Book Review: The Promised Land – II
by Michael Brenner on 18 Jan 2021 4 Comments

McFaul was Obama’s briefer in preparation for the President’s historic visit to Moscow and his first encounter with Putin. Indeed, he personally accompanied Obama in the long private one-on-one session the two men had. That helps to explain Obama’s primitive understanding of Putin and of post-Communist Russia. He believed that he had taken the man’s measure and concluded that he was basically little different from a “Chicago ward boss” whom he resembled in Obama’s eye. (p. 466)


Strange irony in that the man who worked next to him in the White House, Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, personified the mores of the Chicago politico – as he was to demonstrate in his later tenure as the city’s mayor in bringing a level of power abuse and criminality that exceeded anything seen in the old Daly days. His achievements include (1) covering for the Chicago Police Department’s operation of its own “black site” where torture was routine, [1] and (2) a relentless campaign to undermine and degrade the city’s public school system in order to pave the way for its privatization. 


(Obama was comfortable with close collaborators like McFaul and Nuland – in terms of both style and mentality. After all, he relied on the unsavory Emanuel – a match to the two Russia-phobes. ‘Rahm’ directed the White house campaign to marginalize Democratic Party progressive faction. He is remembered for shouting obscenities at them on the rare occasions that they were permitted into the White House) [2]


It is highly doubtful that Obama ever read any of Putin’s thoughtful, sophisticated speeches on world affairs and Russia’s dealings with other powers. However one appraises their content, they intellectually far surpass anything that Obama himself has spoken or written. Personally, I doubt that McFaul has read them either. The President allotted just one hour to his meeting with Putin. It ran much longer due to Putin’s lengthy exposition of Russia’s viewpoint. That irritated Obama who complains that it “wreaked havoc on the rest of the day’s schedule” – the high point of which was a speech to civic society, anti-Putin activists, “my kind of people.” (pp. 466-467) Some in the audience were Americans sponsored by NGOs which, in turn, are financed by American organizations including the government funded Center For Promoting Democracy.


Obama’s picture of himself as statesman closely resembles that drawn in his revealing interview in The Atlantic [3] where he complained about the influence exerted by the Washington insiders, he dubbed “the blob,” and how they constrained what he could do in foreign policy. The autobiography shows that same oddity of personality that leads him to distance himself from the man whom he is writing about. At points, he gives the impression of recounting events wherein he was as much the observer as the principal - an observer who, strikingly, is in no way judgmental.


It’s a neat way of bestowing absolution for errors. More than that, it is tangible evidence of his tendency to confuse words of spoken intent with actions – or, more precisely, to value them equally. (In this respect, as in several others, Obama personifies contemporary culture). In effect, he is declaiming that the Nobel Peace Prize speech (and his pious homilies) are the real Barack Obama rather than the man who exercised the powers of the Presidency for 8 years. Or, perhaps, he sees some odd sort of Stoic nobility in allowing actions to override words in the name of realism.


Obama never makes the straightforward admission that he himself populated his administration with persons who were prominent members of that Establishment. He made those appointments for three reasons: (1) they seemed politically expedient; (2) he believes that the various power centers are pillars of the Republic to be acknowledged and respected in deed; and (3) his own views largely conformed to the consensus which they embodied. Exactly the same attitude prevailed in regard to his corps of economic appointees. 


Hence, the man had no compunction about the troop escalation in Afghanistan - the ‘good’ counter-insurgency; the drawing up of “kill lists” from which he selected the week’s assassination targets every Tuesday morning; providing the crucial material support to Saudi Arabia needed for them to carry out their slaughter of Houthis in Yemen on specious realpolitik grounds; to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s sponsorship and supplying of ISIS; to support coups against democratically elected reformist leaders in Latin America; or to do the same in Ukraine as an integral step in the pre-existing strategy of isolating and diminishing Putin’s Russia.


The last mentioned indicates another peculiar trait of Obama’s persona. His image is of an erudite scholar-statesman endowed with a powerful mind honed at elite institutions and possessed of a cosmopolitan knowledge of public affairs. In truth, Obama’s supposed intellectual mastery is belied by many gaps and deficiencies. The book’s account of his dealings with Moscow, for example, was skewed by his general ignorance of the solemn pledges made by George H. W. Bush and Jim Baker to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO never would expand eastwards to embrace former members of the Warsaw Pact.4


Instead, he gave unqualified support to the project and bristled at Vladimir Putin’s criticism of it. Obama’s attitude conforms to the tenet, universal in Washington, that other countries have no claim to a legitimate national interest except as it is perceived as compatible with America’s self-defined interests. Similarly, Obama did not understand the extent of the American involvement in Georgia’s assault on Russian occupied, contested Southern Ossetia – a fact contrary to the Washington myth that Moscow was the aggressor. In his memoir, Obama explicitly refers to “Russia’s aggression in Georgia.” (p. 466) **


As for the Islamic world, he never sought to probe beneath the surface of events to comprehend the region’s complex religious, political and cultural dynamics. Well into his presidency, Obama made a meek effort to do so by inviting Thomas Friedman for a weekend bull session at Camp David. Friedman had made a name for himself writing 30 years earlier about his experience sheltering under a hotel bed in Beirut while warring Lebanese factions exchanged artillery barrages. Most recently, he served as the unofficial public relations officer for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman: cocaine addict, assassin, kidnapper of political leaders, and perpetrator of the Yemeni near-genocide by composing a series of long, hagiographic essays for The New York Times praising to the skies the kingdom’s ‘Great Modernizer’. No one with a serious knowledge of the Middle East takes Friedman seriously and finds the idea of the American president relying on his supposed wisdom laughable.


Obama’s tolerance for his own intellectual lapses and readiness to rely on the tutelage of dogmatists or second-raters occasionally revealed itself on domestic as well as international matters. While in the White House, he repeatedly demonstrated in public remarks confusion between the landmark Social Security Act of 1935 and the post-Civil War legislation (Dependent Pension Act) that provided pensions for widows and orphans as well as disabled Union soldiers. In defending his Affordable Health Care innovation, he argued that it should be seen as a foundation to build upon just as Social Security at first was restricted to widows and orphans – or so he mistakenly believed. One wonders what were the topics of casual conversation and reading in his days at Columbia and at Harvard Law School.


Similarly, he cited Ronald Reagan on multiple occasions as the President he most admired for the way that he inspired the country – evidently oblivious to the fact that had Reagan’s views on civil rights legislation prevailed, Obama and his family could be forced to drink their Cokes in the back seat of their car whenever they crossed the Mason-Dixon line.


The picture drawn here of Barack Obama as foreign affairs President will be seen by many as skewed. Surely, it is out of synch with how he is generally viewed. Although Obama was savagely attacked by Republicans, he otherwise received highly sympathetic treatment from the media and from commentators. This was – and remains – particularly pronounced among liberal elites/intellectuals. For that reason, it is unlikely that we will see a candid, dispassionate appraisal of the man and his works any time soon. Pity. We badly need one - as Obama’s tome demonstrates.




1] The Guardian reported in February 2015 that the Chicago Police Department “operates an off-the-books interrogation compound, rendering Americans unable to be found by family or attorneys while locked inside what lawyers say is the domestic equivalent of a CIA black site.” The Guardian added that the facility, the Homan Square Police Warehouse at 1011 S. Homan Ave in Chicago (41.8684°N 87.71°W), “has long been the scene of secretive work by special police units.”


This despicable record did not prevent Emanuel from being seriously considered for a Cabinet appointment in the Biden administration with Obama’s commendation.


2] In the chest-thumping culture of Washington, cursing is taken as sign of toughness – of being hard-nosed, no-nonsense along with having a steel-trap mind. (Those ‘steel-trap minds evidently have been rusted shut for years). The migration of numerous women into the corridors of power has not changed that – except possibly the mix of gender in the obscenities used. The Obama administration boasted three senior officials who are candidates for the obscenity Hall of Fame: Emanuel, Leon Panetta, Timothy Geithner. As to the last, observers are quite certain that he refrained from deploying his standard vocabulary on the 39 occasions that Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, visited him at the Treasury during the financial crisis.


3] “The Obama Doctrine”, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, April 2016.


4] Record of Conversation Between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker, February 9, 1990.


**All of the factual assertions contained in this essay are documented by materials in the public realm. Some have been supplemented by communication with persons directly involved in the events referenced. For example, on the issue of who attacked whom in the Georgia affair, my sources are: a United States Army major who helped train the Georgian units who launched the offensive, the deputy director of the OSCE Mission to Georgia who was resident in Tiblisi and knew of the preparations, and the Georgian Ambassador to Moscow who spoke explicitly about his government’s strategy in open telephone testimony to the Parliament before he was summarily cut off by President Mikheil Saakashvili who himself had close ties with the neo-Cons and who received the go-ahead from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by telephone on the eve of the assault.



RAY MCGOVERN (Consortium News  01/12)

“Intelligence Without Fear or Favor


Biden said Monday that Burns “shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical …”. There are some early hints that Burns has the substantive depth, skill, and courage to ensure that this happens in the ranks of agency analysts.


What we know of Burns’s performance - particularly as ambassador to Russia (2005-2008) - suggests that he will shy away from fudging things and, in turn, encourage substantive analysts to follow his example and speak candidly to superiors. Former senior State Department officials I contacted on Monday share this view.


From Moscow With Candor: Burns a Straight Shooter


Despite then Secretary of State James Baker’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev in early Feb. 1990 that NATO would not move “one inch” east from the borders of a reunited Germany, by early 2008, NATO had already added ten new members: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. NATO relations with Russia plummeted and there was no sign Washington policymakers gave a damn.


Amid rumors that Ukraine and Georgia would soon be in queue for NATO membership, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Feb. 1, 2008 called in Ambassador Burns to read him the riot act. 


The subject line of Burns’s CONFIDENTIAL cable #182 of Feb. 1, in which he reported Lavrov’s remarks to Washington, shows that Burns played it straight, choosing not to mince his own or Lavrov’s words: “Nyet means nyet: Russia’s NATO enlargement redlines,” he wrote. (This embassy Moscow cable is among those leaked by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks. It has been largely ignored in Western media.)


Burns wrote:

“Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan at the [upcoming] Bucharest summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains an emotional and neuralgic issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene. …”

[Emphasis added.]


It took some courage to tell then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Russia is entitled to have “strategic policy considerations” and that Moscow might have to decide to intervene.

So, it is not as though Secretary Rice and other US policymakers were not warned, in very specific terms, of Russia’s redline on Ukrainian membership in NATO.


Nevertheless, on April 3, 2008, the final declaration at a NATO summit in Bucharest asserted: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”


Shortly before Lavrov called Burns onto the carpet, former Sen. Bill Bradley, a longtime expert on Russia and a sober-minded policy analyst, said he was deeply troubled at the relentless expansion of NATO. In a Jan. 23, 2008 talk before the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, he sounded a disconsolate note, describing NATO expansion a “terribly sad thing … a blunder of monumental proportions… .” As tensions increased with Russia, Bradley added, “Right now we are confronted with something that could have easily been avoided.”


It’s a safe bet that Burns was similarly troubled. That he expressed this clearly - however diplomatically - sets him off from mealy-mouthed ambassadors.


The Ukraine Coup


Six years later, on Feb. 22, 2014, the US-pushed a putsch in Ukraine. Russia’s reaction was predictable – actually pretty much predicted (if anyone read Burns’s cable) by the Russians themselves - and should have come as no surprise to Washington. But for Western media the Ukrainian story begins on Feb. 23, 2014, when Putin and his advisers decided to move quickly to thwart NATO’s designs on Ukraine and take back Crimea where Russia’s only warm-water naval base has been located since the days of Catherine the Great.


US officials (and The New York Times) have made it a practice to write-out the coup d’état in Kiev and to begin recent European history with Russia’s immediate reaction, thus the relentless presentation of these events as simply “Russian aggression,” as if Russia instigated the crisis, not the US.


“F___ the EU” (and Russia too)


Thus far the words of then Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland seemed intent on giving a new dimension to the proverbial “cookie-pushing” role of US diplomats. Recall the photo showing Nuland, in a metaphor of over-reach, as she reached deep into a large plastic bag to give anti-government demonstrators on the square cookies before the putsch.


More important, recall her amateurish, boorish use of an open telephone to plot regime change in Ukraine with a fellow neocon, then US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt. Crass US interference in Ukrainian affairs can be heard in an intercepted conversation posted on YouTube on Feb. 4, 2014 - 18 days before the coup, in which she says Biden would play a central role in installing the coup government.


Nuland is reportedly Biden’s choice for undersecretary of state for political affairs. Her foul tongue is not likely to derail her nomination; neither will her role in orchestrating the coup. If she is confirmed, it is a safe bet she will seek other capitals in which to peddle cookies. How will Burns respond when she asks for the support of his people to help nail things down - as in Kiev in 2014?


During his 27 years as a CIA analyst, he headed the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, Ray McGovern prepared/briefed The President’s Daily Brief for three presidents, and worked under nine CIA directors. In retirement he co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.


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