Obama and Russia
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back for the next in our series of interviews with Ray McGovern. We’re talking about the United States, Russia, Barack Obama, and what he might do. So let’s talk about the new world we live in. We’re in a financial meltdown of epic proportions. We’re just entering what might be not just the 1930s, but if you listen to even the Sunday morning television, some conservative commentators are saying the future of capitalism itself is at stake. And it’s actually interesting: I’ve never seen such unity between conservatives and liberals of various types on the Sunday morning talk shows. Everyone seems to be quite scared about where we’re headed. Within that context, the weakening of the American economy, the sort of rise of Russia with some oil money, although now the Russians are in the same or even worse economic quagmire, but one thing seems to be clear—and you mentioned it in the last interview—is the single-superpower world has changed. Has American foreign policy thinking caught up with reality?
RAY MCGOVERN, RETIRED CIA ANALYST: Well, judging from the people so far appointed to key positions, I see no evidence that the traditional thinking, the institutional thinking, has caught up. I like to think that president-elect Obama would be up to some new thinking, and I think he’s going to have to be up to it. The disproportionate influence that Russia has at present is directly due to the fact that, in my view, there is sort of a zero-sum sort of thing having to do with power in the world, and when the US loses the financial situation that it used to have and the preponderance of power, then somebody, you know, [inaudible] a vacuum, that goes somewhere. It’s not going to Western Europe so much; it’s going to the Soviet Union, despite their economic [inaudible]
MCGOVERN: Russia. Right. Okay. So when we’re talking about Russia here, we’re talking about a state with new confidence. Look how Putin prances around. Look at his press conference last week. I mean, the fellow is established, he’s a pretty tough guy, and, you know, he’s laughed derisively at those who would see through his eyes into his soul, you know, or people who would make fun and say, you know, "I see KGB in his eyes." You know, these people, the Russians would say, [speaks in Russian]—"not serious people." Okay? Now, Obama, he’s going to be tested by Putin. You know? Now, Putin’s going to say, "Look, you don’t really need those radars and those missiles in the Czech Republic and in Poland. You don’t need them. Okay? Now, we’ve got to talk about that." And, in my view, if Obama is smart, he’ll talk with them and see what he can get, what he can extract in response for holding [inaudible], ’cause they make no sense. Okay? They’re the old thinking. You ought to get rid of them. But, you know, I’m thinking back. When John Kennedy came into office, he was the young president, and he was thoroughly embarrassed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and yet he went and met with Khrushchev in Vienna, you know, in May 1961, okay, and Khrushchev made a fool of him. Kennedy came back and he said, "Man, he came on strong. He came out like a gangbuster. He told me about laws of national liberation. They’re going to bury us that way." So he really disoriented Kennedy. Now, I think Barack Obama has to be prepared for that kind of attempt on the part of Putin because, relatively speaking, he’s riding high and Barack Obama’s got a real mess to contend with, such as we’ve not seen since the Depression. So if he’s prepared for that, if he gets good advisors and figures out what he wants in return for whatever concessions he’s prepared to make [inaudible] I think he’ll be alright.
JAY: The fundamental shift in strategic power, though, Obama has always been, certainly, a believer in the importance of American strategic power. If you go back and look at his opposition to the Iraq War in 2002 and 2003, his objections are mainly about the issue of the weakening of American dominance and strategic projection of American strength, not because he thought the war was illegal or something. So, in terms of this geopolitical vision, he so far, at least, does not seem to have a different vision than traditional pragmatic US foreign policy, which is what Obama says himself.
MCGOVERN: I grant you that. As an intelligence analyst, we’re always confronted with getting below the rhetoric. What a candidate says during the campaign is usually quite different from the way he really thinks, and I’m counting on Obama being smart enough—.
JAY: So let’s say he picks up the phone and he says, "Okay. I’m calling Ray McGovern. He’s been analyzing Russia for years." What would you tell him? What do you think would be a rational policy towards Russia if you were advising Obama?
MCGOVERN: I would say, "You should get together with Putin in, like, five months, have it well prepared, and discuss things person to person and see what Russian concerns are." These are never really considered serious Russian concerns, but they are serious. If I were a Russian, I’d be very concerned about starting wars in Georgia or trying to get the Ukraine into my orbit, into NATO. And so, in exchange for some sensible policies on that—and I mean, you know, not trying to get Georgia and Ukraine into NATO—I think Putin might be able to see his way toward giving us something. Now, exactly what that is we’d have to see, but he might be able to help with Iran, he might be able to help with tamping down some of the problems he has on his side of the border in Afghanistan and elsewhere. So there are all kinds of possibilities for cooperation, and these extend to trying to put the arm on these insurgents or these terrorists who go around the world now. And we used to have a lot of cooperation from the Russian secret service, Russian intelligence, and I’m not sure that that’s where it was initially when the Soviet Union imploded and Russia came into being. So—.
JAY: But if he says to you, "Ray, are these guys a threat to us?" your answer is—?
MCGOVERN: I would say they’re a strategic threat to the extent that some crazy person could get his finger on the nuclear button, or somebody could call up Putin and do what that Pakistani did to the Indians. That’s probably not going to happen. They’re also, you know, a threat in more traditional terms. They’re a threat because they’ve got a lot of nuclear material—it’s unsecured in Russia, and that needs to be funded much more than it has been funded. As you probably know, Bush cut back on the funding for that.
JAY: And would the alternative policy be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy? I mean, if you take a more McCain-like role and you treat them as the KGB and the enemy, then perhaps that’s what they become.
MCGOVERN: Well, yeah. Putin’s not going to be a shrinking violet, that’s for sure. And I think the Western Europeans are going to be sensitive to that. They’re ready for a big change in Western Europe, Old Europe and New Europe, okay? And if they see Obama adopting a kind of a Bush-like policy, where, you know, "The rest of the world really doesn’t matter. We’re the ones that call the shots. And so the Russians, you know, really don’t matter in this calculation," then the Russians are important to Western Europe in a way that they’re not important to us. You know? And so I think that kind of policy would lose out on several fronts.
JAY: So, just to sum up, if you talk to people, a lot of people in Eastern Europe, former Soviet Republics, you talk to Brzezinski, and probably somebody like Soros, they’ll tell you that the Russian elite is fundamentally expansionist, it’s fundamentally domineering, and what you should be doing is encircling them and destabilizing them. And a lot of people are going to be giving Obama that advice.
MCGOVERN: Well, we’ve seen where that policy leads. There are policies and there are instruments of policy. We don’t have the instruments anymore to encircle them and scare the hell out of them, okay? Our military is bogged down in two feckless wars, neither of which we’re going to win. Our army and our Marine Corps is pretty much dispersed and not able to use its major tactical advantages. And so, when we talk about Russia’s problems, they are the ones that are predominant, those are the ones that are occupying Putin and Medvedev, and I think these things can be talked out. You know? I mean, sensible people can talk about these things. And if nothing happens or if Obama and company discern resistance to the idea of real coexistence—and cooperation, even—then we can take it from there. But it really hasn’t been tried over the last eight years, and it hasn’t been really tried since the Soviet Union imploded and Russia came back on the scene, because we didn’t have to. Because we were the sole remaining superpower in the world, we didn’t give a hoot about anything else. So a change of attitude, I think, is going to go a long way. And then we’ll see if Putin and company are inherently expansionist, which is a dubious proposition in my view. And then we’ll find that out soon enough.
JAY: And, of course, they think the US is inherently expansionist, and so do a lot of people. It’s not—.
MCGOVERN: Well, it’s a mirror image. I mean, you could just read Chalmers Johnson and you’ll see about the US being inherently expansionist.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Ray.
MCGOVERN: You’re always welcome, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us for our series of interviews with Ray McGovern. And up here or down there’s a donate button, and we need you to click on it and donate if you want to see more of The Real News Network.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.