Americas

Commentary

America's Chechnya

Russian special forces soldiers after a raid on the outskirts of Chechen capital Grozny, June 12, 2004.   (Photo: Yuri Tutov/AFP-Getty Images)


No two wars are the same. Iraq is not Vietnam, it is not Algeria, and it is no replay of a conflict from ancient Greece or China.

But it has something of Vietnam in its asymmetric nature, something of Algeria in its tactical quality, and there are probably some lessons to be learned from all sorts of comparisons with other wars from history. To make a contemporary comparison, in its domestic political dynamic, and to a degree in its expeditionary, overwhelming-force military technique, U.S. President George W. Bush's venture in Iraq can be compared with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin's war in Chechnya.

Politically, Putin made the promise of victory in Chechnya the central plank in his presidential election platform. It was not like that for Bush, but his presidency was floundering in its early days, dogged by suggestions that he lacked legitimacy. He was married to his "war on terrorism" as soon as it was formulated - more closely than Putin is married to the Chechen issue.

Both presidents have been keen to present themselves as "war presidents," brave champions of their respective people against rather similar threats from ruthless Islamic terrorists. Moscow has had nothing quite as dramatic as the September 11 attacks to make the message believable, but bombs, kidnappings and the seizure of the Palace of Culture theater in mid-performance in October 2002 have left the Russian voters in no doubt who the enemy is.

The immediate political advantage accruing to the war president in both cases is an extraordinary freedom of action. As Commander-in-Chief, there is freedom to make war, as might be expected, but the record shows that greater liberty than this has been established. The logic is simple enough. At this time of great national crisis, with the Commander-in-Chief doing such a dangerous and vital job on the anti-terrorist front, he must be left to handle the rest of his task as he sees fit. His hand-picked team of advisors has no thought but the national good, and to engage in the kind of partisan or personal sniping that might arise under more normal political circumstances would be anti-patriotic and wrong.

Both men have seized this extraordinary opportunity; Bush, to enact a wide range of radical conservative domestic policies, which in many cases have no logical connection with the war effort, and Putin to establish a centralized style of government which appears to outsiders to verge on the dictatorial (though few Russian voices are heard making such criticisms).

There is an equally straightforward disadvantage arising from this source of legitimacy. A war president must win the war, as he has promised. The Chechen war has been going longer than the Iraq war, and oddly enough, the lack of a clear victory -- with the puppet president himself assassinated on May 9 -- has not seemed to damage Putin's popularity. How has he managed this? Partly it is a question of control of the media, but this is not the primary explanation. Information is available to those who want it. The primary explanation lies in the patriotic reflex. It has now been clearly established that it is the patriotic duty of Russians to collectively support Vladimir Putin in the war against those whom he deems terrorists. Each fresh episode of violence only confirms this belief.

Can George W. Bush count on such support in the long-term? It does not seem likely. Many would say that the Russians who support Putin's war in Chechnya are badly misinformed about the situation there, and the evidence is that American voters also have resilient false beliefs about Iraq. According to a poll of April 22, 2004 from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, 57 percent of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was supporting al-Qaeda before the September 11 attacks, a percentage that has hardly changed since the run-up to the war.

But when it comes to the attitude of the media, the parallel with Russia breaks down. Russian atrocities in Chechnya have been documented very thoroughly in the rest of the world -- Amnesty International describes "wholesale abuses of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law" -- but the Russian press, through a mixture of patriotism, loyalty, respect and fear, has been and remains largely silent.

American disregard for the laws of war, while mostly ignored for similar reasons inside America, has now become front-page news, not just abroad, but in the United States as well. Those trumpeting the bad news are mostly political opponents of George W. Bush and the Republican Party, but the issue has become a national one, and the political values that seemed so solid -- of loyalty to the Commander-in-Chief, of support for the troops, and of steadfast belief in final victory -- are themselves looking increasingly uncertain.

Some individual Americans would be prepared to grant their armed forces the same kind of de facto legal immunity enjoyed by Russian forces in Chechnya, explicitly to allow them to carry out interrogations under duress, intimidation through illegal violence, and other such extreme measures: but the White House claims to represent an international moral consensus, and this is not consistent with these methods, either domestically or overseas. If recent allegations about U.S. Central Command being involved in a planned, deliberate extra-judicial program of secret detention, torture and other abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq are proved correct, even the most loyal international allies of the United States will be forced to reconsider their role in the war.

So, in the end, America is not Russia, and the analogy, while an instructive one, breaks down. Vladimir Putin, who has no international allies and does not need them, has declared victory several times, and may well do so again. George W. Bush has only done so once, and is unlikely to repeat the experiment.

Putin's message is one of retribution and the iron fist, and more resistance from Chechens can plausibly be met with more punishment. Bush, on the other hand, has promised peace, justice and democracy, and loyal supporters expect these items to be delivered in due course, which explains why there is simply no answer available as to why Iraqis are resisting the U.S. occupation. Why would anyone resist peace, justice and democracy?

Something has evidently gone wrong, and word is gradually spreading. The Pentagon has the military means to sustain a war like Putin's for decades, if necessary, in what is at present very similar to a rebellious imperial possession. As in Chechnya, an illegitimate puppet government can be supported with blood and treasure from a superpower as long as the domestic voters will support it. But the solid support for the war president that is general in Russia is limited to the Republican half of the American population. Indeed, among Democrats, and especially the undecided voters who will determine the results of the November presidential election, the figures show dramatic falls in support for Bush and the war in general.

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