Vladimir Putin (Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0)

I was a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School when Colin Powell delivered his now infamous address to the United Nations Security Council on Iraq. I watched the address on YouTube in OPRF’s library, overcome with inexplicable skepticism. By nature, I’m rather conservative. I respect tradition, discipline and good organization, even if I don’t always exhibit those qualities. Powell, however, did exhibit all of those qualities and I respected him for that. I wanted to believe him.

Something, however, wasn’t right.

That same year, 2003, my classmates would confirm what I could not quite bring myself to believe. One day, my entire environmental science class emptied, with kids abruptly walking out of school in what was likely the largest student demonstration of my high school tenure. Firm in my contrarianism, I was the only student in that class who stayed behind, resulting in an awkward moment of silence with my teacher.

I realize now that my peers were much more attuned with their instincts than I was at the time. As kids are wont to do, they sniffed that BS a mile away.

Last week, this primal truth came rushing to mind while I was covering a student walkout in a neighboring suburban school district, where teachers are threatening to strike amid contract negotiations with an ethically and morally odious school board and administration, whose spending on six-figure-salaried central office administrators and long-distant contractors has outpaced spending on assets closest to the kids in the classrooms. Every student I interviewed said they were on the side of the teachers.

When I interviewed the school board president (the superintendent is too imperious to talk to the local press), he told me the kids have been essentially brainwashed. They believe the teachers because they’re with them every day, he told me, as if the arrangement were some kind of conspiracy.

“The superintendent and administration don’t care about education,” said one student, a freshman, during Wednesday’s walkout. “It’s obvious they don’t.”

My rule of thumb as a reporter and consumer of information is this: When the kids speak in unison, believe them. And when bureaucrats, businesspeople, politicians and media talking heads speak in unison, put your guards up.

A study published this month by MintPress shows that 90 percent of recent opinion articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have taken a hawkish stance on the current Russia-Ukraine crisis.

“Opinion columns have overwhelmingly expressed support for sending U.S. weapons and troops to the region,” MintPress News reports. “Russia has universally been presented as the aggressor in this dispute, with media glossing over NATO’s role in amping tensions while barely mentioning the U.S. collaboration with Neo-Nazi elements within the Ukrainian ruling coalition.”

The study references Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead claiming that the country’s already bloated military budget “will have to grow as the U.S. increases its capacity against both Russia and China.”

Here’s another rule of thumb. Do not read the Wall Street Journal opinion pages, which should embarrass even conservatives. They are that bad. Do, however, read the Journal’s reporting, which is about as solid as the reporting about the Ukraine crisis gets in mainstream U.S. journalism. 

Stephen Fidler’s piece in Tuesday’s paper, “Putin’s Endgame: Undo Post-Cold War Accords,” provides essential historical context that’s necessary for understanding the current crisis, which is as much, if not even more, about America’s identity crisis as it is about Putin’s identity crisis.

But you’ll have to leave mainstream media altogether and venture into the realm of alternative media to find the most apt metaphor for this pending war, which involves two aging world powers who want to convince themselves that they are who they were in their prime.

You’ll find the metaphor in C.J. Polychroniou’s Feb. 16 interview with Noam Chomsky in Truthout.

First, Chomsky focuses on how we should frame the current crisis by referencing National Security Council Paper Number 68, the policy directive signed by President Harry Truman in 1950 that was “the major internal planning document of the early Cold War years.”

The document is worth reading, if only for the lessons it provides on how the U.S. elite exercises myth projection and American exceptionalism. The pristinely innocent United States, NSC 68 says, must take the lead in mobilizing the free world against the evil Soviet Union at virtually all costs.

As the Wall Street Journal’s reporting demonstrates, the U.S. and the West have been pursuing the aims of NSC 68 long after the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended.

In the 1990s, the U.S. and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) repeatedly broke promises with Russia that they would restrain their ambitions, the Journal reports. In addition, “the triumphalism over winning the Cold War was excessive,” many “current and former Western officials” now admit.

The Journal cites Rodric Braithwaite, the British ambassador to Moscow when the Soviet Union collapsed, who is critical of both Putin’s and the West’s serious overreach.

“Although I think that Western diplomacy was arrogant and incompetent in the 1990s, and we’re paying the price now, that is not a reason for Putin to put himself in a posture that makes other people think he’s about to launch a war,” Braithwaite says.

You’d have to read John Nichols’ Feb. 15 article in the Nation to get a glimpse of perhaps the most realistic assessment of the Ukraine crisis given by any of our national elected officials.

“A simplistic refusal to recognize the complex roots of the tensions in the region undermines the ability of negotiators to reach a peaceful resolution,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said earlier this month on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Sanders said the U.S. must “unequivocally support the sovereignty of Ukraine and make clear that the international community will impose severe consequences on Putin and his fellow oligarchs if he does not change course.” But U.S. officials should also get inside of Putin’s head.

“I know it is not very popular in Washington to consider the perspectives of our adversaries, but I think it is important in formulating good policy,” Sanders said.

It’s unrealistic to think that what Russia is doing with the Ukraine has not been done by the United States with other countries we’ve considered to be in our orbit of influence. Consider the Monroe Doctrine, which is basically the U.S. placing dibs on the western hemisphere.

A key difference, though, is that Russia’s relationship with Ukraine is much more intimate than, say, our relationship with Mexico or Central America. The Journal cites an essay published in July by Putin in which he “seeks to justify Russia’s claim to Ukraine, writing that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are one people, all descended from Ancient Rus, the largest state in Europe in the ninth century.”

To Putin, the West’s nominal ownership of Ukraine, particularly the country’s flirtation with joining NATO (which Putin, rightly, considers a U.S. tool) is an existential insult. That may partly explain his seemingly irrational flirtation with war.  

Americans have to realize that just because our culture is premised on forgetting doesn’t mean that other cultures are forgetful, too. Just because we’re emotionally detached from history doesn’t mean that other cultures are, as well. Russians, like the Chinese, have long, long memories and they take their history and culture very seriously. They remember slights and they will plan the payback, even if it takes decades or centuries.

President Joe Biden poses for his official portrait Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in the Library of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

But what Putin doesn’t seem to understand, what President Biden doesn’t seem to understand, is that Russia and the West (i.e., the U.S.) are not the kind of powers they were during the Cold War. In this regard, that NCS 68 document is particularly telling.

“The capability of the United States either in peace or in the event of war to cope with threats to its security or to gain its objectives would be severely weakened by internal developments, important among which are:

“Serious espionage, subversion and sabotage, particularly by concerted and well-directed communist activity; prolonged or exaggerated economic instability; internal political and social disunity; inadequate or excessive armament or foreign aid expenditures; an excessive or wasteful usage of our resources in time of peace; lessening of U.S. prestige and influence [… and the] development of a false sense of security through a deceptive change in Soviet tactics.”

We’re two decades into perhaps the weakest and hollowest economic recovery in U.S. history; still barely recovering, six years later, from having elected a Russian asset as president; barely able to pass budgets, let alone national infrastructure legislation; mocked around the world for our disingenuous democratic posturing; and roughly a decade from President Obama’s debate zinger to Mitt Romney’s hackneyed and inadvertently correct insistence on Russia being a national security threat  (“the ’80s called, they want their foreign policy back,” said the naïve president).

I’d say we’ve checked off just about all of NSC 68’s reasons for why we cannot handle more saber-rattling. As for Russia, I’ll just reference Harvard economist Jason Furman, who told the New York Times that, with respect to its importance to the global economy, Putin’s vast nation is “basically a big gas station.”

There’s a meme that Facebook recently served me on my timeline of two geriatric white guys boxing in a nursing home, which reminds me of the metaphor that Chomsky referenced and that might as well apply to the whole Russia-U.S. excitement over Ukraine: It’s like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

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