Novichok for the Soul

Jeremy Corbyn and the murder of the Russian spy

People with unpalatable opinions rarely broadcast them in all their glory to the world. Instead they obfuscate by making impossible demands for evidence; deflect with whatabouttery, and make false equivalences with vague references to historical wrongs. The casual observer can never glean their true motives and opinions without undertaking more than a little work.

George Galloway, for example, would rage eloquently against the mendacity and double standards of the capitalist West for the BBC’s cameras without ever disclosing his own rotten values in full. A well-meaning viewer with a casual interest in politics might easily have caught Galloway on Question Time in 2004, in the midst of one of his famous tirades on the hypocrisy of US foreign policy — as it suffocating Iran with sanctions while simultaneously lining the pockets of Saudi Arabia with oil money and gorging itelf on arms deals — and think, “the man’s got a point”. You had to dig a bit deeper to find Galloway’s fawning interviews with the holocaust-denying Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Press TV, or personally slobbering over Saddam Hussein in his palace.

Those who have followed the career of Galloway’s old friend Jeremy Corbyn know that he too is a veteran of the same section of the hard left that spent a generation in the political wilderness before launching its successful conquest of the Labour Party two years ago. But where Galloway’s narcissism, bullying and outright enthusiasm for fascism eventually revealed him for the fraudulent crank he is, Corbyn’s total lack of ambition prior to 2015 and gentle, fuddy duddy demeanour have shielded him from the same level of exposure.

For those that have followed Corbyn’s career, his attitude towards foreign despots has always been a source of anxiety. While he has never entered the same realms of brazen dictator worship as Galloway (with the notable exception of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro), Corbyn’s tendency towards tyrants of a certain nature has always been one of limp indifference at best and sympathy bordering on admiration at worst.

Corbyn’s reaction to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal has shown him at his most troublingly — and publicly — equivocal over a dictator since he entered the spotlight of British politics. Since Theresa May confirmed her belief in Russian — and more specifically Vladimir Putin’s — culpability for the attack on Skripal, Corbyn has set to work busily debunking this logical conclusion with a level of conspiratorial scepticism and deflection that was once rarely seen in mainstream politics.

Corbyn has repeatedly cast doubt on “the evidence” that Russia and Putin were behind the attack, and, a week after May announced her conclusion, he still refuses to blame Moscow outright for commissioning it.

Corbyn claims to need “an absolute, definitive answer” on who supplied the novichok to murder Skripal before he rushes to judgment. But what grounds are there, really, for doubting Russian responsibility? Mr Skripal is a former spy and an enemy of the Russian state, who has been attacked with a chemical weapon created by the Soviet Union which is only realistically available to the Russian government. Russia has a history of similar attacks in Britain, and Vladimir Putin has a taste for ruthless displays of power and manufactured foreign threats — particularly at election time. Add to that the total absence of any other plausible explanation, and it is difficult to see how anyone could conclude that there was any reasonable doubt as to Russia’s guilt.

But this is apparently not enough to satisfy Corbyn. What would? Corbyn has remained vague and faintly ridiculous on this — absurdly suggesting that trustworthy Russia should be allowed to test the novichok used in order that they can confirm their culpability once and for all. The fact that Russia has already been given an opportunity to engage constructively with the UK, and has responded with contemptuous scorn and sarcasm, has apparently not swayed Corbyn from believing in the wisdom of this course of action.

Not content with this unmerited scepticism, Corbyn has also deflected attention away from Russia and Putin at every opportunity he has been given, either through the classic hard left tactic of raising the straw man of Western hypocrisy, or through simply talking about something similar but unrelated. Rather disgracefully, following Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Labour called into question the reliability of our own chemical weapons intelligence, making a not-so-subtle and totally specious comparison to the fabricated evidence used to justify entering the Iraq war. The fact that the two situations are not remotely analogous (for those seeking clarification: Russia attacked the UK; Iraq did not) would not deter him from, again, deliberately casting doubt on Russian responsibility.

Corbyn has also raised the two red herrings of war with Russia and Russian oligarchs. In an article for the Guardian, he urged the UK not to “slide into war” with Russia or to “create a division where none exists” before making more phoney calls for “dialogue”. The reality that in fact the only mainstream politicians mentioning war at all are Corbyn and his acolytes has not prevented him from using it as yet another way of deflecting attention away from the seriousness of the attack. Corbyn’s sudden interest in Russian oligarchs who stash their ill-gotten gains in London property is equally misleading: this is a good cause to raise at any time in Parliament except now, because whatever else they are guilty of (and that is a long list), “the oligarchs” are not responsible for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal — and if any are, then they are accessories to Putin and his inner circle.

What is so frustrating about Corbyn is his ability to disguise his conspiracism in the language of measured, calm rationalism. In isolation, his words seem reasonable. As with Galloway, the casual observer could easily be forgiven for hearing Corbyn’s measured calls for “caution” and “evidence”, his warnings against war and subtle references to previous government failures that seem superficially relevant but actually aren’t, and think “the man’s got a point”.

But if one takes any time to think about it, it is clear that Corbyn’s reactions have been anything but rational. For what rational person could reach the conclusion — on no evidence whatsoever — that “mafia-like groups” are as likely to have obtained novichok and used it to murder an enemy of the state as Putin and his government cronies are? What rational person responds to a deliberate chemical attack on British soil, that puts the lives of several British citizens at risk, with whatabouttery? What rational person sees the expulsion of some diplomats — in response to a chemical weapon attack — as a disproportionate act of war?

It takes some effort to see Corbyn’s comments for what they really are. Unlike Galloway, Corbyn does not scream conspiracy, he implies it. He does not directly voice support, or make open apologies for Putin, but he does his work for him when he casts doubt on clear evidence of his guilt and employs open apologists like Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray as advisers. His foggy and equivocal stance on Russia should not be compared with the Theresa May’s — instead it should be compared to the clear and unambiguous terms in which he (often justifiably) condemns the USA, calls for immediate sanctions on Saudi Arabia and Israel and slams the Tories on domestic policy.

This makes being a Corbyn critic hard work. The task of first researching and then explaining his history to those with better things to do is long and arduous. Corbyn and his supporters maintain a veneer of respectability that makes it difficult for people with only a passing interest in politics to understand their insidiousness. As his critics work themselves into a frenzy over the morsels they are given, latching on to his associations with terrorists, anti-Semites and fascists that no one can remember anymore, in a desperate attempt to persuade an apathetic public that actually his “failures to condemn” and the people he calls his friends MEAN something, the majority laugh them off as the cranks, rather than the mild, kind-bearded leader of the opposition.

Perhaps the Skripal episode will change people’s minds. But it probably won’t.

 

Photo source:

https://www.buzzfeed.com/ikrd/the-hat-the-hat-the-hat-the-hattttttttt?utm_term=.wvPNBBZP7o#.ldYj44y5KD

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Stephen Cohen Disgraces Himself… Again

Vladimir_Putin_in_KGB_uniform

Vladimir Putin, in happier times.

by Kyle W. Orton

Since the Ukraine crisis began earlier this year, Stephen Cohen has acquired quite the reputation for apologetics for the Putin dictatorship and its aggression against Ukraine. Cohen, a scholar of Russia, especially the Bolshevik Revolution, has printed most of his pieces in support of Vladimir Putin in The Nation, a magazine edited by his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel. Now he has done so again. Credit where it is due: each salvo has been more hysterical than the last. This time it was his prepared remarks for an upcoming speech to the U.S.-Russia Forum in Washington, D.C., organised by the same group who run the Russia World Forum, another annual confab of Putin apologists. For a flavour of the Russia World Forum, I quote from James Kirchick, who had the misfortune to attend the last one:

There was Webster Tarpley, former operative in the Lyndon LaRouche cult, 9/11 Truther, and all-around conspiracy theorist … There was Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who, when I debated him a few months ago on television, analogized 9/11 to the ‘Reichstag fire’ … There was a representative from an American ‘pro-family’ organization praising Putin’s standing up to his own country on issues like homosexuality and family planning.

Cohen was present here too—and with some of the same script by the sound of it.

Cohen’s article/speech in The Nation this time started so very badly, not only by putting all the blame on America for “escalating sanctions [that] will only deepen and institutionalize [this Second Cold War],” but by making reference to the “mysterious shoot down” of flight MH17. This is especially interesting since even commentators sympathetic to Vladimir Putin had largely conceded the factual matter that Moscow-backed insurgents brought down the Malaysian plane – they just had elaborate excuses why it shouldn’t be blamed on the Kremlin, or not in a way that carried any serious consequences anyway. It was straight downhill from there.

Cohen frames this in the way all of Putin’s apologists do: the no-longer-deniably-Russian-orchestrated mayhem in eastern Ukraine is claimed as a defensive action, stemming initially from NATO’s “expansion”. NATO, of course, is a voluntary association, but in Cohen’s world it is an instrument of Western imperialism, taking over states and forcing itself against Russia’s borders. His evidence for this extraordinary claim? An article in the Washington Post in 2004! (I am not making this up.) Cohen’s summation is that “twenty years of US policy have led to this fateful American-Russian confrontation.”

In this present crisis, Cohen sees the real crime as being a U.S./E.U./NATO coup d’état in Kyiv that drove from power Viktor Yanukovych. In one of the most tortured distortions of the English language on record, Cohen says Brussels and Washington initiated this crisis with their “velvet aggression” against Yanukovych to bring Ukraine into the Western fold. The “reckless provocation” Cohen is able to identify in Ukraine is the E.U. offer of the Association Agreement to Kyiv. Cohen makes reference to the “radicalized Maidan protests, strongly influenced by extreme nationalist and even semi-fascist street forces” who brought down the corrupt, increasingly authoritarian, Moscow-allied Yanukovych government. You perhaps have noticed that Russian propaganda outlets have run with the theme that the new authorities in Kyiv are fascists or Nazis (1,2,3,4,5).

In response to this, with Russia unable to match NATO in conventional terms any longer, poor Putin might be forced to use nuclear weapons, and the “ongoing U.S.-NATO encirclement of Russia with bases, as well as land and sea-based missile defense, only increases this possibility”. This from a self-styled progressive! There was a time when this faction was against nuclear weapons, though more and more it looks as if they were only against NATO’s counter-nukes to the massive Soviet build-up in the 1970s.

It is near-incredible to see Cohen speak of “the surreal demonization of … Vladimir Putin” (“a kind of personal vilification without any real precedent in the past,” indeed). Putin heads one of the most reactionary authoritarian governments on the planet, so this must be especially galling to those progressives who think of Cohen as an ally. But it must be even worse when Cohen cites Henry Kissinger as an authority for this claim.

The most hilarious part of the article is when Cohen’s cup of self-pity runneth over. He bemoans the fact that Moscow fellow-travellers are in such short supply these days. This is actually a lament without very much substance: the Kremlin still does have legions of supporters in the West, the only difference being they tend to come from the extreme-Right this time around. But Cohen should cheer up: with he and his wife around, Moscow will never lack for Left-wing advocates. Acknowledging that the analogy is “imperfect,” Cohen nonetheless compares himself and his co-thinkers, who seek to exculpate Putin for the Ukraine crisis, with the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and 80s. Cohen worries of the “neo-McCarthyites [who] are trying to stifle democratic debate by stigmatizing us”. This sounds an awful lot like those bigots who demand respect for their views by claiming to just be the other side of a legitimate debate. Cohen then goes clean over the edge:

We should not worry, for example, if our arguments sometimes coincide with what Moscow is saying; doing so is self-censorship.

The bravery of it! If you are tempted to tone down your pro-Putinism: resist the urge!

The reaction keeps on coming. Channelling Barry Goldwater, Cohen says that “moderation for its own sake is no virtue”: moderation “becomes conformism, and conformism becomes complicity.” Again, Cohen self-consciously tries to remove the brakes that might tell decent people that their argument is leading them into disreputable territory.

If Cohen sticks to Moscow’s line on “encirclement” by NATO and “aggression” with the Western-orchestrated “coup” in Kyiv as causes of this crisis, his proposed solutions are even more noticeably drawn from the Kremlin’s playbook.

Cohen’s entire talk is based around the idea that wicked people have engaged in “distortions” to present “any American who seeks to understand Moscow’s perspectives [as] a ‘Putin apologist’,” when in reality Cohen and his allies are the “true American democrats and the real patriots of US national security.” His solutions are thus phrased in terms of national security: “demonizing of Putin is already costing Washington an essential partner in … vital areas of US security—from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to efforts to counter nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.” Let us put aside the Putin dictatorship’s defence of Bashar al-Assad from even condemnation at the United Nations and the Kremlin’s well-orchestrated defeat of President Obama to prevent military strikes against its client in the Levant for gassing 1,400 civilians to death in a morning. Let us leave aside, too, the Kremlin’s assistance to Iran in building its nuclear weapons facilities and proposal to sell it air defences for these facilities. The destruction of the city of Grozny as Russian counter-terrorism policy can also be set aside.

Cohen first blames “the US-backed regime in Kiev” for inflicting “needless devastation, a humanitarian disaster and possibly war crimes on its own citizens in eastern Ukraine,” and even makes reference to “Kiev’s destruction of Luhansk, Donetsk or other Ukrainian cities,” something the insurgents had seemed to be rather taking the lead at. He then suggests that “[i]f Kiev’s assault ends, Putin probably can compel the rebels to negotiate.” This is ridiculous: the insurgency in eastern Ukraine is an enterprise wholly owned by Russian military intelligence (GRU). But the actual negotiating parameters set forward by Cohen are even more suspect, namely a “federal or sufficiently decentralized state,” which Cohen tells us would make Ukraine into a Federal Republic like Canada or Germany, and: “Ukraine must not be aligned with any military alliance, including NATO”. Moscow’s intention to control Ukraine’s foreign policy is long-standing, and for all Cohen’s talk of securing a “politically independent” Ukraine, he well-knows that this demand that Ukraine not be allowed to choose to join Western institutions is a victory for Moscow. The “Federal” option is really partition by another name, and is Moscow’s fall-back position. If western Ukraine cannot be controlled, the Kremlin can at least hold on to the east and keep it weak and dependent—a Ukrainian version of Transnistria.

Assuming Cohen is not among those who are paid to disseminate a pro-Moscow line, his views are a little confusing. Why would a Western progressive dedicate himself to a regime that persecutes homosexuals, revels in racial incitement, and menaces its neighbours? Perhaps old habits simply die hard. Or maybe, as so often, anti-Americanism simply trumps all.