Monday, April 24, 2017

Winter is Coming:Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, by Garry Kasparov (author), George Backman (narrator)

Audible Studios, October 2015

This is a really excellent and important book, still important two years after publication and with a new president in office. Kasparov is intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful, has watched Russia's transition from communism to Putinism from the inside, and has been actively involved in pro-democracy, anti-Putin resistance for years. There's a lot to be learned here, and you're making a mistake if you don't read this book.

But I have one criticism, and it's a big one.

Kasparov's entirely natural and appropriate focus on the concerns of his own country, especially since that country is a major nuclear power, has resulted in some major blind spots. That's what I'm going to talk about.

One of his great concerns is that morality should play a role in foreign policy. I totally agree with him on that. Unfortunately, he thinks Ronald Reagan and at least the first term of George W. Bush are examples of moral clarity in foreign policy. Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down that wall! GWB didn't turn back from taking down Saddam Hussein like his wimpy father did! (That's hyperbole; Kasparov doesn't call Bush 41 a wimp.) They made western democratic values a key factor in foreign policy decisions!

Except, of course, they didn't, and it's only possible to think they did by a laser-focus on US-Russia relations.

They did, however, talk a lot about morality in foreign policy, while doing some utterly outrageous and, in GWB's case, seriously destabilizing thing.

Reagan did tell Gorbachev to tear down that wall. His strong stance on related matters did contribute to helping break up the USSR. But he also (1) traded arms for hostages to Iran, (2) to raise money to fund right-wing rebel forces to overthrow the very suspect but democratically elected left-wing forces led by Daniel Ortega, (3) a policy which had been decisively rejected more than once by the American people and our elected representatives. You can't support democracy while rejecting the right of democratic peoples to make decisions you disagree with. Even if you believe selling arms to Iran to get hostages released and to fund the activities of forces opposing a distasteful but lawfully elected foreign leader was a good idea, the American people still had the right to disagree with you, and to vote for people who disagree with you.

It doesn't get better when we look at George W. Bush, not even in his first term.

There's nothing moral about lying your country in to a war.

GWB built a structure of lies to convince the American people and the world that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, or supported Al Qaeda, or was pursuing the building of nuclear weapons, or perhaps all three. None of these things was true. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. No, he wasn't the source of the 9/11 attacks. Religious fanatic Osama bin Laden and secularist Saddam Hussein hated each other; they weren't working together. Saddam Hussein wasn't at that time trying to restart either a nuclear weapons program or a chemical weapons program.

And Bush 41, even though Saddam was really a bad guy, wasn't wrong to turn back from Baghdad. Taking out Saddam without pouring in enormous resources with a well-thought-out plan for rebuilding Iraq could only destabilize the entire Middle East, increasing the danger to the entire world. Bush 41 said that. No one really listened to him. When GWB quite determinedly shifted as much as possible of the blame for 9/11, as well as dreaming up fantasies of new Iraqi weapons programs, quite a lot of people, at all levels, did try to point out that defeating Saddam would mean occupying Iraq, and that occupying Iraq would require enormous resources to stabilize and rebuild it afterward in order to avoid destabilizing the Middle East. GWB and those around him brushed all objections aside and spun more fantasies, this time about how democracy and western values would just naturally break out in Iraq after Saddam was killed.

It didn't work out that way, and we are still paying the price for the badly conducted war and occupation that GWB led us into under false pretenses.

Lying your country into an unnecessary war isn't moral.

There are other areas where I disagree with Kasparov, but those are areas of simple disagreement. Intelligent people of goodwill can disagree, even profoundly, on many issues. But lying your country into a war under false pretenses, or funding death squads in other countries because you don't like that country's elected government, or trading arms for hostages, are not mere matters of disagreement. They are profoundly immoral, anti-democratic practices.

(Among those mere matters of disagreement are Georgia and Ukraine. He thinks Europe and the US need to get actively, militarily involved in these acts of aggression. I agree that we can't ignore them, and need to find a way to address them, but Europe won't be committing its armies anytime soon, and American armed forces have been run through the wringer for the last decade and a half. Some of that has been for good reasons and some for bad, but, they've been run through the wringer. And getting involved in Ukraine is perilously close to committing one of the Classic Blunders, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." [It's possible Mr. Kasparov has never either read or seen The Princess Bride. If not, you really should at some point, Mr. Kasparov. If nothing else, it will be fun.] But that, as I think you'll agree, is merely a disagreement, a different view of a real issue that I think naturally concerns him more directly and immediately.)

Having said all that, you may think I disliked this book or think you shouldn't bother to read it. Mr. Kasparov is worth arguing with because he is knowledgeable, thoughtful, and serious. You will learn a lot about Russia, what has happened there, ans why we shouldn't ignore Putin that you won't learn as easily or in as interesting a way anywhere else. You may agree with him on matters where I disagree with him. You may disagree with him where I agree with him.

But read him. And take him seriously.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.