Commentary Magazine


GOP Congressmen’s Moscow Disgrace

When a terrorist attack is successfully carried out against American targets, belief that it could have been prevented provides its own odd sort of closure. If its success was owed to the lack of certain security measures, those tactics can presumably–at least in many cases, and within the bounds of law–be enacted. And if negligence is to blame, that makes prevention seem even simpler: pay better attention next time, and know what to look for.

But the desire to place blame for a security lapse can also lead political leaders astray, especially those who want to be seen by their constituents at home to be part of the solution. And that is the most generous explanation for the behavior of Republican Congressmen Steve King and Dana Rohrabacher in Russia this week to investigate the North Caucasus connection to the Boston Marathon bombing. But that explanation is incomplete, for King and Rohrabacher haven’t earned such generosity but instead indicated they possess a cynicism and gullibility unbecoming of their status as representatives of their fellow citizens in Washington and of the American Congress abroad.

The Washington Post reports on a press conference with King and Rohrabacher in Moscow, and we can begin with the first indication that we were going to be exposed to some grade-A silliness. There was a third figure at the press conference: action-movie has-been Steven Seagal, who helped arranged the trip in part because of his friendship with Chechnya’s chief thug, Ramzan Kadyrov. The Post sets the scene:

The congressman repeatedly thanked Seagal, who took credit for arranging the congressmen’s meeting at the FSB, and said it helped avoid the experience of past foreign trips when all of the meetings had been arranged by the U.S. Embassy.

“You know what we got? We got the State Department controlling all the information that we heard,” Rohrabacher said. “You think that’s good for democracy? No way!”

So here you have a self-proclaimed advocate of human rights in the U.S. Congress unfavorably comparing a trip organized by the U.S. State Department to a visit with the FSB arranged by an apologist for a brutal autocrat. The State Department has its faults, to be sure, but if it’s the free flow of information you’re interested in, Ramzan Kadyrov is not your first call.

But that, unfortunately, wasn’t the worst of what the leaders of this bipartisan delegation had to say. The Post continues:

But Rohrabacher, who chairs the U.S. Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, said the United States should be more understanding of the threats facing Kadyrov and Putin.

“If you are in the middle of an insurrection with Chechnya, and hundreds of people are being killed and there are terrorist actions taking place and kids are being blown up in schools, yeah, guess what, there are people who overstep the bounds of legality,” he said.

While the rule of law is important, Rohrabacher added, “We shouldn’t be describing people who are under this type of threat, we shouldn’t be describing them as if they are Adolf Hitler or they’re back to the old Communism days.”

Well yes, it’s true that Vladimir Putin is not Adolf Hitler. (Congratulations Volodya!) And perhaps Rohrabacher didn’t quite match Henry Wallace’s famous 1944 description of the Magadan gulag as a “combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.” And it’s also true that Islamist terrorists tied to the Caucasus Emirate are conducting an insurgency that doesn’t lack for bloodlust and cruelty. But first of all, it’s obviously bad form for Rohrabacher to make excuses for the other side’s own excesses.

And more importantly, the brutality employed by Putin and Kadyrov in the Caucasus is not a case of random “people who overstep the bounds of legality” in the fog of war. It is a strategy of mass violence employed by the state that goes beyond any semblance of the laws of war. And what about the harassment of aid workers and the murder of journalists? Does the congressman consider Anna Politkovskaya to be collateral damage?

Both Rohrabacher and King also seemed to defend, or at least dismiss, the prison sentences of the female “punk rock” trio jailed for stomping around a Moscow church, with Rohrabacher adding that he wishes his colleagues back home would appreciate that the churches are at least open again–a comment that reveals a startling unawareness of the Putin government’s manipulation of the church and its public image.

As I have said in the past, the Caucasus conflict presents a dilemma for Western observers because both sides’ behavior is out of bounds and there are no clear “good guys” (aside from the human rights workers and journalists who risk their lives to expose the abuses in the region). It is just as wrong to pretend Russia faces no terror threat as it is to paint Putin’s regime as well-meaning defenders of peace and order. If Rohrabacher and King can’t visit Russia without doing so, they should stay home.

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