In Putin’s Interest
The National Interest’s so-called realism

Large and in charge?


There is a surprising new contender for the coveted mantle of America’s 40th president: Vladimir Putin.

At least according to Andranik Migranyan, who writes in The National Interest that “American conservatives should recognize Putin as the same type of ‘great communicator’ that Reagan represented — a bold leader and visionary who connects directly with the people and easily explains complex issues of domestic and foreign policy.” Not surprisingly, Migranyan “works closely” with the Kremlin as the head of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a four-person think tank in New York founded with Putin’s approval.


What is genuinely surprising is that Migranyan had the opportunity to publish his work in The National Interest (TNI), a magazine that “emphasizes realism in U.S. foreign policy,” along with “real debate” rather than “groupthink” or “clichés.” Migranyan has published five articles in TNI, three in the last month alone. Only his most recent byline identifies him as a de facto Putin publicity man.

The problem with TNI’s coverage of the Ukrainian crisis extends far beyond Migranyan, however. Although there is diversity in the dozens of articles TNI has run, its editorial staff leans heavily toward portrayal of the Kiev protests as an illegitimate coup d’état while encouraging concessions to Russia rather than a firm response to its aggression. While troubling by itself, this distorted view of events in Ukraine is intertwined with an angry determination to break the alleged neoconservative stranglehold on GOP foreign policy. Regrettably, TNI is pursuing that agenda at the cost of undermining its professed commitment to realism, defined as both an acceptance of facts and an unsentimental pursuit of the American national interest.

Kid Gloves for Putin
According to TNI’s top editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, “It’s time to get real. Ukraine may be about to get sundered in half.” But the U.S. should not threaten Russia because the most important thing now is to “defuse a conflict that should not be allowed to jeopardize the West’s relations with Moscow.” Why would it be so dangerous for the West to have a bad relationship with Moscow? Because “then the cold war that neoconservatives and liberal hawks have been dreaming about for decades would be reconstituted.” In other words, realism now amounts to doing whatever it takes to prevent neocons and liberal hawks from realizing their innermost wishes.

Additional advocates of treating Russia with kid gloves include Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders. Simes is the publisher and CEO of TNI, as well as the president of the Center for the National Interest, the think tank that sponsors the magazine. Saunders is the associate publisher as well as the executive director of the think tank. To their credit, Simes and Saunders say the primary cause of the current crisis is Russia’s “desire to restore control over Crimea.” Imposing costs on Russia would not be prudent, however. “Specific threats are unwise and will serve primarily to provoke counterthreats, especially if stated publicly,” they write. Simes and Sanders warn, “While it will be tempting to punish or to isolate Russia, this could have profound and destructive unintended consequences.” In a separate interview, Simes accused the United States of hypocrisy for supporting violent organizations committed to the overthrow of an elected government in Kiev. If they had targeted a pro-American government, Simes explained, “we would not call them protesters, we would call them rebels.” He offered no condemnation of the violence inflicted on a protest movement that began entirely peacefully, nor did he seem to recognize the difference between ousting a brutal, unjust regime and a lawful, just one.

A low point of TNI’s coverage of Ukraine was Paul Saunders’s softball interview with Alexey Pushkov, a 9/11 truther, Putin loyalist, and chairman of the Russian Duma’s international-affairs committee. Almost no research would’ve been necessary to ask hard questions. A week before the interview, the State Department released a fact sheet entitled “President Putin’s Fiction: Ten False Claims about Ukraine.” Nor would it be unfair to play hardball with Pushkov, who accused the U.S. of fabricating evidence that Syrian forces used chemical weapons against civilians in 2013. Most offensively, Pushkov insisted in 2008 that a secret group within the Bush administration “decided to execute the plot [on September 11, 2001] that would give America a free hand” to intervene militarily in the Mideast. Rather than distancing itself from Pushkov, TNI even lists him on the magazine’s masthead as a member of its advisory council, alongside distinguished public servants such as Brent Scowcroft. Still, it would be interesting to know what kind of advice Pushkov has to offer TNI on how to be realistic and objective.

An Older, Tougher Realism
An unusual desire to accommodate aggression was not always a hallmark of realism. Four years ago, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a self-described realist, published War of Necessity, War of Choice, a memoir of his service in both Bush administrations. Coverage of the book focused mainly on Haass’s criticism of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a reckless “war of choice.” What resonates now is Haass’s explanation of why the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 amounted to a war of necessity. In his introduction, the first argument Haass offers is that Desert Storm was “a limited, in many ways traditional war, one that sought to reverse Iraq’s external aggression and restore the status quo ante.” Haass then writes, “[Desert Storm] was essentially reactive and consistent with the universally accepted doctrine of self-defense.”


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