Review of “Superpower Illusions”

“Reagan normally rejected [the neoconservatives] advice if it involved refusing to talk to adversaries.  But when his policies actually worked, instead of conceding that Reagan was right and they were wrong, they have sought explanations for the end of the Cold War that bolster the myths that have plagued us.  Thus the idea is perpetuated that it was U.S. force and threats, rather than negotiation, that ended the Cold War, and also that Reagan’s rhetoric “conquered” communism, and that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the equivalent of a military victory.  These claims are all distortions, all incorrect, all misleading, and all dangerous to the safety and future prosperity of the American people.”

-Jack F. Matlock, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union (page 52)


It would be nice if our current president would have picked someone like Jack Matlock – experienced, wise, non-partisan and fair-minded – to advise him on foreign policy, instead of the assortment of neocons, liberal interventionists and venal asshats he has chosen to surround himself with.


Perhaps Matlock could have talked him out of his decision to not take Putin’s calls at the height of the Ukraine crisis (1) and his subsequent churlish behavior at the V-Day celebrations in Normandy where he chomped on gum and made it clear he didn’t want to be in the same room with Putin, making things extremely awkward for our European allies.


Matlock, a former Democrat who worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations throughout his decades-long career, now an independent, explained what he thought was one of Reagan’s great insights:


“Each time there was a crisis of some sort, they [neoconservatives] advised Reagan to terminate negotiations in order to “punish” the Soviet Union for impermissible behavior. In their eyes, merely talking to Soviet leaders directly was a form of endorsement…Reagan rejected this approach.  He believed in communication, and believed that refusing to talk was a sign of weakness, not of strength.”  (page 52)


At this point, it is clear that Obama has largely cast his lot with the neoconservatives.   If you need any more convincing, consider the fact that Obama refuses to talk to Henry Kissinger, despite the fact that Kissinger meets with Putin twice a year and probably has more insight into the Russian president than any American statesman alive today and has publicly stated that our current policy toward Russia is unwise.  In an interview a few months back, Jimmy Carter admitted (not in the context of Ukraine or Russia) that Obama was the only president since he left office that had not once asked for his advice or counsel on anything.  By contrast, in response to a piece recently published by Robert Kagan where he spewed the same tired neocon worldview, Obama said he wanted to have lunch with Kagan and discuss his concerns.  (2)


So, Obama refuses to talk to elder statesmen who may have insights into various issues of great import, but will clear his calendar to meet with a neocon nut burger whose views any sane person would have dismissed years ago based on their miserable record.


Matlock skillfully discredits neoconservative ideology (along with elements of others that recently have had influence in Washington) as another in a long line of utopian theories of history that justifies remaking the world toward some ideal purpose – in this case, creating a world in our image via regime change.  He also convincingly outlines the dangers of our leaders continuing to be influenced by this nonsense and the lies that prop it up.


Cold War Myths v. Realities


Matlock listed the following as Cold War realities in response to Cold War myths:


*The concept of two Superpowers was exaggerated.  The USSR was only competitive in terms of its military capacity and the arms race.  It was not economically competitive.


*The arms race damaged both parties.  However, it damaged the USSR more because it hobbled its economic and technological development.


Matlock confirms how economic analyst Seymour Melman described the Soviet economy years ago – not as a truly Communist or Socialist arrangement but a state run capitalist system with a vanguard political party controlling it.


*The zero-sum ideology.


This is true but not just for the Soviets as Matlock seems to imply.  As declassified government documents and other documentation demonstrates, during the Kennedy administration, national security and military advisors repeatedly tried to talk the president into a nuclear first strike under the delusion that the Soviets would not be able to retaliate in proportion and that the destruction of the USSR and any disproportionate retaliation or fallout would be worth it to defeat the evil empire.  These advisors truly believed this narrative that we were the good guys and any means necessary was justified by the evil we had to vanquish.   (See my review of JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass).


*Peaceful coexistence did not equal peace.


Again, all the onus seems to be on the Soviets with the Brezhnev doctrine, which provided that the Soviet Union had the obligation to use force to preserve socialist governments it could control.  Fair enough, the USSR was an empire and acted like one in its own peculiar manner; however, the U.S. fomented and participated in military and covert CIA interventions that were responsible for millions of deaths, torture and setback in terms of political development in the targeted countries.  It’s not often talked about in polite company, but it has been documented by people like William Blum.  Matlock does acknowledge the CIA’s role in the coup that overthrew democratically elected Iranian President Mohammad Mosadegh and obliquely acknowledges some of the rest, but seems to rationalize it as defensive against the Soviet Union’s stated objective of spreading Communism around the world.


*Soviet ideology was rigid and its rigidity was destructive.


*U.S. political partisanship was destructive.


Matlock gives several examples of this, such as McCarthyism and blame games over who “lost” China.  He argues that such behavior was divisive, overly simplistic and diverted attention away from constructive evaluations and solutions to problems.


This trend seems to be worse than ever according to a June 12th report by the Pew Research Center where it documents that large percentages of both Democrats and Republicans view members of the other party as a threat to the nation, with this sentiment a bit more pronounced among self-identified Republicans.


*Hyper-secrecy on both sides created more dangers than it prevented.




Though Reagan was responsible for many abhorrent policies, Matlock makes a convincing case that he was sincere in his desire for serious nuclear arms reduction and establishing a cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union, but hit a brick wall with Soviet leaders Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko.


And along came Gorbachev.


Reagan and Gorbachev’s initial meetings did not reflect a terribly auspicious beginning but a proposal by Gorbachev calling for complete nuclear disarmament by 1999 got Reagan’s attention.  Though there was suspicion that this proposal was more of a propaganda ploy on Gorbachev’s part, it provided an opening between the two leaders.  The subsequent Chernobyl catastrophe reinforced the danger of nuclear weapons to the Soviet leadership.


According to Matlock, Reagan was very careful during negotiations with Gorbachev to allow him to come to the conclusion that many of the negotiated changes were in the Soviet Union’s interest due to the economic damage resulting from the military budget necessitated by the Cold War.  If Gorbachev would not have been able to negotiate the Cold War’s end and the need for allocation of massive resources toward the military, he would not have been able to implement the reforms needed for glasnost, perestroika and the eventual dismantling of the Soviet Union.


Reagan also was careful never to frame the situation as a victory or defeat.  Bush I followed this approach until Bush’s re-election campaign when he declared to the American electorate that “We won the Cold War.”


Post-Soviet U.S.-Russia Relations – Treating Russia Like a Loser


Another damaging post-Cold War myth that Matlock mentions is the idea that, because Russia was no longer the Communist Soviet Union, that it had magically become a “democracy” overnight. This ignored its 400 year history of authoritarian leadership in general and over 70 years of a relatively closed and totalitarian state in particular.


Matlock describes the immediate environment in post-Soviet Russia as one where many people, having no previous experience with democracy, often conflated it with a lack of rules.  When the communist command economy was dismantled, western advisors often insisted that Russians not rely on the state for any economic assistance during the transition under the guise of leaving communism behind.  One illustrative story relayed by Matlock involved a member of the Moscow city council who wanted to encourage small private businesses in his district.  He had developed a plan to “offer long-term low-interest loans from the city budget to entrepreneurs…When he explained his idea the Hoover (Institution) economists objected, saying that he must not involve the government…If the government provided loans or subsidies, that would be perpetuating socialism.”


The city council member was taken aback and asked where entrepreneurs would get their seed capital.  After being told that it would have to come from private sources, he inquired, “You mean from our criminals?  If they provide the capital, they control the business.  That’s not what we want to happen.”  (p. 111) Unfortunately, that is what happened.


Matlock further describes conditions as follows:  “In Russia, the Soviet collapse was followed by runaway inflation that destroyed all savings, even worse shortages of essential goods than existed under communism, a sudden rise in crime, and a government that, for several years was unable to pay even  [its] miserable pensions on time. Conditions resembled anarchy much more than life in a modern democracy.” (p. 6)


Exploitive conditions were foisted on Russia when economic  “advisors” from the Harvard Institute for International Development and other advocates of the “Chicago School” of economics colluded with Russian predators like Anatoly Chubais.  (4)


Matlock admitted that Bush I should have attempted to pool a coalition of knowledgeable people from across the western world to assist Russia in transitioning from a command economy to a free market one, something that had never been done before.  But he apparently didn’t have the political will to do so.


This was the mess that Vladimir Putin inherited when he took over as President of Russia in 2000. However, stability has since been restored to Russia along with economic improvements, the repayment of most of Russia’s external debt (which provided independence) and internal investment of profits from fossil fuel resources.   Sharon Tennison who has participated in various citizen development projects in Russia since the early 1980’s, and has visited Russia numerous times over those three decades, describes the changes over the past 14 years as follows:


“During this time, I’ve traveled throughout Russia several times every year, and have watched the country slowly change under Putin’s watch.  Taxes were lowered, inflation lessened, and laws slowly put in place.  Schools and hospitals began improving.  Small businesses were growing, agriculture was showing improvement, and stores were becoming stocked with food.


“Highways were being laid across the country, new rails and modern trains appeared even in far out places, and the banking industry was becoming dependable.  Russia was beginning to look like a decent country—certainly not where Russians hoped it to be long term, but improving incrementally for the first time in their memories.” (5)


Tennison also provides an interesting counterpoint to the constant diet of Putin-is-the-Anti-Christ our leaders and media are feeding the public in pursuit of an agenda.  Noting that she is often greeted with the designation of “Putin apologist” for offering her truthful observations, this is based on her personal interaction with Vladimir Putin whom she met in the early 1990’s while he was a bureaucrat in St. Petersburg who reviewed her organization’s project proposal.  She described him as intelligent, thoughtful, courteous and honest.  He was conspicuous in the sense that, unlike many of his colleagues at the time, he never took bribes.  Her collection of experiences and impressions by others who have dealt directly with Putin also contradict his caricatured depiction by American leaders and mainstream media pundits as simply a “thug” who is personally responsible for poisonings and murders of journalists – claims that analysts who really know Russia say are unsubstantiated. (5)


Tennison’s impressions may not represent the whole person either, especially since he has taken the reins of a large country that was beset with a multitude of internal problems and outside pressures that may encourage some ethical gymnastics, like the immediate pardoning of Boris Yeltsin who was personally corrupt and facilitated the plundering of the Russian economy by academic proponents of “shock therapy” against the wishes of the Russian people. (4)  Despite this, and the fact that the perilous conditions for journalists in Russia were well underway during Yeltsin’s reign, American leaders and media often portrayed Yeltsin in a positive light.


Contrast that with Tennison quoting a State Department official she talked to as describing the U.S. government’s attitude toward Putin:   “The ‘knives were drawn’ when it was announced that Putin would be the next president.  I could never find out why.”  One glaring difference between Yeltsin and Putin is that Putin no longer allowed outsiders to simply make off with Russia’s wealth.  And while oligarchs still control much of Russia’s wealth, Putin ordered them to pay taxes and stay out of politics.  Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was adopted by the human rights community in the West, violated both rules and was ready to sell a significant portion of Yukos Oil to Exxon.  Consequently, Putin stripped him of his wealth and jailed him. (5) (6)


NATO and Ukraine


Matlock discusses when Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker negotiated a gentleman’s agreement with Gorbachev that, in exchange for allowing a reunified Germany as a NATO member, NATO would not be expanded any further east.  Due to the Soviet Union’s history of having been invaded twice by Germany during the 20th century, Gorbachev was understandably hesitant to allow a unified Germany.   However, Baker explained that it would be better to have a unified Germany as a member of NATO where any contemplated military actions would supposedly be kept in check than to have an independent Germany.  Gorbachev agreed with this reasoning but made a grave error in not demanding that the agreement be put in writing.


This agreement was subsequently broken by Clinton who encouraged the entry of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic into NATO and Bush II who actively lobbied for the entry of seven more Eastern European nations into the alliance.


Matlock explains that when Clinton was advised by Russian representatives and experts on Russia/Soviet Union, even some who had participated in the negotiated end of the Cold war, that he was about to make a serious geopolitical blunder in encouraging NATO expansion, he did it anyway.


“[One of two decisions] turned Russian public opinion during the years of the Clinton administration from strongly pro-American to vigorous opposition to American policies abroad.  The first was the decision to extend the NATO military structure into countries that had previously been members of the Warsaw Pact.  There was no need to expand NATO to ensure the security of the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe.  There were other ways those countries could have been reassured and protected without seeming to re-divide Europe to Russia’s disadvantage…Combined with rhetoric claiming “victory” in the Cold War, expanding NATO suggested to the Russian public that throwing off communism and breaking up the Soviet Union had probably been a bad idea.  Instead of getting credit for voluntarily joining the West, they were being treated as if they had been defeated and were not worthy to be allies.”  (p. 170-172)


Matlock’s description of modern Ukraine’s complex political history and demographics provided a foreshadowing (this book was published in 2010) of the post-coup problems we are currently witnessing:  “Well over half of Ukrainian citizens oppose the country’s entry into NATO.  To understand why, one must bear in mind that Ukraine’s biggest security problem is not Russian “imperialism” but political, social, economic and linguistic divisions inside the country.” (p. 253)


Matlock concluded that any attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO would have dire consequences.   Putin made this very argument to then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice during a 200_ meeting during which Rice, representing the Washington consensus of ignoring Russian warnings about reckless policies in an area where they seem to understand little and care less about the consequences…”..You are playing with fire…”…Rice’s response and attitude it reflected…(Strongman, pp. __).


Despite denials in some quarters, the economic agreement with Europe that Yanukovich refused to sign included language that would lay the groundwork for NATO membership.  This presented another serious problem in addition to the economic exclusivity and austerity program it would have also mandated on an already poor country that relies heavily on trade with Russia. While Yanukovich may have been playing both ends against the middle with Russia and the EU, it was certainly not irrational for him to have rejected this agreement.  (7) (8)


As Russia expert Stephen Cohen stated in a recent interview with Thom Hartmann, no country anywhere in the world, regardless of their leader, would allow an adversarial military alliance to plant itself on their borders – it would be considered an act of aggression.  (9)


The bottom line is that it’s in the U.S.’s national security interests to have good relations with Russia, as Matlock argues, mainly in pursuit of nuclear disarmament.  Putin was also the first foreign leader to call President Bush after the 9/11 attacks because he saw it as an opening to increased cooperation.  Russia’s help is also needed to negotiate a resolution in Syria, Iran and other hot spots where it can exert influence in line with American interests.


And as far as castigating Russia for not having a full-fledged liberal democracy, Matlock points out that it’s fallacious to think that two nations have to share the same form of government to be effective allies. Conversely, two nations having the same form of government has historically been no guarantee that they will not go to war. Moreover, if we applied democratic standards as criteria for allies, then we’d have to ditch Saudi Arabia, a repressive monarchy that publicly executes homosexuals.


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