February 15, 2000

William Safire:
Man With A Mission

There is nothing more infuriating than a journalist with an agenda who however refuses to be honest about it. For almost a quarter of century William Safire has been knocking out two columns a week for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Safire is no deep thinker. The world is divided into "good guys" and "bad guys." The "good guys" comprise Israel and the United States (in that order). The "bad guys" comprise, well, just about everyone else. America and Israel, are always arm in arm, up against the "bad guys," the "terrorists," the "rogue states," the "dictators."

Safire's hatreds are deep and venomous. Though he likes to think of himself as a great humanitarian, as a champion of "human rights," he tosses out slurs and insults about other nations with cheerful abandon. Since, according to his solipsistic world-view, the measure of any people is how it stands in relation to Israel or the United States, the intensity of his hatred is directly proportional to the degree to which a nation opposes current Israeli or US policy. That a nation may have interests of its own which do not coincide with those of Israel or the United States is inconceivable. To suggest that a nation may be responding to US or Israeli aggression, naturally makes one a member of the "isolationist" or the "blame America first" crowd.

Recently Safire has directed something bordering on barely-controlled rage at Russia. This is hardly surprising. Over the past year, the Russians have made it clear that they are fed up with being pushed around by the United States. The humiliation over Kosovo starkly demonstrated just how weak Russia had become during the Yeltsin years. Anxious to conform to Western diktats about "market democracy," the Russian government fecklessly presided over the looting of a nation in the name of "privatization." In the meantime, Russia's armed forces went into decline. One national humiliation followed another. The Russians were forced to accept the expansion of NATO almost to their borders. Their ally Serbia was pulverized. The United States was openly establishing anti-Russian military alliances in the Caucasus. And, now, if the Safires and Albrights have their way, the Baltic states and even Ukraine will become members of NATO. Enough is enough. The new leader Vladimir Putin promises that there will be no more kowtowing to the West. It is high time for Russians to regain their national pride.

As a result Safire is barely able to control himself. Every week he vents his spleen against the Russians at least once, sometimes twice. "Riding a wave of war hysteria," he spluttered recently, "this KGB apparatchik is likely to be elected president-to take his patient, Russia, to the cooler of repression and autocratic rule." Putin had "taken advantage of lawlessness in Chechnya to launch a popular war and called a snap election to capitalize on the war fever." This is typical Safire. He causally tosses out the phrase "lawlessness in Chechnya" and then never mentions it again as if it were a matter of no consequence. Chechnya is more than lawless. It is a gangster state. It launched an invasion of Dagestan last year. Its main source of income comes from organized crime, from stealing oil bound for the Black Sea, from kidnapping and from the counterfeiting of $100 bills. In fact, kidnapping is Chechnya's most important economic activity. Hostages, held under terrible conditions, are frequently tortured and dismembered. They are then bought and sold among the Chechen clans like marketable commodities.

What are the Russians supposed to do about this kind of "lawlessness"? Ignore it? Is that what Safire would advise the US Government to do? Of course not. He only wants Russia to be weak, not the United States. His show of solicitude for the Russians is so transparently dishonest it is hilarious. For some time now Safire has championed the cause of the "reformer" Grigory Yavlinsky. Yavlinsky is the Steve Forbes of Russian politics-always running and always losing and always in single digits. Sure enough, once again he is "gutsily running…but his time won't come until Russians tire of stagnation, weary of war and are no longer bamboozled by the Kremlin-controlled media." Interestingly, neither Safire nor anyone else complained about the "Kremlin-controlled media" at the time of the 1993 parliamentary shoot-out or during the 1996 presidential campaign when it saved Yeltsin from almost certain defeat.

Safire is intelligent enough to see that any candidate that he or the US Government embraces would be seen by Russians as creatures of the United States and hence to be avoided like the plague. So he offers the following disingenuous comment: "The irony is that a 'Putin era' would mean an uncompetitive, economically weakened Russia – no threat to the West. A 'Yavlinsky era' would marry a free-market system under law – and Russia would soon compete as a world power. Those fearful of resurgence of Russian power prefer the surly stagnation of what would come to be called Putinism. The more hopeful of us wish the Russians a better life, but should be careful what we wish for."

Safire obviously believes his readers are stupid. Apparently, they will buy into the notion that Putin's Russia – nationalist, assertive, determined to improve its military – poses no threat to the West. Why? Because it is so "uncompetitive." Why then did we spend all those years scaring ourselves silly about the Soviet Union? After all, its VCRs and coffee-makers could not "compete" with ours. Moreover, Safire's argument goes against the most cherished doctrine of the "global democracy" crowd. Democracies allegedly do not go to war against each other. So why would a Russia, even more completely under the sway of the West than it ever was during the Yeltsin years pose a "threat to the West"? Of course, it would pose no threat whatsoever and Safire knows it. Yavlinsky's Russia would be divided into economic zones run by the giant international corporations for the purpose of looting the country of its natural resources.

Safire's lament for the Chechens and his show of horror at Russia's atrocities contrasts starkly with his bellicosity last year during the bombing spree on Yugoslavia. Then his weekly lament was: Why so few bombs? Why so few Serb casualties? Last April, he wrote "Punishment from the air, calibrated to hurt but not too much, is not enough to win the war. The way to free Kosovo is to send in men with guns to force out the men with guns now doing the killing." And he sneered at Clinton's pusillanimity: "Public opinion, now supporting ground action to stop rapine and mass murder, could turn against him [Clinton] at the first sight of body bags. And so he waits for others to push him into taking the military steps to save refugee lives that NATO credibility and international morality urgently require."

By May Safire had become completely hysterical. In every column he warned of an impending sellout. His demagoguery was shameless. The "peacekeepers" – "with NATO at its core" – that would go into Kosovo would comprise, he claimed, "Serb-favoring Russians, Ukrainians and Argentineans, with Hungarians and Czechs to give the illusion of 'a NATO core'. If you were an ethnic-Albanian woman whose husband had been massacred, sister raped, children scattered and house burned down on orders from Belgrade-would you go back home under such featherweight protection?" In June, he wrote, "the Western world is doing the right thing in the wrong way….When you decide to strike, strike decisively. We should have turned out the lights in Belgrade and destroyed telecommunications the first day. Slow, steady escalation invites propaganda exploitation of 'collateral damage', highlights mistakes like the Chinese Embassy destruction and in the long run costs lives." To hell with civilian casualties, to hell with war crimes – the only thing that matters is American power. Vladimir Putin would put it a little differently – the only thing that matters is Russian power.

Since NATO's seizure of Kosovo, Safire has not written one column about Yugoslavia. Not once has he addressed the issue of the mass expulsion of the Serbs and gypsies. Not once has he suggested that he may have been wrong to indulge in so much hysterical hyperbole. There is a reason for that. Safire knew perfectly well that the story of the Kosovo genocide was a crock. Doubtless, he saw it as a necessary lie. The Serbs had to be defeated. Israel's pal, Turkey, had to be brought back into Europe. And the United States had to establish its little protectorates in the Balkans. These are to be the staging ground for subsequent expansion into the Middle East and Central Asia. Safire is a man with a mission.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Tuesday.

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