Anatol Lieven Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Nationalism: Conversation with Anatol Lieven, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, May 6, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Importance of Historical Perspective

You obviously came to these situations of turmoil and war with a historian's perspective, but you were also observing and learning about events. For example, in your book Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, it's remarkable that what we think is going on often is not going on. Talk a little about that synergy between what as a university-trained person you can bring to an understanding of the situation.

I was very struck in the former Soviet Union, where I lived from 1990 to 1996, how very good, very careful, very accurate reporters would report what they saw in front of their eyes, which in some few cases was progress, especially in the Baltic states, but in a great many places was not progress but disintegration, regression, even demodernization. Things were going backwards, people were getter poorer, the state was getting weaker, you've got a kind of feudalization -- police, armies, bureaucracies were being privatized -- the places were ceasing to be modern. Yet many of my colleagues would instinctively place this within an ideological paradigm in which they would report all this and then would say, "But, nonetheless, such-and-such a place --" Azerbaijan, or the Ukraine, or whatever, "-- these are all growing pains on the path to successful democracy and the free market." This gave me a sense of how ideology can govern and dominate the views of even highly intelligent, highly honest people.

With a historian's view, with an understanding of the history of such liberal capitalist revolutions over the past 200 years or so, you have a perception that in some cases, indeed, these did work -- ambiguously, perhaps; they didn't work for everybody -- but in a number of parts of the world and in our own time in Central Europe, places like Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, the Baltic states, this process has worked more or less as it was meant to work. But looking back historically and looking around the world, you see a great many other places in which it hasn't work, or its had completely contrary effects in which the mass of people have suffered as a result. book coverHistorical perspective and an understanding of the underlying patterns at work, and also of the relationship between this public ideological justification and the actual economic processes which are happening in terms of the privatization of the state gave me a more distanced and accurate picture of what was happening in Russia.

In your Chechnya book you confront the extent to which the ideology of, say, the U.S. reporters reflected a Washington sense that Russia was still the Soviet Union, and that Russia was a threat in a way that it wasn't. They were missing a sense of the way the Russian empire was unraveling after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Yes, that's a very interesting thing which is characteristic of a lot of the views of the outside world by the American elites, and the Washington elites in particular. On the one hand you have this very optimistic ideological view that every country in the world can adopt American-style democracy and successful American-style capitalism, and not just that, but that that will automatically lead them to support American views and American agendas and American interests, which, of course, is crazy. Nobody would think that of the American public for a second. At the same time, there is the other view that foreign countries are a threat, a menace, alien, untrustworthy, and you have this very curious alternation between the two. I think they come from different forces within the American state.

Clearly, one factor (though only one) in maintaining this hostility to Russia as a state is obviously the legacy of Cold War hatred of Russia and the Soviet Union, but it was also very much the interest of what's called the American military-industrial [complex], or as it was originally called by Eisenhower, military-industrial-academic complex: the need to keep major states as enemies in order to justify the present configuration, or the Cold War configuration, of American military spending.

This also underlies some of what has been seen by leading counter-terrorist officials, like Richard Clarke and Rand Beers, as critical failings of the Bush administration in the war against terrorism, the fact that they have been strangely indifferent to the actual terrorists, the creatures who carried out 9/11, and instead have instinctively sought to divert the campaign away from those terrorist groups and towards hostility to a range of states, because that's what the present American state system is configured to do because of the military-industrial complex. The war against terrorism, if it were really the war against terrorism, would demand very different patterns of spending, above all on intelligence, special forces, and international aid, and building up certain states as bulwarks against terrorism and extremism, just as during the Cold War we built up certain states as bulwarks against communism. But most of that money would not go to the military-industrial complex.

We'll pursue that topic in a minute, the war on terrorism and America's new sense of itself as an empire. But I want to pursue one element in this Chechyna story, because these misperceptions of the world led us not to anticipate the collapse of the Russian military as it dealt with the Chechnya problem. Talk a little about that, that both the Russians themselves did not understand Chechnya, and in addition, the U.S. did not understand that problem.

The Russians didn't understand the Chechens for reasons which are closely akin to the mistakes that the United States has made in Iraq. There was a genuine Russian belief, at least in 1994 (the second war has been rather different) that under the rule of President Dudayev, Chechnya had become so shambolic, people hadbecome so impoverished, gangster rule had become so extensive, that ordinary Chechens would accept the Russians as liberators.

Strangely enough, this was very much the Soviets' view when they marched into Afghanistan in 1979, which just shows how difficult it is for countries to escape from this kind of paradigm, this view of themselves as liberators, as representing progress. But one shouldn't patronize the Russians. America made this mistake in Vietnam, and now it made it again in Iraq. The fact is that countries, including our own, however hostile they may be in some ways to their own government at the time, have a tendency to unite against outside invaders.

The other thing, though, which the Russians completely missed in the first war, and which America missed, once again, going into Iraq, was the new power that modern weaponry and that huge urban spaces give to modern terrorists and guerillas. You hear again and again that Iraq, unlike Vietnam, doesn't have jungles, but it has cities. It's true that the mountains and forests of Chechnya were a great resource and hiding place for the Chechens, but most of the actual attacks, the biggest attacks on the Russians, took place in Grozny itself or in other urban areas of Chechnya. And, of course, the people just melted, first, into the houses, but of course, the great thing about cities is that even if they're in ruins, they also make excellent hiding places. America is learning this all over again, now in Fallujah.

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