Sunday, April 22, 2007

where it's really happening

Many Americans are worried about the stripping away of their civil liberties by the Bush administration. There is some reason to worry, I think, but people who believe that a permanent power structure is being put in place are wrong: the next administration might very well undo the damage, real or perceived, of this one.

If you want an eerie glimpse of what happens when a government consolidates its power, go take a look at what's happening in Russia. There is genuine cause for worry as Russia continues to squelch free speech within its own borders. People who watch Russia have been talking about the ominous trends of the past few years as Putin and his flunkies appear increasingly to be moving into authoritarian mode, resurrecting the phantoms of the old Soviet Union. This new move to control radio is yet another step in that direction.

One thing I have long wished of the Bush administration was better use of Condi Rice. The woman speaks fluent Russian; she knows the country-- its history, its culture, its politics. She is now engaged in talks with Russian officials as the US and Russia mull the linkage of their missile defense systems. When I first read the news that this was happening, I had to resist slamming my head against my desk because one thought dominated all the others in my mind: Why the fuck did we wait so long? I'm not talking about the missile defense system talks; I'm talking about the prominent use of Condi in Russian affairs.

Diplomacy with Russia is important on a number of levels (I'd like to invite my buddy Mike D to comment more extensively on this); it can affect, for example, the flow of the six-way talks involving North Korea. It can also affect Russia's attitude toward Western Europe, which has been held hostage in recent years as Russia has jiggered with the price and availability of the fuel it sends to Europe. Good relations with Russia can also affect relations with China, and perhaps allow us a bit more political influence in places like the Middle East, where our enemies often turn to Russia for help against us.

I'm not saying it all comes down to Condi, but I do think that the Bush administration has long waffled a golden opportunity to improve relations with a large and important country, and it's been uncomfortable for me to watch Russia slide deeper into its old, totalitarian ways. I admit I had high hopes for Putin at first. When the submarine disaster happened early in his tenure, I was willing to attribute his ineptitude to lack of leadership experience. As former KGB (I reasoned), Putin was probably still shedding the secretive habits of that organization and learning how to be a public leader. But as mistake after mistake continued to occur, and as Putin proved less effective than I had hoped in dealing with the Mafia elements entrenched in Russian government, my disappointment grew. So I don't think our wasting of diplomatic capital is in any way a cause of Russia's backsliding; Putin and his government bear full responsibility for that. But our own slowness hasn't helped the situation, either.

Ah, well. One of these days I need to grab one of these lanky, cute Russian ladies taking Korean classes in my building, and ask them what's up with their government.


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