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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

the democracy team: how to understand American foreign policy

Philosophers have long argued about what democracy really means. Western politicos don’t have that problem – democracy is a team name, like the Rangers. Nobody expects the Rangers to be rangers, and nobody expects the “democratic forces” supported by the krewe of Clinton, Bush, Obama, Blair, Hollande etc. – whatever figurehead is in power - to be democratic. Blair, in one of the comic highpoints of his miserable reign, toured the Gulf states and touted the democratic alliance (of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Mubarrak’s Egypt) against the enemies of democracy, i.e. Iran. Of course, Iran has at least the trappings of a democracy, much like the U.S. and the U.K., while Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most totalitarian country in the world, and showed what it thought of civil protest by invading Bahrain when the Arab Spring threatened the ruling prince. Not that I am defending a country that routinely condones torture and has the highest prison population in the world – but I would still call the U.S. a quasi-democracy. For instance, elections are held in the U.S. so that people have a chance to make their opinions known and have them betrayed by whoever they elected. And Americans are damn proud of this, and call it operation enduring freedom. Or is that when we invade a country illegally?
I get mixed up.
I’ve been thinking about the democratic team with regards to the astonishing smoke and mirrors show being put on about the Ukraine. The NYT has been outstanding in this respect – liberals like to criticize Fox news, but the NYT reporting on Ukraine makes Fox News look like the successor to Edward Morrow and Walter Cronkite. I thought the nadir had been reached in the article that praised the pro-government paramilitaries in Odessa for their good work in squelching the “pro-Russian” side. This, from a newspaper that is, normally, anti-neo Nazi. However, one must remember that the paramilitaries are on the democratic team and it all works out beautifully. Today, the NYT editorialdissed the referendums in Donetsk with language that was almost pure bungalowBill. Here’s how they started
“If there were questions about the legitimacy of the separatist referendums in eastern Ukraine, the farcical names of the entities on which people were asked to vote — the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk or Luhansk — surely answered them. 
‘Surely’ – in the club where the editorialists chuckle about things like those funny Chinese and Negro names – most amusing.  It is a kinda nostalgic, retro opening to a salvo full of the cliches one expects from … well, the NYT.  The funnily named little countries are surely parallel to that standard of the white mostly elite clubs, the funny names Negros give their children. Always a hoot in the cigar room.  But in spite of having lived through the Iraq invasion and knowing how the establishment works, it still made me curiously angry.
Angry enough that I decided to look back at how the talking heads were talking about Russia in the nineties.  In 1993,  Yeltsin’s situation with the parliament was almost  a mirror image of what was happening in Kiev in January of this year. Again, a president seemed to oppose the unanimous opinion of the legislature. In the case of  Yakunovych, the discontent stemmed from his refusal to sign the association agreeement with the EU. In Yeltsin’s case, it occurred because of discontent with Yeltsin’s “shock therapy.” Constitutionally, Yeltsin’s decree power ran out in December 1992. In April, a referendum was scheduled to sort out the deadlock between the executive and the legislature . As Martin Malia tells the story in his article, Soft Coup, for the New Republic (April 19,1993) (all from the standpoint that Yeltsin is the “democracy team), Yeltsin came to believe he would either lose the referendum in April or that the anti-privatization parts of the referendum would go against him. Now, as we all know, the democracy team cannot tolerate democracy if democracy is going to screw up the “liberalization” of the economy. As Malia points out, the opposition actually wanted something like worker’s collectives to take over the major industries. Such poppycock! And then the referendum coming up which might give the wrong, anti-democratic answer to the question, do you want oligarchs to take over your industry and plummet your economic status for the next fifteen years. .So in March Yeltsin sounded out foreign countries, i.e. the US, to see what they would think if he just unconsstitutionally swept aside the power of the legislature and ruled by decree. Amazingly, they were “understanding”. So Yeltsin pretty much did that, and proposed his own referendum.
“While Yeltsin won majorities expressing confidence in his leadership, supporting reform, and calling for new parliamentary elections, opposition to reform remained high—45% voted against it in the referendum. No less important, a majority favored early presidential elections, meaning that Russia’s voters wanted not only a new parliament, but a chance at a new president and a clean political slate to move beyond the confrontation between Yeltsin and conservative legislators.
Russia’s president was not interested in the latter message, however, and pressed ahead in his conflict with the Supreme Soviet and government by diktat—with the full support of the Clinton administration. (And despite private advice from Richard Nixon, who encouraged Yeltsin to seek a compromise with the parliament in March 1993, only to be told by the Russian leader that U.S. officials were counseling the exact opposite.) When Yeltsin eventually dissolved the parliament in frustration in September, President Bill Clinton stated explicitly that “President Yeltsin has made his choice, and I support him fully.” Ambassador-at-Large for the former Soviet Union Strobe Talbott referred to Yeltsin’s dissolution of parliament as a “noisy squabble.” With this support, Yeltsin sent in the tanks two weeks later, on October 4, and swept the Supreme Soviet into the dustbin of history. It was surely noisy, but rather more than a squabble.”
I rather like the farcical intrusion of Richard Nixon into this story – a man from the past who actually advised, oh, democracy democracy instead of team democracy. Poor Nixon, made obsolete by the zeitgeist that had shifted far to the right of him, with Clinton and the neo-liberals in the lead!
The moral of the Yeltsin story is that the curious reporting about Ukraine – for instance, a New Yorker reporter named Jon Lee Anderson writing that the Maidan protestors swept away a “tyrant” – is not curious once you dispense with the idea of democracy as a process and understand it as a team label. Of course, the democracy team does have to do one thing: it has to privatize. It has to respect “private property” – for instance, the assets of multinational corporations. Otherwise it isn’t the democracy team anymore, but tyranny. And it is in this neat machine that the people of East Ukraine are supposed to be milled to death. For who could support the non-democracy team (the one that holds elections) except devilish souls like Putin, who are not at all democracy team like Boris Yeltsin was.

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