American Dissent on Ukraine Is Dying in Darkness - I
by Michael Brenner on 01 Jun 2022 0 Comment

When it came to the Ukraine conflict, Professor Michael J. Brenner did what he’s done his whole life: question American foreign policy. This time the backlash was vitriolic.


As the death toll in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine continues to rise, there have only been a handful of Westerners publicly questioning NATO and the West’s role in the conflict. These voices are becoming fewer and further between as a wave of feverish backlash engulfs any dissent on the subject. One of these voices belongs to Professor Michael J. Brenner, a lifelong academic, Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins, as well as former Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner’s credentials also include having worked at the Foreign Service Institute, the U.S. Department of Defense and Westinghouse, and written several books on American foreign policy.


In an email with the subject line “Quittin’ Time,” Brenner recently declared that, aside from having already said his piece on Ukraine, one of the main reasons he sees for giving up on expressing his opinions on the subject is that “it is manifestly obvious that our society is not capable of conducting an honest, logical, reasonably informed discourse on matters of consequence. Instead, we experience fantasy, fabrication, fatuousness and fulmination.” He goes on to decry President Joe Biden’s alarming comments in Poland when he all but revealed that the U.S. is—and perhaps has always been—interested in a Russian regime change.




RS: Hello, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Michael Brenner, professor of international affairs emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS Johns Hopkins; he’s written a number of important studies, books, academic articles; he’s taught at every place from Stanford to Harvard to MIT and what have you.


The reason I wanted to talk to Professor Brenner is that he’s been caught in the crosshairs of trying to have a debate about what’s going on in the Ukraine, and the NATO response, Russian invasion and what have you. I read his blog; found it very interesting. Then he suddenly said, I’m giving up; you cannot have an intelligent discussion. His description of what’s going on reminded me of the famous Lillian Hellman description of the McCarthy period as “scoundrel times,” which was the title of her book.


Professor Brenner, tell us what buzzsaw you ran into when you dared question, you dared do what you’ve done all your academic life: raised some serious questions about a foreign policy matter. And then, you got hit on the head a whole bunch of times. So, could you describe it?


MB: Yes, it came only partially as a surprise. I’ve been writing these commentaries and distributing them to a personal list of roughly 5,000 for more than a decade. Some of those persons are abroad, most are in the U.S.; they’re all educated people who’ve been involved one way or another with international affairs, including quite a number who have had experience in and around government or journalism or the world of punditry.


What happened on this occasion was that I had expressed highly skeptical views about what I believe is the fictional storyline and account of what has been happening in Ukraine, back over the past year and most pointedly in regard to the acute crisis that has arisen with the Russian invasion and attack on Ukraine. I received not only an unusually large number of critical replies, but the nature of them was deeply dismaying.


One, most of them came from people whom I did know, as level-headed, sober minds, engaged and well informed on foreign policy issues and international matters generally. Second, they were highly personalized, and I had rarely been the object of that sort of criticism or ad hominem remarks questioning my patriotism; had I been paid by Putin; my motivations, sanity, et cetera.


Third was the extremity of the content of these hostile messages. And the last characteristic, which really stunned me, was that these people bought into—hook, line and sinker—every aspect of the sort of fictional story that has been propagated by the administration, accepted and swallowed whole by the media and our political-intellectual class, which includes many academics and the entire galaxy of Washington think tanks.


In effect, this was an intellectual and political nihilism. One cannot make any contribution to endeavour to correct that simply by conventional means. So I felt for the first time that I was no part of this world, and this is also a reflection of trends and attitudes that have become rather pervasive in the country at large, over time. So beyond simply sort of disagreeing with what the consensus is, I had become totally alienated [unclear] and decided there was no point to going on distributing these things, even though I continue to follow events, think about them, and send some shorter commentaries to close friends. That’s essentially it, Robert.


RS: OK, but let me just say, first of all, I want to thank you for what you did. Because it turned me on to a whole different way of looking at what happened to Ukraine, reminding us of what had happened for the previous decade, not just the expansion of NATO but the whole question of the change in government that the U.S. was involved with previously. And the relation of the two powers.


The irony here is that actually we’re back in the worst moments of the Cold War, but at least in the Cold War we were willing to negotiate with people who were very serious, ideological at least, or enemies, and had some coherence in that respect. And Nixon did have his kitchen debate with Khrushchev, and we did have arms control with the old Soviet Union; Nixon himself went to China and negotiated with Mao Zedong; there was no illusion that these were wonderful people, but they were people you had to do business with. Suddenly Putin is now put in a Hitler category even worse than Stalin or Mao, and you can’t talk.


And I do want to disagree with your retirement from this. You’re only about a mere 80 years old; you’re a kid compared to me. But I remember when Bertrand Russell, one of the great intellectuals in our history, or Western history, dared to criticize the U.S. on Vietnam. He and Jean Paul Sartre actually raised the prospect that we had committed war crimes in Vietnam.


The New York Times denounced Bertrand Russell, they actually said he’d become senile. I went all the way to Wales when I was editing Ramparts magazine to interview Bertrand Russell—and I spent some lovely time with him. He certainly was frail at the age of 94, but he was incredibly coherent in defence of his position; he had been a very strong anti-communist all of his life, and now he was saying, wait a minute, we’re getting this war wrong.


So, I’m not going to accept that you have the right to retire; I’m going to push you now. So please tell listeners what it is that you object to in the current narrative, and on what basis?


MB: Well, it’s the fundamentals. One, it has to do with the nature of the Russian regime, the character of Putin; what Soviet objectives, foreign policy and national security concerns are. What we’re getting is not only a cartoon caricature, but a portrait of the country and its leadership—and by the way, Putin is not a dictator. He is not all-powerful. The Soviet government is far more complex in its processes of decision-making.


RS: Well, you just said the Soviet government. You mean the Russian government.


MB: Russian government. You see, I’ve picked up by osmosis this conflating of Russian and Soviet, it’s far more complex. And Putin himself [is] an extraordinarily sophisticated thinker. But people don’t bother to read what he writes, or to listen to what he says.


I know of no national leader that has laid out in the detail and precision and sophistication his view of the world, Russia’s place in it, the character of interstate relations, with the candour and acuity that he has. It’s not a question of whether you believe that that depiction is entirely correct, or the conclusion that he draws from it, with regard to policy. But you are dealing with a person and a regime which in vital respects is the antithesis of the one that is caricatured and almost universally accepted, not only in the Biden administration but in the foreign policy community and the political class, and in general.


That raises some really basic questions about us, rather than about Russia or Putin. The question was: what is it that we’re afraid of? Why do Americans feel so threatened, so anxious? By contrast, in the Cold War, there was a powerful enemy, ideological, military in some sense, with all the qualifications and nuances [unclear]. But that was the reality then; a reality which was, one, the focal point for national leaders who were serious and responsible people. Second, that could be used to justify actions highly dubious, such as our interventions all around the so-called Third World, and even the great, tragic folly of Vietnam.


What is there today that really threatens us? At the horizon, of course, is China, not Russia; although they now, thanks to our unwitting encouragement, have formed a formidable bloc. But even the Chinese challenge is to our supremacy and hegemony, not to the country directly [unclear]. So the second question is, what is so compelling about the maintenance and defence of a conception of the United States of America’s providential birth in the world that compels us to view people like Putin as diabolical, and as constituting as grave a threat to America as Stalin and Hitler, whose names constantly crop up, as well as ridiculous phrases like genocide and so on.


Once again, we have to look in the mirror and say, we’ve seen—[unclear] the source of our disquiet, and it’s within us; it’s not out there, and it is leading to gross distortions of the way in which we see, depict and interpret the world, across the board. By which I mean geographically and in terms of different arenas and dimensions of international relations. Continuing along this course can only have one endpoint, and that’s disaster of some form or other.


RS: Well, there’s two points that have to be addressed. One, this is not comparable to going into Afghanistan or Vietnam or Iraq or anywhere else. You are taking on the other huge nuclear-armed power. And we have forgotten the risk of nuclear war, accidental nuclear war, automatic pilot nuclear war, let alone intentional use of nuclear weapons. There’s a giddiness about that which I think is not just a surrogate thing.


The other is that to try to understand and see if there’s room for negotiation. OK, you call your opponent Hitler, say he has to be removed. But the fact is, we negotiated with Mao. Nixon did. And the world has been a lot safer and prosperous because Nixon went and saw Mao Zedong, who was described as the bloodiest dictator of his time. The same thing happened with the arms control with Russia, and Ronald Reagan’s ability to talk to Mikhail Gorbachev, and actually even consider getting rid of nuclear weapons.


Now we have forgotten talk about global warming, what nuclear weapons would do. I went into Chernobyl a year after the disaster; that was a peaceful plant, and my god, the fear that was prevalent in the Ukraine, I couldn’t tell who were Russians and who were Ukrainians, they were still part of the same country.


But there’s a giddiness now. What surprised me about your farewell address, you were talking about intelligent people that you and I have rubbed shoulders with at arms control conferences; we’ve taken seriously their arguments. This is not just a fringe of neoconservatives who seem to have encamped now in the Democratic Party, whereas they before were in the Republican Party, the same kind of extreme Cold War hawks. We’re talking about people that denounced their former colleagues even in the peace movement for daring to question this narrative. What is going on?


MB: Well, Robert, you’re absolutely right. And that question should preoccupy us because it cuts deepest into contemporary America. I think the intellectual tools to be used to interpret it must come from anthropology and psychology at least as much as political science or sociology or economics. I truly believe we are talking about collective psychopathology. And collective psychopathology is what you get in a nihilistic society in which all sorts of standard, conventional reference points cease to serve as markers and guideposts on how individuals behave.


One expression of that is in the erasure of history. We live in the existential moment, or week, or month, or year or whatever. We almost totally forget about the reality of nuclear weapons. I mean, as you said, in the past, every national leader and national government that had custody of nuclear weapons came to the conclusion that they served no utilitarian function. And that the overriding imperative was to avoid situations not only in which they were used as part of some calculated military strategy, but to avoid situations in which circumstances might develop where they would use them because of accident, misjudgment, or something of the sort.


Now, we can no longer assume that. I believe, oddly, that the people in official positions who must remain most acutely aware of this are the Pentagon. Because they’re the ones who have direct custody of it, and because they study and read about it in the service academy as a whole Cold War sort of history, and the history of weaponry, et cetera.


I’m not suggesting that Joe Biden has sort of sublimated all of this. But he seems to be in a state which certainly [unclear] could permit the kind of encounter with the Russians that all his predecessors avoided. Which is the kind of encounter where it is conceivable, and certainly not entirely inconceivable, in which nuclear weapons might be somehow resorted to in some uncalculating way.


You see that in articles published in places like Foreign Affairs and other respectable journals, by defence intellectuals, if you’ll excuse the expression. Whenever I hear the word “defence intellectual,” my reaction is to run and hide, but there are people of some note who are writing and talking along these lines, and some of them are neocons of note, like Robert Kagan, Victoria Nuland, sort of husband and partner in crime, and others of that ilk. And so, yes, this is pathological, and therefore really leads us into territory I don’t think we’ve ever been in or experienced before.


(To be continued…)

Courtesy Michael Brenner; dated April 15, 2022 

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