Photo of the Week: A Tense Look Between President Obama and Vladimir Putin
Every week, Truthdig’s editors seek to present an image that singularly renders the world’s triumph, trouble or toil.
What’s in a look?
Saturday morning, U.S. and Russian leaders overcame considerable tension, perhaps caught in the photograph above at the G-20 summit in China a few days earlier, for a tentative cease-fire between their allies and surrogates in Syria. The agreement includes a later joint U.S.-Russia campaign to subdue Islamic State and other militant opposition groups with aerial bombings and is aimed at turning the tide of blood in a civil war that has taken more than 72,000 lives annually for nearly 5½ years.
For its part, the Syrian government of Bashar Assad said it would suspend airstrikes, the main cause of civilian deaths, on areas controlled by its opposition.
Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer said of the development, “This is not only potentially a lifesaver for millions of Syrians but also undermines the neocon push for a new cold war or even a hot one with Russia. It also undermines Hillary Clinton’s Putin-bashing that she has made a major part of her attack on Trump.
“Note also that the military-industrial complex as represented by [Secretary of Defense] Ash Carter is unhappy. [John] Kerry has turned out to be an effective advocate for diplomacy and makes Hillary’s time as secretary of state appear ever more recklessly hawkish.”
Both sides were careful to avoid giving the impression that the deal means the parties involved are getting along. “No one is building this based on trust,” said Kerry. “It is based on oversight, compliance, mutual interest. This is an opportunity, and not more than that until it becomes a reality.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed Kerry’s tone, adding that Russia would do “what depends on us” but that “not everything does.”
As appearances go, trust is in diminishing supply between the U.S. and Russia. After ridiculing Republicans for invoking Cold War fears during the 2012 presidential election, Russians have watched as Democrats and their media allies happily revived that tactic during this year’s presidential contest, as they Red-bait Republicans. The move dovetails with nearly three years of top-level demagoguery against Russia in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in response to the ascent of U.S.-supported forces in the Ukrainian capitol of Kiev. With the new regime’s interest in joining NATO, its rise threatened to bring Russia’s armed and galloping former adversary to its doorstep — in violation, among other things, of a promise George H.W. Bush made to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.
But efforts to exercise the kind of empathy taught to schoolchildren and consider a conflict from the other party’s perspective win no respect in Washington. Democratic Party leaders allege that the Russian government is conducting cyberwarfare in an effort to influence the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s aim? To halt former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s election and benefit the ostensibly more Putin-friendly Donald Trump. Maybe it’s true, but the evidence made public so far is scant, falling far short of that showing the U.S. doing the same in Ukraine, where a telephone call came to light in early 2014 exposing U.S. diplomats Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt scheming to pick that country’s next president.
Meanwhile, military contractors are telling investors that rising tensions with Russia are good for business.
Responding to Trump’s conciliatory pose toward Putin, outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently went so far as to ask the FBI to investigate possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia. In a letter to FBI Director James Comey, Reid wrote, “I have recently become concerned that the threat of the Russian government tampering in our presidential election is more extensive than widely known and may include the intent to falsify official election results.”
But as journalist Glenn Greenwald wrote Friday, “there is an American politician who has, time and again, accommodated Putin, sought to improve relations with Moscow, dismissed as fearmongering the threat Russia poses to the U.S., and repeatedly taken steps that benefited Russian interests. That politician’s name is Barack Obama.” Writing at The Guardian the day before, Trevor Timm called “Barack Obama … the only politician not playing into the cold war 2.0 hysteria”:
“Obama has been generally right about Russia for years,” Timm continued. “In a ‘60 Minutes’ interview last year, correspondent Steve Kroft kept trying to get Obama to admit that Putin was asserting his dominance over the US, but as Obama calmly (and correctly) explained, what Russia is doing in Syria and Ukraine is not born out of strength, but out of desperation. The idea of using our military purely to ‘show strength’ against Russia in some sort of macho capacity may only make things worse.”
Timm quoted Obama at length: “We are moving into a new area where a number of countries have significant capacities,” Obama said. “And frankly we have more capacity than any other country, both offensively and defensively.”
Greenwald and Timm’s cases are not exhaustive, however. As the Russian historian Steven Cohen reminds us, in 2014 Obama announced his intent to “isolate” Russia, saying Putin’s military response to the upheaval in Ukraine put him “on the wrong side of history.” No doubt, both leaders are under enormous pressure from the elites and political opponents in their countries.
Back in Syria, the U.S.-Russia deal requires a seven-day pause in fighting to begin Monday evening, the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. The Syrian army will allow humanitarian aid into Aleppo, where people are starving, and rebels will stop fighting around government areas.
If the cease-fire holds, the U.S. and Russian militaries will begin joint attacks on opposition groups, including Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and the Syrian air force will stay away from the fighting. The countries will also attempt to get some of the many opposition groups to separate themselves from those Russia and the U.S. will target.
“I’d like to highlight the task of separating terrorists and moderate opposition,” said Lavrov. “Physical separation of them on the ground is enshrined in the document, which we have agreed upon today as a key priority. We and the Unites States take the obligation to do all our best to engage and make stakeholders comply with the arrangements in the documents.”
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