Just in case anyone actually thought that all of those people waving flags on the streets of Kiev represent authentic Ukrainian sentiments, the London Guardian informed its readers otherwise last week. In an article titled “US campaign behind the turmoil in Kiev,” the newspaper described the events of the past 10 days as “an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing.” In a separate article, the same paper described the whole episode as a “postmodern coup d’etat” and a “CIA-sponsored third world uprising of cold war days, adapted to post-Soviet conditions.”
Neither author was a fringe journalist, and the Guardian is not a fringe newspaper. Nor have their views been ignored: In the international echo chamber that the Internet has become, these ideas have resonance. Both articles were liberally quoted, for example, in a Web log written by the editor of the Nation, who, while writing that she admired “citizens fighting corrupt regimes,” just as in the United States, she also noted darkly that the wife of the Ukrainian opposition leader, a U.S. citizen of Ukrainian descent, “worked in the Reagan White House.”
Versions of this argument — that pro-democracy movements are in fact insidious neocon plots designed to spread American military influence — have been around for some time. Sometimes they cite George Soros — in this context, a right-wing capitalist — as the source of the funding and “slick marketing.” Sometimes they cite the evil triumvirate of the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, all organizations that have indeed been diligently training judges, helping election monitors and funding human rights groups around the world for decades, much of the time without getting much attention for it.
They seem a little odd in the Ukrainian context, given that President Bush has bent over backward to sound conciliatory and anything but anti-Russian (in notable contrast to his blunter but soon-to-be-retired secretary of state, Colin Powell). In fact, the United States has historically backed “stability” in Ukraine, which is another way of saying Russian influence. The current president’s father once made a speech in Kiev calling on Ukraine to remain in the Soviet Union, mere weeks before the Soviet Union disintegrated. Nevertheless, these ideas have traction. Last weekend an Irish radio journalist angrily asked me why the United States is so keen to expand NATO into Ukraine: Didn’t Russia have a right to be frightened? Yesterday a colleague forwarded to me an e-mail from a Dutch writer condemning the campaign that the “CIA and other U.S. secret services” have conducted across the former U.S.S.R.
This phenomenon is interesting on a number of accounts. The first is that it rather dramatically overrates the influence that American money, or American “democracy-promoters,” can have in a place such as Ukraine. After all, about the same, relatively small amount of U.S. money has been spent on promoting democracy in Belarus, to no great effect. More to the point, rather larger amounts of money were spent in Ukraine by Russia, whose president visited the country twice to campaign for “his” candidate. If the ideas that Americans and Europeans promoted had greater traction in Ukraine than those of President Putin, that says more about Ukraine than about the United States. To believe otherwise is, if you think about it, deeply offensive to Ukrainians.
The larger point, though, is that the “it’s-all-an-American-plot” arguments circulating in cyberspace again demonstrate something that the writer Christopher Hitchens, himself a former Trotskyite, has been talking about for a long time: At least a part of the Western left — or rather the Western far left — is now so anti-American, or so anti-Bush, that it actually prefers authoritarian or totalitarian leaders to any government that would be friendly to the United States. Many of the same people who found it hard to say anything bad about Saddam Hussein find it equally difficult to say anything nice about pro-democracy demonstrators in Ukraine. Many of the same people who would refuse to condemn a dictator who is anti-American cannot bring themselves to admire democrats who admire, or at least don’t hate, the United States. I certainly don’t believe, as President Bush sometimes simplistically says, that everyone who disagrees with American policies in Iraq or elsewhere “hates freedom.” That’s why it’s so shocking to discover that some of them do.