The Washington Post Column

Honesty in Izvestia

“What a difference thirty years can make,” writes Colin L. Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, at the start of an article he published this week in Izvestia, a Russian newspaper. Indeed. Thirty years ago, when Powell first visited Moscow, he was a relatively junior officer and Izvestia was the official organ of the Soviet government. Back then there was a standard joke about Izvestia, whose title literally means “news,” and Pravda, then the Communist party newspaper, whose title literally means “truth.” The joke went like this: “In ‘News’ there is no truth, and in ‘Truth’ there is no news.”

Admittedly, it seemed funnier at the time. But then, a lot of things seemed different at the time, as Powell rightly observes. Then, the United States and Russia were on opposite sides of the Cold War. Now we are fighting on the same side of the war on terrorism. Within days of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, declared his support for America and helped with logistics in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In exchange, the United States has — at least until now — offered Russia the same reciprocal arrangements that we once offered our Cold War allies. We’ve agreed, in other words, not to mention the Russian army’s abuse of civilians in Chechnya. We’ve agreed not to notice the deterioration of Russia’s democratic institutions. We’ve even agreed not to talk too loudly about Russian assistance for Saddam Hussein. On the contrary: The last time they met, the American president bent over backwards to praise the Russian president for his “vision” of “democracy and freedom and rule of law.”

As I say, this principle — the enemy of my enemy is not just my friend but my very, very best friend, no matter how appalling he actually may be — is nothing new in American foreign policy. It was a central tenet of the Cold War, and a lot of damage it did, too. It gave us dear, close allies such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, who robbed his country blind, and it led to the misguided hero worship of Angolan “freedom fighter” Jonas Savimbi, who refused to recognize the results of elections when his country finally held them, preferring to perpetuate a damaging civil war. It also allowed critics of the Cold War, and of U.S. foreign policy, many opportunities to poke fun at American hypocrisy. Here we were, fighting to bring democracy to the world with the help of a bunch of dictators whom we showered with laudatory speeches, White House dinners and economic “aid” that all too often wound up in Swiss bank accounts.

This isn’t to say we were wrong to seek allies during the Cold War. Nor is it to say that we are wrong now to seek allies in the war on terrorism. But it was and it still is bad policy to cloud mutually advantageous cooperation with unnecessarily phony rhetoric. Besides, if the president really does want, as he now says, to bring democracy to the Middle East — the only long-term solution to instability in the region — he can’t go around pretending that democracy exists in places where it doesn’t.

All of which is a long-winded way of complimenting Powell and the White House for the Izvestia article whose first line is quoted above. For the article goes on to state, with surprising frankness, a few things about the Russian-American alliance that administration officials have, until now, only dared say off the record.

“Without basic principles shared in common, our relationship will not achieve its potential,” writes the secretary of state, noting that “certain developments in Russian politics and foreign policy” have given him pause. Among them, he lists the absence of “free media and political party development,” as well as “certain aspects of internal Russian policy in Chechnya.” It’s diplomatic language, but it nevertheless places some clear distance, at last, between the American president and his former best friend in Moscow.

The question now is whether the State Department, the White House and everyone else responsible for this surprisingly sharp policy turn understand its implications for some of our other alliances. Americans have never been very good at grasping that the world is a complicated place, or that not every nation is easily categorized as best friend or evil foe, or that, in the long run, we’re always going to have more stable relationships with countries that share our “basic principles.” Powell’s Moscow article is a good omen, a sign that some of the simple-mindedness with which we initially approached the war on terrorism is finally wearing off. But the real tests are ahead of us. How soon, for example, can we expect to read a similar article in Cairo or Riyadh?