Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin: both pushing back against national decline

Desperately clinging on

The Putin-Biden summit illustrates one thing above all: US hypocrisy. Daniel Lazare looks at election interference and the debacle in Afghanistan

The June 15 Biden-Putin summit may not have resulted in any major political breakthroughs, but it still accomplished something important. It put on display for all the world to see a political culture that is uncritical, self-absorbed and dangerously detached from reality.

No, the culture was not Russia’s. Vladimir Putin performed as expected in Geneva. Pleased that Biden was meeting him halfway, he was nonetheless wary and cautious, as he defended his crackdown on Alexei Navalny, accused America of double standards on human rights and fielded absurdly belligerent questions from US press outlets like CNN (“So my question is, Mr President, what are you so afraid of?”).

Rather, the political culture on display was that of the United States. The difference was evident from the moment Biden stepped up to the podium. Where Putin invited a wide range of news organisations to his press conference - Russian, American, Canadian and European - the American side only invited reporters from the US. Where the Russian president called on journalists at random from all sides, Biden let it slip that his questioners were preselected (“As usual, folks, they gave me a list of the people I’m going to call on”). Where Putin had to deal with hostile attacks, Biden received nothing but softballs that even he could hit over the fence.

As bad as all this was, the river of clichés that followed was even worse. Biden began by bragging about what he told his Russian counterpart about American character:

I … told him that no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have in our view. That’s just part of the DNA of our country. Human rights is going to always be on the table, I told him. It’s not about just going after Russia when they violate human rights. It’s about who we are. How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?

Jaws dropped. After all, America’s record of human-rights atrocities is by now well known: slavery, mass slaughter of native Americans, violent suppression of organised labour, as well as a tradition of highly-ritualised public lynchings that is unique among advanced industrial nations. In 1915, a black 17-year-old farmhand named Jesse Washington was stabbed and beaten, as he was led in chains through the streets of Waco, Texas. He was castrated, coated with oil, and then raised and lowered over a bonfire for two hours while more than ten thousand people looked on. Picture postcards of Washington’s charred body were printed up, so that Waco residents could mail them to relatives and friends. In 1934, thousands of people gathered in Jackson County, Florida, to watch the lynching of a black 23-year-old agricultural worker named Claud Neal and then stab his corpse with sticks and knives, as it was dragged behind a truck.

All this occurred despite America’s supposedly exceptional DNA - as, of course, would subsequent US endeavours like Vietnam, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the destruction of Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Biden went on:

I made it clear to president Putin that we’ll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights, because that’s what we are. That’s who we are. The idea is: “We hold these truths self-evident that all men and women ...” We haven’t lived up to it completely, but we’ve always widened the arc of commitment and included more and more people.

So not to worry, because it’s onward and ever upward.


But then came the most astonishing statement of all. After recounting how he told Putin with regard to alleged Russian interference in 2016 that “we will not tolerate attempts to violate our democratic sovereignty or destabilise our democratic elections”, Biden said:

Let’s get this straight. How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries and everybody knew it? What would it be like if we engage in activities that he’s engaged in? It diminishes the standing of a country that is desperately trying to make sure it maintains its standing as a major world power. And so it’s not just what I do. It’s what the actions that other countries take - in this case Russia - that are contrary to international norms.

Again, jaws dropped clatteringly to the floor, for the simple reason that the US has spent the entire post-war period virtually doing little else other than intervening in other people’s elections. In 2018, a journalist named William Blum counted up 29 states whose elections the US had fixed, bought or otherwise interfered with, often repeatedly. They include Italy in 1948, when the US funnelled money to the Christian Democrats to prevent a communist victory; Iran in 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh; Japan in 1958, when the agency mobilised against the Socialists; and Afghanistan in 2004, when US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad did the rounds of presidential candidates in Kabul, pressuring them to withdraw, so that Washington favourite Hamid Karzai would have a clear path to victory.1 In 2020, Dov H Levin, a political scientist at the University of Hong Kong, counted up 81 separate elections in which the US intervened between 1946 and 2000 alone.2

Indeed, former CIA director R James Woolsey cheerfully owned up to America’s rich record in a 2018 appearance on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. When asked whether the US ever intervened in foreign elections, he replied: “Oh, probably, but it was for the good of the system in order to avoid communists from taking over - for example, in Europe in 47, 48, 49, the Greeks and the Italians ...”

“We don’t do that now. We don’t mess around in other people’s elections,” interjected host Laura Ingraham. To which Woolsey laughed and said: “Well … only for a very good cause in the interests of democracy.”3

That’s right: America may violate democracy, but it’s always for democracy’s own good. The Clinton administration thus thought nothing of intervening in the 1996 Russian presidential election by providing Boris Yeltsin with a bipartisan team of US campaign experts and arranging a $10.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan to stabilise his government. Since Yeltsin was America’s man, it was A-OK. Time magazine published a cover story entitled “Yanks to the rescue: the secret story of how American advisors helped Yeltsin win”,4 while Hollywood even made a movie about it called Spinning Boris, starring Jeff Goldblum and Liev Schreiber.5

Yet, when a St Petersburg company with no known links to the Kremlin purchased $45,000 worth of Facebook ads, showing, among other things, Satan arm-wrestling Jesus, with a caption saying, “If I win, Hillary wins”,6 the outcry was deafening, even though there was no evidence that the firm had succeeded in swaying a single voter. John McCain called it “an act of war”, Hillary Clinton said it amounted to a “cyber 9/11”, while New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman described it as “a Pearl Harbour-scale event”!7

Where other countries must put up with electoral manipulation that is all too real, the US goes into hysterics about Kremlin interference, even though there is no persuasive evidence that it even exists. This is the amazingly one-sided world view that Biden put on display in Geneva. It is a world view clearly shared by the entire White House press corps, since none of the reporters raised his or her hand in response; and by the corporate media generally, which has not said a word about them in the days since.8 For all who have eyes to see and ears to hear - which is to say everyone outside of official Washington - it is plain that a dangerous force is at work in the world, one incapable of weighing its own actions in even a halfway objective fashion.

Downhill slide

But why now? Why is Biden uttering such words at this moment, and what do such sentiments portend? Here is a brief attempt at an answer.

While American exceptionalism is as old as the republic, there is no doubt that the concept acquired a particularly aggressive spin in the 1990s and noughties. This is when secretary of state Madeleine Albright described America as “the indispensable nation”, because “we stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future”; and when Republican fixer Karl Rove - by this point a top advisor to George W Bush - informed a reporter that people like him live “in what we call the reality-based community”, composed of those who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”.

But, Rove went on:

That’s not the way the world really works any more. We’re an empire now and, when we act, we create our own reality. And, while you’re studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors - and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.9

America was so powerful back in its imperialist heyday that it could fashion reality to its own liking. In proclaiming that “America is back”, Biden is therefore proclaiming that all the old hegemony is back - along with such accompaniments as American exceptionalism, a wilfully-blinkered view of international relations and an attitude not merely of ‘my country right or wrong’, but of ‘my country right - forever’.

But this is why such rhetoric rings so hollow. In fact, US power has been in a growing crisis since the 2008 financial meltdown - and then a series of disastrous interventions in 2011-15 that let loose a tidal wave of chaos and violence, from Libya to Yemen and the Ukraine. The January 6 insurrection marked a new stage in the bumpy downhill slide, while the fact that the Biden administration’s reform programme is now bottled up on Capitol Hill due to a wildly undemocratic provision known as the Senate filibuster means that the breakdown can only intensify. Among centrist politicians like Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, fear is growing that the Biden administration will turn out to be the interregnum between one bout of Republican craziness in 2017-21 and an even more extreme version due just a few years hence.

Then there is Afghanistan. Although no-one in Washington is eager to talk about it, US withdrawal after 20 years of warfare - intervention that Biden personally championed as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee - is fast turning into a Vietnam-style rout. A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times reported that Taliban fighters have entered two provincial capitals after overrunning dozens of rural districts and capturing hundreds of government troops. It said that “government troops are low on morale and are frequently besieged in isolated outposts and bases that can be resupplied only by the Afghan airforce” - which is itself grinding to a halt, as US military contractors and maintenance specialists begin pulling up stakes.10 A few days earlier, the Times reported that the Pentagon has begun drawing up plans to send in armed drones and war planes from US airbases in the Persian Gulf in the event “an extraordinary crisis” follows on the heels of an American pull-out, “such as the potential fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, or a siege that puts American and allied embassies and citizens at risk”.11

Biden has privately confessed to being haunted by a “fall-of-Saigon scenario”.12 That is understandable, since it took years for the American war machine to recover from scenes of military helicopters lifting off from the rooftop of a besieged US embassy. If it happens again less than half a century later, then the blow to imperial pride and self-confidence will be a dozen times worse.

Let us be clear - Biden will not survive a second such collapse. Sure, his administration will continue limping along. But Congress will erupt in a chorus of ‘We told you so’, as Republicans lay waste to every White House initiative that comes across their desk. A Democratic rout in the 2022 midterm elections in such an eventuality is a foregone conclusion. So is a Trump victory in 2024 - assuming America’s obese wannabe Mussolini has not perished by that point from heart disease or a stroke.

History, in short, is closing in, no matter how much Biden closes his eyes to its complexities. He may think that US hegemony is back, but reality has other things in mind.

  1. williamblum.org/aer/read/156.↩︎

  2. usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/09/04/u-s-interferes-more-elections-than-russia-meddling-author-says/5700657002.↩︎

  3. Quote starts at 4:35 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpWai3kZ-gM&t=14s.↩︎

  4. content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19960715,00.html.↩︎

  5. The trailer is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm-50K-XELY.↩︎

  6. nytimes.com/2017/11/01/us/politics/russia-2016-election-facebook.html.↩︎

  7. theintercept.com/2018/02/19/a-consensus-emerges-russia-committed-an-act-of-war-on-par-with-pearl-harbor-and-911-should-the-u-s-response-be-similar.↩︎

  8. The sole exception was the NBC News website, which ran a spirited critique by a Russian-American journalist named Lev Golinkin. But the silence has otherwise been complete. See nbcnews.com/think/opinion/why-biden-s-american-election-meddling-comments-geneva-were-such-ncna1271316.↩︎

  9. Although the reporter attributed the comments to an unnamed White House aide, the consensus now is that Rove was the author. See nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/faith-certainty-and-the-presidency-of-george-w-bush.html.↩︎

  10. nytimes.com/2021/06/20/world/asia/afghanistan-kunduz-taliban.html.↩︎

  11. nytimes.com/2021/06/17/world/asia/afghanistan-military-casualties.html; nytimes.com/2021/06/09/us/politics/afghanistan-airstrikes-us-troop-withdrawal.html.↩︎

  12. nytimes.com/2021/04/13/us/politics/biden-afghanistan-withdrawal.html.↩︎