I just got back from the Munich Security Conference, an annual meeting of defense officials and policy wonks from both sides of the Atlantic. This year’s meeting lacked the drama of last year, when Vladimir Putin delivered a blistering anti-Western harangue. This year, senior Russian representative Sergey Ivanov, the first deputy prime minister, struck a more low-key note in his address. Instead of delivering threats, he mostly bragged about how rich Russia has become (“during the last 9 years the gross domestic product in Russia has increased by 80 per cent”), though even this mainly economic address carried an implicit geopolitical message—that the West would have to accommodate a newly powerful Russia.
But it is impossible for Russian officials at an international gathering to remain on their best behavior for long—especially when their supreme leader is so determined to foment conflict between Russia and the West in order to justify the rule of an increasingly repressive Kremlin clique. Thus the best exchange occurred when Aleksey Ostrovsky, chairman of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, put the following “question”—more like a challenge—to Defense Secretary Bob Gates:
At present the entire world faces the threat of terrorism which emanates primarily from Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization. Don’t you think that in the first place this organization for its appearance and the serious threat of terrorism we witness today, it is the fault of the leadership of your country and of your security services in the 1970’s and the 80’s of the last century, when for American money, with the active political support the Afghan mujahedin were fighting the Soviet troops who tried to support peace and order in that country. And after that when the Soviet troops left, for all intents and purposes, people who have been created by you were idle.
It almost sounds as if Ostrovsky has been reading Noam Chomsky. He’s repeating, after all, a favorite talking point of the Western left—that Al Qaeda is an American creation. He does however add a uniquely Russian spin with his defense of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which he claims was designed “to support peace and order in that country.”
Gates is more mild-mannered than his predecessor, Don Rumsfeld, but he did not back down from this ludicrous challenge. His answer is worth quoting because it was an effective refutation of a canard that has gotten widespread support:
Well, with respect to the first question and the responsibility of the United States for a revived variety of ills, it reminded me of my old days in the CIA when people thought that not a leaf fell around the world without CIA knowing about it or being responsible for it. With respect to the threat from Al Qaeda and the notion that it is the fault of the U.S., I think we have a bit of a chicken and egg problem here. My own view is the threat from Al Qaeda began with the Soviet invasion of a sovereign state in December 1979, a state that up to that point had not represented a threat to anybody in the world, except to a certain extent its own people because of its weakness and poverty. It was the Soviet invasion that in fact created the holy warriors, the mujahedin, determined to take on the Soviet military. The United States does not shrink from responsibility for providing them with the tools and the weapons and whatever they needed in order to expel a foreign invader. That same kind of religious fervor that helped create the mujahedin and helped expel the Soviet Union in subsequent years was distorted and certain extremists among the mujahedin became stronger, and we have the problem we have. So I would say if the United States, if we bear a particular responsibility for the role of the mujahedin and Al Qaeda growing up in Afghanistan, it had more to do with our abandonment with the country in 1989 rather than our assistance to it in 1979. And I think that most Americans think that we erred in turning our backs on Afghanistan after the Soviets left.
Good job, Mr. Secretary!