To Russia With Love

It was surely odd to see right-wing Republican Dana Rohrabacher speaking positively about Russia, but perhaps he was influenced by actor Steven Seagal — or maybe animosity toward Islamists now tops old grudges toward Moscow, a question that ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar addresses.

By Paul R. Pillar

A visit to Russia by a Republican congressional delegation led by Dana Rohrabacher of California has featured some unusual twists. The trip was at least partly arranged by action-film star Steven Seagal, which makes it only slightly less weird, as far as the role of entertainers is concerned, than Dennis Rodman being a point man for engagement with the leader of North Korea.

Then there is the whole idea of GOP legislators being activists for greater security cooperation with the Russians. They belong to the party whose presidential nominee last year described Russia as the principal geopolitical adversary of the United States, an “absurd statement,” according to Rohrabacher this week.

Actor Steven Seagal. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

The general idea being promoted by the delegation is sound, and to the extent the trip makes a difference it may well be to the good. A major theme of the trip is the importance of cooperation against Islamist terrorism. Bilateral cooperation with a wide range of partners has long been an important component of U.S. counterterrorism. The list of those partners is very long, longer than most of the public is apt to expect, and has included many states that have generally been thought of as U.S. adversaries.

Acting on shared interests between Russia and the United States in opposing certain varieties of terrorism makes sense. But any such cooperation should be undertaken with eyes open about a couple of things that the congressional delegation, based on its comments, does not seem to appreciate fully.

One concerns the limits of what can be done in counterterrorism even with robust international cooperation. A focus of discussion on the trip naturally was the Boston Marathon bombing, given the Russian ties of the ethnic Chechens who were the alleged perpetrators.

Rohrabacher made a comment on this subject that did not levy blame specifically on either Russia or the United States but included the assertion that greater cooperation between the two countries could have prevented the bombing. Based on what is publicly known so far, that assertion is not supportable.

Although we do not know all that Russian authorities knew before the incident about the elder Tsarnaev brother, we do not have a good basis for believing that they knew he was doing, or would do, terrorism, including doing it in Boston.

The other note of caution concerns not getting sucked into, or providing cover for, the other country’s agenda. Saying, as the congressmen did, that the United States and Russia share a common interest in defeating “radical Islam” covers a broad set of objectives, some of which the two countries really do share and others of which they do not.

They share an interest in countering terrorism, and more specifically terrorism as the United States defines it. They do not share an interest in taking hard-line approaches toward other kinds of dissident activity, including in the north Caucasus, that Moscow would be inclined to include as well under the label of radical Islam. It was unhelpful for Seagal to dismiss as “rumors” the serious human-rights concerns that have been raised about the current Putin-backed boss of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

One of the many problems stemming from the United States pitching counterterrorism as a boundless, worldwide “war on terror” is that it has provided a handy banner under which other countries have pursued, sometimes brutally, their own campaigns against ethnically based dissident movements.

Putin’s Russia certainly has done so in the Caucasus. So has another foil of the congressmen’s trip to Russia, China, in its handling of resistance from Uyghurs.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “To Russia With Love

  1. cornel williams
    June 9, 2013 at 05:38

    Why are all of these white guys, who play the tough non compromising heroes in Hollywood movies, Republican? From Sylvester Stallone, to Chuck Norris, to Bruce Willis, they all claim to be Republican. Why?

    • F. G. Sanford
      June 9, 2013 at 12:53

      You left out Fred Thompson, Ronnie Reagan and John Voigt. I think it has to do with the Viagra doesn’t work anymore syndrome: they have to screw somebody somehow, and right-wing politics is as close as they can get.

  2. Susan
    June 6, 2013 at 10:47

    Listen to this episode of Worlds Apart, Oksana Boyko challenges senior Republican Dana Rohrabacher on the US flexibility in defining and fighting terrorism. They then discuss US foreign policy and whether it fuels terror attacks and recruitment. The program wraps up with a discussion about the FBI’s shooting of Ibrahim Todashev, a suspect who was being questioned in connection with the Tsarnaev brothers and the Boston Marathon bombing.

  3. rosemerry
    June 5, 2013 at 17:08

    The right-wing Republican Dana Rohrabacher made a visit to Iraq a couple of years ago in which he told the officials that Iraq should pay back the money the USA had generously spent in saving and freeing Iraq from its enemies. He was quickly ushered away, but he is not exactly a reliable or tactful or knowledgeable representative of the US population (or maybe he is typical??)

  4. Morton Kurzweil
    June 5, 2013 at 15:51

    “animosity toward Islamists”? How about animosity toward Islam, or any religious or political belief system?
    No, animosity is in the paranoia of the believer.
    Belief in any certainty begets bigotry. “My God, my country, my morals are superior to others.”
    The result is slavery in the mind of the bigot and oppression of anyone perceived to be an object inferior and subject to domination by the conviction of a belief.
    Such feelings become spontaneous and subconscious expressions until opposing ideas must be faced.
    Facts are rare enough, and certainty is impossible. If anecdotal evidence becomes the last resort, as it must in politics, religion or any subject limited to the reaction of our senses, we must ask if our conclusions favor the survival of the individual or survival of our species.
    Respect and disrespect are earned by deeds, not by agreement on values.

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