The Biden administration decision not to appoint Dr. Matthew Rojansky — the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center — as Russia director at the National Security Council is a very depressing comment on the state of the debate on Russia policy in Washington today. It also has worrying implications for U.S. political culture and policymaking more widely.
This decision comes in the wake of a campaign of personal vilification that can well be called McCarthyite in its hysteria and dishonesty. It was even suggested by one of Rojansky’s critics that his appointment would somehow give a green light to Putin to kill Alexei Navalny — as if Putin needed any such green light from Washington.
Above all, Rojansky has been called a defender and ally of Putin and an advocate of some form of U.S. partnership with Russia. None of this is true. In fact, it is many years since any serious Russia expert in the United States or Europe has advocated “partnership” with Russia, except in the very narrow area of co-operation against Islamist terrorism and (perhaps) stabilization of Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal. Neither Rojansky nor anyone else is calling for the United States to fund, arm, or support Russia in any way; only to reduce tensions with Russia in the interests of the United States.
Rojansky’s arguments concerning a reduction of tensions with Russia have been made from a realist standpoint, and entirely in the name of defending the interests of the United States and avoiding unnecessary, unproductive, and very dangerous conflicts. He and others have simply asked — reasonably enough, one would have thought — how Washington became so committed to disputes with Russia in areas that were never previously of the slightest interest to the United States; and whether when Washington is faced with an immensely powerful peer competitor in China, it makes sense for it to increase its commitments and risks elsewhere.
In this sense, Rojansky is a worthy descendant of George Kennan, whose name adorns his present institute. Kennan, it may be remembered, was the architect of the “Containment” strategy that eventually brought about the collapse of the USSR and Soviet communism without war in Europe. Yet Kennan later also became a leading critic of the paranoid and aggressive aspects of U.S. thought and strategy during the Cold War, and after the end of that struggle, strongly opposed the expansion of NATO, which he saw — correctly — as leading to inevitable, dangerous and above all unnecessary hostility from Russia. Kennan was not “soft” on the USSR and Soviet communism. He did however take the trouble to study them very deeply.
The wider implications of the campaign against Rojansky and its outcome go far beyond relations with Russia. It will reinforce the tendency of the bipartisan foreign and security establishment in Washington to develop a closed, lockstep consensus on key issues, a discipline enforced by the very real threat to destroy the career of any dissenter.
Given the subservience of Washington politicians and most of the mainstream media to the influence of the “Blob,” this lockstep mentality then extends outwards to shut down much of the U.S. public debate in general, and to suppress any evidence that conflicts with this consensus, however important and however obvious. As Glenn Greenwald, Gareth Porter and others have documented, this leads to mere accusations becoming accepted “facts,” and never being withdrawn by politicians and the media even when abandoned by their originators (as with the accusation that Russia paid the Afghan Taliban to kill Americans, now in effect abandoned by the U.S. intelligence community from which it stemmed).
We know where this can lead, because we have seen it before. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the memory of McCarthyism helped lead to a collective mentality in Washington that made it extremely hard to question the idea of a united world communist bloc, or to challenge the idiotic “domino theory,” whereby the loss of one country to communism would inevitably lead to an unending row of others falling. Evidence to the contrary from within the CIA and State Department was suppressed or filtered out before it could reach the President’s desk.
The rendering of every local conflict in terms of the global struggle against communism blocked attempts to study the real nature of these conflicts and countries, and led the USA into a whole series of unnecessary entanglements — the most catastrophic being Vietnam. Far from serving the struggle against Communism, this drastically weakened the United States. I saw this mentality at work myself in U.S. policy towards Afghanistan in the 1980s, when attempts to warn of the danger of arming Islamist radicals among the Mujahedin were crushed, with disastrous consequences for the career of at least one honest and courageous US diplomat.
Today, the disastrous consequences for Washington of this suppression of open and honest debate are obvious. It is likely that future generations will see the folly of risking war with Russia at a time of gathering tension with China as equally obvious, and will have a similar combination of incredulity, exasperation and contempt towards those people today whose obsessive hatred of Russia leads them to push for confrontation, and in the process to suppress alternative arguments and evidence.
One final point is worth making. The advocates of unconditional hostility towards Russia make great play with their support for human rights and free speech in Russia. It is just possible that they do indeed have some general and sincere commitment to human rights in the world. But given their behavior towards Rojansky and others, when it comes to free speech — don’t make me laugh.