the national interest

Torture, Russia, and Conservative Dictator-Envy

A woman looks at a cartoon displaying Russia's President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama during the opening ceremony of political cartoons exhibition
Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Three decades ago, right-wing French intellectual Jean-François Revel published a call to arms entitled How Democracies Perish, which quickly became a key text of the neoconservative movement and an ideological blueprint for the Reagan administration. Revel argued that the Soviet Union’s brutality and immunity from internal criticism gave it an inherent advantage over the democratic West — the United States and Europe were too liberal, too open, too humane, too soft to defeat the resolute men of the Iron Curtain.

Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt,” wrote Revel, “Soviet leaders’ consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad.” Even though Revel’s prediction that the Soviet Union would outlast the West was falsified within a few years, conservatives continue to tout its wisdom. And even as Revel’s name has faded further into the backdrop, recent events have revealed the continuing influence of his ideas.

The ongoing Russian crisis has given American conservatives the chance to reprise in miniature their mistaken overestimation of communism’s power. When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, the right lamented Barack Obama’s slow, contemplative diplomacy, which was no match for Vladimir Putin’s autocratic will. Rudy Giuliani practically lusted after the Russian dictator. “Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day. Right? He decided he had to go to their parliament, he went to their parliament, he got permission in fifteen minutes,” swooned the admired foreign-policy strategist. “That’s what you call a leader.” Other conservatives echoed Giuliani’s praise for Putin’s will to power.

Today Putin’s economy is on the brink of collapse — in part, as Michael Crowley explains, as a result of American-led sanctions. This is not any special vindication of Obama’s foreign-policy acumen, but simply a reflection of the fact that Putin miscalculated badly. He gambled that oil, a commodity in which his economy is heavily reliant, would remain expensive, and he badly underestimated the effect of economic sanctions and other blowback. His confident assertiveness and ability to bend his parliament to approve a war of conquest in 15 minutes, when longer consideration may have rallied skeptics, turned out to be liabilities rather than advantages.

Admiration for the methods used by totalitarian states is likewise embedded in the torture program created by the Bush administration. The CIA, seized by fear, scrambling for interrogation methods, and deprived of both law and a tradition of torture, wound up borrowing techniques from the communist world. Elite military units have long undergone “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape” training designed to help them withstand the torture methods used by China and North Korea in the 1950s. These methods were largely designed to produce false confessions for propaganda purposes. By mimicking the methods American soldiers were trained to resist, the U.S. thereby imported torture practices from its most vile totalitarian foes.

Whether consciously or not, that decision vindicated Revel’s vision of a more brutal West willing to play by the Soviets’ own rules. Bret Stephens, writing in The Wall Street Journal editorial page, dismisses any concerns about torture — even torture of innocent people! — as “moral preening.” Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin straightforwardly dismisses the American aspiration to hold itself to a higher standard than its enemies as hopelessly naïve. “Americans have always clung to the notion that they never had to stoop to the level of their enemies to win wars even if that was always a myth. … ” he writes. “The tactics aren’t easy to look at, but as he can rightly assert, the only thing in war that counts in the long run is the results.”

The only thing that counts is the results. Morality is a hypocritical pretext; the winners write the history books. This is the familiar philosophy of the dictator, at home within a major American political party.