Darker Convergence

From his exile in the closed city of Gorkiy in 1980, Andrei Sakharov composed an open letter to Academician A.P. Aleksandrov, then president of the Academy of Sciences:

"My ideal is an open pluralistic society which safeguards fundamental civil and political rights, a society with a mixed economy which would permit scientifically-regulated, balanced progress," he wrote. "I have expressed the view that such a society ought to come about as a result of the peaceful convergence of the socialist and capitalist systems and that this is the main condition for saving the world from thermonuclear catastrophe."

This credo sits at the core of Sakharov's thought, it highlights both his sense of alarm over the thermonuclear sword of Damocles suspended over humankind and his firm vision of a path out of danger through the reconciliation of the parties then locked in a fateful Cold War. Essential to it is the notion of convergence. The roots of Sakharov's idea are not entirely certain. Clearly it stems in part from the world of physics, following perhaps on Pascal's concept of the convergence of the extremities. On the other hand, its routine use at the time derived from the work of the Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen, who argued that the disparities between the communist and market economies were steadily contracting. Tinbergen pointed to the development of a regulatory state, the steady growth of social welfare programs and monitoring and oversight of pricing as evidence of this convergence. More generally, it seems that Sakharov saw in European social democracy an emerging middle ground between the ideological extremes of the United States and USSR. The United States and the USSR would gradually grow closer to the Nordic and Middle European model, it assumed, and a clash of world views, which with the arrival of the a massive stockpile of nuclear warheads and the motion of mutually-assured destruction carried the potential of species extinction, could be avoided.

The Cold War ended with the dissolution of the USSR; its external empire faded starting in 1988, while the internal empire devolved into Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the other successor states a few years later at the end of 1992. This was marked less by the sort of convergence that Sakharov had foreseen than by what — at least at first — seemed to be a sort of neoliberal triumphalism. First the satellite states and then the successors of the USSR quickly appeared to embrace the dogma of market economics. Holdouts against this trend, such as Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were quickly labeled as outliers and eccentrics. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed "the end of history," in the Hegelian sense — the struggle between two ideologies seeking world dominance had ended. Capitalism won.

There is something to the triumphalist model, but it is also far too simple. If we look more closely, we see that Russia, the heart of the old empire, has in fact embraced elements of a market economy and a liberal democratic political system — but far less of either than the triumphalists imagine. Russia's economic system is actually something different — what a number of observers have labeled "national capitalism" — a system in which state management of a significant part of the economy (concentrated in the energy sector) remains an undeniable fact, even as this management assumes the outward appearance of the corporate commercial world. On the other hand, a substantial space has been opened for free economic activities and those with clever ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit can go places in today's Russia.

Russian democracy similarly remains rather problematic. A stroll through the bookstores on Tverskaya shows shelves stocked with the works of once-banned authors. Magazines, newspapers and Internet sites offer bold and often sarcastic criticism of the powerful. On the other hand, Russia's multiparty democracy struggles to offer the citizens a meaningful choice at election time. Instead they have a choice between parties divided between the service of certain power-brokers but united in a supine attitude towards the autocrats of the moment. The divisions are less meaningful and the choices less real than the Russian electorate had in the years following the 1905 Revolution. The broad perception is that key political decisions are brokered by a handful of powerful men in back rooms and that the voters at the polls play a role only at the margins of the political process. Measured against the realities of the USSR at the time Sakharov began his period of social and political activism, the changes in Russia are little short of astonishing. On the other hand, measured against the heady expectations of the first years of the

of Boris Yeltsin, they are an enormous disappointment.

But it would be a mistake to measure change solely on the basis of what has happened in Russia and to assume that America has been static. We should also consider what has happened to America in the years following the end of the Cold War. It seems undeniable that America today has changed markedly from the America of 1992. With the collapse of Communism, which truly presented an existential threat to America and the world, America first harvested a peace bonus of sorts. But nine years later, following September 11, 2001, under the leadership of George W. Bush and the Republicans, the American political system was shaken by the threat of Islamicist radicals, who clearly did not present an existential challenge. America enmeshed itself in two wars in the Middle East under Bush 43, and under Obama it added a third military operation in the region, in Libya. But significantly, America's commitment to certain core democratic values, unshakable through the Cold War, suddenly seemed in doubt. In sum, this period saw a remarkable transformation in which the national security state gained unprecedented power and prestige, the forces of secrecy and unaccountable state power grew. An America committed to human rights and the rule of law, a nation with a proud tradition of holding even the powerful accountable for their misconduct — this America is fading.

I will furnish two vignettes to characterize the change in America's political culture. Each can of course be dismissed as something passing and insignificant, but I think rather that each reveals something more profound. On Monday at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank with close ties to the Republican Party, a panel discussion was convened under the rubric "CIA Interrogations and the Bin Laden Operation." Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo, former CIA lawyer John Rizzo, and Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, argued about the role that "enhanced interrogation techniques" had played in the identification of Bin Laden's lair. Neoconservative publicist Ben Wittes and a lone human rights advocate, Elisa Massimino, rounded out this gathering. This seems to have been part of a larger media operation aimed at claiming credit on behalf of the Bush operation for the raid in Abbottabad that led to Bin Laden's death. This is a preposterous claim to be sure, but it is the sort of political propaganda and historical revisionism that is commonplace in Washington, especially among Republicans whose principal parallel with Russians of recent memory consists of their tireless retrofitting of history to suit their immediate political aspirations. Nevertheless, the content of this event was not a victory lap, but something darker and more disturbing.

Mukasey, who paced nervously before the event popping tic-tacs, took the floor to reassert the essence of an op-ed he had written in the prior week. His voice cracking, Mukasey insisted that waterboarding was not torture and it was completely lawful at the time it was used, apparently because of subsequently repudiated but nevertheless talismanic charm-like memoranda written by his colleague John Yoo. He then asserted that a key source of the information used to track Bin Laden had been waterboarded and without this he never would have given up information that led to the identification of Bin Laden's courier. He then proceeded to criticize the Obama administration for its decision to ban the Bush-era techniques, glossing over the fact that Bush himself had done away with these techniques in September 2006. The techniques that Mukasey deemed invaluable to the survival of America include waterboarding, long-time standing (stoika), hypothermia, light- and sound-deprivation, slamming a prisoner's head into a false wall, and sleep deprivation, among other techniques. These techniques were derived from a program that trained American pilots to resist torture, which identified them as practices used by the USSR, China, North Korea and North Vietnam. If you've visited the KGB Museum in Vilnius or seen any of the exhibitions at the Sakharov Museum mounted with the cooperation of Memorial about interrogation techniques of the Cheka and NKVD era, then each of these techniques would be familiar to you. To be sure, they were far from the most horrible of the techniques in the Chekist's arsenal. Still stoika, hypothermia and waterborading were among the favorites. But this is not the end of this chilling overlap. The arguments made by Thiessen and Mukasey in the course of the AEI program have a similarly familiar ring. These techniques do not constitute torture because they are so mild, we are told, they produce no lasting harm to the victim, only temporary sensations of danger or discomfort. The emphasis in justification is placed of course on superficial physical contributions, not on a deeper analysis of psychological or longer-term physical harm. But as Arthur Koestler reminds us in Darkness at Noon, where he catalogues these same tools in the hands of the NKVD and KGB, the real point is terror, the desire to psychologically crush the prisoner, rendering him broken and pliant in the hands of his interrogator. The interrogator does not expect truth from the person he breaks, but rather just the opposite: useful lies. Thiessen, a publicist for certain political figures, says that real torture involves "blood splatters" and prisoners "passing out from pain," and these techniques are carefully gauged not to leave obvious traces of physical abuse. Indeed, these thoughts embrace the ethos of the Bush era, and form a common ground to the current battery of torture-enablers and defenders. At the detention facility maintained by a task force of the Joint Special Operations Command at Camp Nama in Iraq, a site where gross mistreatment of prisoners was well documented, a sign was posted that read "No Blood, No Foul." And, as many of you know, this precisely is the motto to which NKVD interrogators operated in the late 1930s. That indeed is a remarkable, a distressing convergence, and not one I ever anticipated finding in my lifetime.

Tags: aleksandrov, andrei sakharov, bin laden, bush administration, civil liberties, cold war

    • Scott Horton
    • Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, where he covers legal and national security issues. As a practicing attorney, Horton has focused on investment in emerging markets. He is also a life-long human rights advocate and serves as a director of the Moscow-based Andrei Sakharov F...

    • Scott Horton's full bio »