It is this jarring disconnect that disturbs Stephen Cohen. Apparently, more significant than Putin's negative report on the status quo was his "emphatic commitment to building a democracy." In other words, after a decade of transition, the best Russia has to offer is a vow to keep plugging away at a still elusive goal, even as basic living standards sink to dire levels.
At the dawn of the new millennium, US policy has degenerated to a debate on Capitol Hill over "who lost Russia?" Meanwhile, the prospect of big oil in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia threatens to eclipse the same basic concerns (civil society, economics, medical health) that were overlooked in Russia. The tragedy for Russia, says Cohen, is not that the "Washington Consensus," (as the pro-Russia lobby would come to be called) had so much at stake in the formation of the new Russia, but that it believed it could actively shape another country's future. If that belief prevails in other former Soviet states, the result may turn out to be equally undesirable.
Failed Crusade is a shrill indictment, in which Cohen takes aim at every Washington political consultant, every Ivy-league economic advisor and every foreign consultant to have ever posted an optimistic prognosis from Moscow. In heralding a new era of hope and prosperity for Russia, these crusaders ignored the obvious depravations of a long-suffering populace. In lauding "shock therapy," they dismissed evidence that Russia was undergoing a "demographic catastrophe unprecedented in peacetime." In steadfastly supporting President Boris Yeltsin and his young market-friendly appointees, they nourished corruption. These are not, most would concede, honorable achievements for the beacon of democracy and rule of law.
How spectacularly did Washington fail? There are many aspects that deserve attention. But Cohen leaves aside the economic convulsions that created widespread poverty where none had existed, and generally disregards a shady political succession (the armed overthrow of parliament, a re-election secured by oligarchs, and finally, the appointment of a hand-picked successor, heralded as a democratic transfer of power). Instead, Cohen focuses on a far larger tactical error -- the fact that U.S. has allowed (or even aided) a nuclear state's social disintegration, encouraged its penury, and is still pushing a destabilizing agenda.
Cohen's detractors may argue that his criticisms benefit from hindsight. Indeed, Washington and the US press in Moscow have tempered their statements since the ascension of a career secret-policeman to the Kremlin, and an ugly relapse of barbarity in secessionist Chechnya. Recently, Republican leaders issued a scathing report entitled "How the Clinton Administration Exported Government Instead of Free Enterprise and Failed the Russian People," charging the White House with turning a blind eye to corruption, and funneling aid straight to the Kremlin rather than to democratic institutions. Cohen acknowledges the re-assessment, but mocks its arrival:
"As happened when the US war in Vietnam ended in disaster, so many pundits, scholars, politicians and former officials now criticize the results of the failed crusade to re-make Russia, it appears that hardly anyone was ever part of the
Elizabeth Kiem is a freelance writer
based in Washington, D.C.