are constitutionally incapable of updating any aspect of their worldview or they lack the intelligence to understand that the Cold War paradigm is no longer useful. It is not possible to keep the same framework in place and simply update the names – strike "USSR" and fill in "terrorism" or "North Korea." The world is different. Very different.

I feel the same sort of sadness when I see people like John Bolton, who recently generated some attention with an op-ed about how agreement or no agreement, someone needs to bomb Iran anyway. People like Bolton are forever stuck in 1980. The answer for everything is "Bomb it" or "Give the Pentagon more money" or ideally both. These aging Cold Warriors have been flailing around for two decades looking for an enemy, for a new Evil Empire to plug into their monochromatic worldview. But there is no modern equivalent of what the USSR was during the Cold War. It's pathetic to watch them try to make a new Soviet-sized enemy out of the table scraps available to them – an "Axis of Evil", for example, consisting of D-list wannabes that barely count as regional powers let alone global ones. Look at the dilemma this way: what would become of Superman if Lex Luthor and the other villains in that universe disappeared? Suddenly Superman would seem pretty irrelevant. He would either have to disappear or spend his time busting shoplifters and jaywalkers. And that would just be sad to watch.

It is reassuring, though, to realize that absolutely no one pays attention to these people anymore. Does anyone take John Bolton seriously? Does anyone care what he has to say about this or any other subject? The neocons had a chance to reassert their relevance in the early George W. Bush years and they blew it with Iraq. They were exposed for what they are: a sad group of people who are no longer relevant resorting to outrageous fabrications in an effort to make some third-rate dictator seem like an extremely dangerous boogeyman. Lacking what their belief system requires – a relatively equal opponent with nuclear weapons or their equivalent – they had to fabricate one. And now all but the most fact-impervious right wingers see with hindsight how little of a threat a country like Iraq posed or poses.

They're going through the motions again with Iran, and no one outside of the boardroom of the AEI appears to be buying the idea of Iran as a terrifying global menace. Deprived of a real enemy packing nukes, they're reduced to issuing hysterical warnings about countries that might be trying to build nuclear weapons – 75 years after the US, Britain, the USSR, and other true global powers did so. It's like the United States of 1950 deciding that some tiny nation posed a threat because they were attempting to figure out how to build machine guns. If the current situation with Iran is less ridiculous than that it is only slightly so.

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27 Responses to “FLAILING”

  1. Ed W. Says:

    Did you happen to read this article the other day (http://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-iran-griffin-20131130,0,2666282,full.story#axzz2ma68XOSm)? The article is titled "The chalice that helped make possible the Iran nuclear deal", and is about how a small gesture helped unfreeze US-Iran relations. It's actually quite a nice story, except for the part where Elliot Abrams, one of Bolton's buddies, is quoted basically calling the Obama administration a bunch of pussies, and says "Nrrrrrr! Send in the aircraft carriers! SMASH!" I read his quote and said out loud, to nobody in particular, "These fucking people!" Because why would we want to accomplish anything for the price of a cab ride and a white gift bag (really! read the story!) when we can send a carrier battle group halfway around the world.

  2. Arslan Says:

    It must have been difficult for Sovietologists who, believing in their own delusions, felt the need to insist that the USSR would both collapse but that it was still a threat and thus their job was relevant. If one suggested that it would not collapse and in fact that it was a dangerous, growing threat, one risked basically giving credit to Communism. If one insisted that it would fail, it would endanger one's job. Anyway, this whole idiotic field of "study"(which was heavily influenced by various intelligence agencies and their front organizations) supposedly morphed into Russian studies. If you live in Russia and a Westerner arrives whose understanding of Russia is 180 degrees the opposite of real life, chances are they are a Russian studies major.

    But more on-topic, I get what you mean because I remember how after Obama got elected there was an ongoing thing in the media about Dick Cheney repeatedly criticizing his foreign policy. Every time one of these stories popped up I would think, "Why is this man STILL talking?"

  3. RosiesDad Says:

    Sadly, I think that there is probably a significant portion of the population (>10%) that does still pay attention to what Bolton and the rest of his neocon buddies are saying. Had Mitt Romney been elected, these very same people might be calling some/all of the shots in our defense and intelligence communities.

    This beast is not dead; merely weakened. Obama would have kept us in Iraq for a decade had the Iraqis permitted it; he would like to keep us in Afghanistan until at least 2024. The only thing that's surprising is that Dick Cheney isn't talking in support of this.

  4. Anonymouse Says:

    @Arslan; I think there are Russian Studies majors…then there are Russian Studies majors. In my program in the 1980s, we were taught by a man who had come from Russia (Odessa). We used books printed in Russia. The entire program was conducted entirely in Russian from Day One, and our class was run like a Russian school; we were divided into groups with a starista in charge, we were encouraged to work as a group (in other words, we helped each other on tests), and we passed or failed as a group.

  5. freeportguy Says:

    Bolton and other similar conservatives remind me of the image (real or not) of computer specialists who at night create viruses and spread them so they can still have a day job!

    Funny how Bolton's proposed solution to ANY foreign policy issue is a "one size fits all": "Bomb them".

    Which makes me wonder: what exactly makes Bolton any better than the crazy nuts abroad whom he fears…?

  6. Anonymouse Says:

    To respond to Ed's post: Ed, did you ever read the comic strip Bloom County back in the day, or were you too young? Berke Breathed did a great takedown on the Cold Warriors.

  7. J. Dryden Says:

    @ freeportguy: His bitchin' stache, of course.

  8. Talisker Says:

    One particular feature of Cold War thinking is still very much with us — namely the idea of waging war on a concept rather than a nation. It was not just a nuclear-armed chess match against the USSR, but a holy struggle against Communism. So for example, the USA was not rationally evaluating what strategic benefit the USSR would derive from having Vietnam as an ally, and what effort was proportionate to denying it that benefit. The Vietcong were Communist, and as such had to be stopped.

    There is an obvious parallel to declaring war on "terrorism" instead of some more clearly defined enemy.

    I think much of the Cold War mentality arose from the Second World War, which morally speaking was even simpler. Nazi Germany was evil, trying to conquer the world, and it had to be fought. Furthermore, Nazi ideology and the German state were practically one and the same thing.

    Ever since then, certain policymakers have been trying to fit the conflict du jour into this same exceptionally simple paradigm. With the Cold War they were somewhat mistaken, but at least the USSR was plausible as an adversary of worldwide peace and democracy. As Ed correctly points out, trying to apply that kind of thinking to Iraq or Iran is just ridiculous.

  9. c u n d gulag Says:

    Though I was born in the US, Russian was my first language. I didn't learn to speak English until I went to Kindergarten.

    When I was minoring in Russian Studies in college, I was recruited by several government agencies, to remain un-named, because I was fluent in the language. More fluent, even, than the professor.

    I turned them all down, because, when it comes to spying, I was smart enough to realize that I'd have been like the Inspector Clouseau of spies.

    And if it came to being an analyst, I'd have been bored out of my f*cking skull, and fired or quit in a week.

    As for the neoCLOWNS, not having anything new to say for 25 years hasn't stopped them from yapping on and on, trying to instigate wars they'll never have to fight in.
    F*CK 'EM!!!!!

  10. Talisker Says:

    @J Dryden: Dunno, I think suspicious facial hair is a common point between Bolton and various Middle Eastern terrorists and dictators.

  11. middle seaman Says:

    We all have usefulness expiration dates. Some due to political changes, some due to age, some due to fast progress and some just because. Soviet experts excelled in voodoo more than anything else. My dad would poke fun at the Sovietvoodoo guys. He spent years in the Gulag; no conning these veterans.

    Academia, in particular, houses faculty way after their expiration date. They don't leave. Not me, I want to travel, to climb some peaks, to horse around with my grandkids. Science and the 20 year olds don't need this old geezer.

  12. Tim H. Says:

    As has been said of other things, "Sometimes, the only cure for a bad idea is embalming fluid".

  13. wetcasements Says:

    "Does anyone take John Bolton seriously?"

    Presidents Palin and McCain and Romney certainly would have.

    President Christie or Rubio or Walker certainly will.

    Hell, Condoleezza Rice rose to great heights and it's obvious to actual scholars that she was a joke as a Sovietologist.

  14. Jimcat Says:

    First, I have to stand up for Superman. Even absent super-villains, there are still natural disasters, and man-made catastrophes, for him to oppose.

    Second, have you seen the article on the proposed "Air-Sea Battle" between the US and China, drafted by a 91-year-old(!) Pentagon official to deal with the possibility that China may suddenly decide to launch an all-out attack on the US military for no adequately explained reason:

    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-08-01/world/35492126_1_china-tensions-china-threat-pentagon

  15. swkellogg Says:

    From Wikipedia: Bolton supported the Vietnam War but enlisted in the Maryland Army National Guard to avoid being sent overseas, and consequently did not serve in Vietnam. He wrote in his Yale 25th reunion book "I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy. I considered the war in Vietnam already lost." Oh and of course, he also dodged the draft due to the fact that commie Teddy would have given our rightful property in SE Asia back to the yellow hordes anyway.

    Classic overcompensation by another needle dick chicken hawk.

  16. In Hell's Kitchen (NYC) Says:

    I find it interesting that none of these neocon dolts is talking about bombing China so that it doesn't become the new USSR they knew all so well (but only if we believe the hype)…they probably have lots of investments there…

  17. mothra Says:

    Don't forget that Israel fuels much of the "Iran is the Great Satan and Must be Throttled" meme. Unfortunately, the US is in thrall to Israel, thanks to AIPAC and it's power in Congress. So yes, some people are still listening to Bolton and the others–and some of them happen to be in Congress. I think it's dangerous to dismiss them all as outdated and irrelevant.

  18. Jesse D Says:

    It would seem that you feel that since the collapse of the Soviet Umion there is no need to still study the subject matter. However despite the collapse and change in government form they still have their strategic interests based on resources and geography like any country.

    If you look at their relationship with India and China developing 5th generation fighters for them and focusing and on spreading us thin through proxy threats as well as keeping Europe hostage with their natural resources. It would seem that nothing has changed. At work I still look to the old time soviet era experts for a variett of reasons most importantly even in an unrelated threat the tradecraft is the same. Tactics have been copied and passed on. So maybe being on the outside it may be tough to see. But those of us who are and have been behind the scenes see a lot more.

    Now I will give you academics try to act like they know more than they do. That is with a lot of fields though. MBA professors insist they will make you better but look at Bill Gates his success was im business not really the OS.

    Criminal Justice a field primarily taught second hand where the professors do mot have a lot of experience. We have manufactured degrees because colleges and universities have become businesses. My opinion is we have a lot of careers requiring degrees that should not be. I see it in my agency a four year degree or related experience required. Take HSI and the FBI. Both require degrees but still have to train people for 4 months to learn their way. CIA wants you to have a degree to be an Operations Officer bur it is not needed to be a Protective Agent and unless you majored in psychology or marketing an MBA is worthless in the field.

    My take is we are finding HR departments who lack the ability to seek out talent and hire the right talent regardless of background. That is a whole other issue though than is Russia still a priority. I will say after working in Eastern Europe and living wirh Russians as well as seeing their relationships with other countries I contend they are as important today as they were im 1980.

  19. Robert Says:

    I've read some of the classic Cold War spy novels (e.g., Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Funeral In Berlin) and that period of history frankly terrifies me. James Jesus Angleton – he was a real person, and had an enormous effect on how American espionage functioned, or failed to. The idea of influential or wannabe influential policy wonks looking back on that as 'when things made sense' is like finding out that Voldemort is real.

  20. Major Kong Says:

    Iran has an economy the size of Alabama's and a military budget the size of Sweden's or Mexico's.

    Hardly a military juggernaut capable of global or even regional domination.

  21. Gerald McGrew Says:

    From the LA Times article Ed linked to above (about the handing over of a chalice helped thaw US-Iran relations)…

    ""There is a thin line between gestures of friendship and gestures that display desperation to negotiate," said Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy advisor to Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush. "I think a gesture like moving carriers into the [Persian] Gulf is more likely to get us a successful negotiation."

    FFS.

  22. jon Says:

    The great threat, according to talk radio AM sellers of precious metals schemes, is that the Chinese, who will enslave us using Treasury bonds with promised returns of about 3% at the most, which THEY WILL MAKE WORTHLESS to the tune of trillions of US Dollars. Why would the Chinese do this? What would they then own? And how can Americans avoid this incredibly dangerous and absolutely bugfuck nonsensical threat? Well, I guess our banks and millionaires could start buying Treasury bonds so that the Chinese don't, but that suggests our corporations and rich people aren't patriotic. Instead, the crisis suggests that the poor must tighten their belts and not expect Social Security or pensions or Medicare or Medicaid or food assistance or better student loan rates or anything else that could be construed as helpful from the government that does absolutely nothing for the rich, who don't profit in any way from policies or programs.

    In summary: we must be slaves or the Chinese will enslave us. THERE IS NO OTHER CHOICE!

  23. Doctor Rock Says:

    One of my undergrad professors was a former Sovietologist who managed to meaningfully reinvent himself. It happens.

  24. Champs mom Says:

    The neocons not only see bogeymen behind every corner, they cannot see the US as one of a number of nations in the international community; it must be pre-eminent and above all others. Makes diplomacy difficult but war-mongering easy.

  25. Merlinz Says:

    I truly despise this stupid Fu*k, John Bolton was put in charge of my Veterans Administration by georgie boy and the entire agency went to hell in a hand basket, all the talk about claim backlogs…that's Jonnie boltons fault, I shudder when I even hear his name, he should be rounded for crimes against Veterans and thrown in a deep dark hole.

  26. Rich Says:

    The neocons need an enemy and identify with those who have built their contemporary ideology around same, e.g., the Likud party in Ireland. they are the kinds of people who would have called the IRA terrorists without making much comment about their Protestant counterparts.

    Of course, there are always conflicts going on, and and various potential threats to collective security here and there a, as well as numerous proxy wars (e.g., the changing cast of supporters of opposition in Syria), but usually the situations involve interests and groups who aren't necessarily complete angels or devils, or we've certainly been happy to support our own devils against someone else's. Unfortunately, there's a whole industry that supports people who have a less subtle view of the world and the half-assed version of "balance" that predominates in the media means that they have an outsized bully pulpit.

    It's shame the Sovietologists can't be the the South East Asian studies people, who went from studying peasant societies and conflict to studying peasant societies and tourism of sex work, but then the former Soviet Union lacks tropical resorts for bracketing field work trips.

  27. Kaleberg Says:

    There were two flavors of sovietologists. There were the ones who actually studied the Soviet Union. I remember reading several good analyses of Soviet structural weakness in central Asia back in the late 70s, and I admired Charles Wolf's 1985 paper on The Costs of the Soviet Empire showing that the Soviet empire had gone into the red back in the mid-70s. That largely explained why the 12 year pattern had broken. There was the 1944 take over of Eastern Europe, the 1956 repression in Hungary, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovokia, but no 1980 invasion of Poland. By the time Mathias Rust landed his single engine plane in Red Square, the collapse seemed inevitable.

    Ronald Reagan was the last great believer in Soviet Communist. There was good money to be made puffing up Soviet military power during his administration, so a lot of people got into producing Soviet invincible military porn. Like a lot of pornography, it didn't make sense, let alone appeal, to everyone, but like working as a dominatrix or rent boy, sovietology could put food on the table.

    But my favorite sovietologist will always be George Kennan. He was one of the architects of the Cold War. He wrote, under the pseudonym X, the original Sources of Soviet Conduct paper in Foreign Affairs in 1947 which more or less established the ground rules for the Cold War. By 1992 he knew better and wrote an op-ed in the New York Times The GOP Won The Cold War? Ridiculous! Kennan later noted that "…the general effect of cold war extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union by the end of the 1980s."