Liberty! Liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”
The person who said that was Marie Jeanne Roland. They were her last words. She was four months short of her 40th birthday when, sharp at half-past three on a dull November afternoon in Paris, the guillotine cut her head off. The charge for which she was executed was trumped up. Her trial was a mockery. Her real crime was that, as one of the most eloquent and fearless women then participating in the factional politics of the French Revolution, she threatened Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, who were in power that year of 1793.
On her way to be executed, she also managed to deliver a famous curse on them and on the crowd who applauded whatever violence they were presented with. “Those who send me thither,” she called from the tumbril, “will not be long before they follow me. I go to the scaffold innocent. They will come there as criminals. And you who applaud today will then applaud.”
It is beyond possibility that U.S. President George W. Bush Jr., a man of such paltry education, memory, and morality that they qualify him as the stupidest president in the history of the United States, would know the name and story of Madame Roland.
There is a better chance that the cleverer British Prime Minister Tony Blair and their dwarf, Australian Prime Minister John Howard – the Three Musketeers of today’s World War – would know how to look her up. But if there is a single member of the Axis this trio commands – a minister of state, a civil servant, a military officer, an ambassador – who recognizes the call to moral judgement Roland made and the warning she uttered before her death, there has been not a single resignation to show that they exist. Protest, they think, is the irresponsibility of those without power. Moral judgement is the responsibility of those who expect to win, or who are afraid to lose (or those who happened to be Yugoslavs a decade ago).
During the time of Roland’s imprisonment, before her death, she wrote to her political friends and allies that they should flee for the United States, “the only refuge of liberty,” she said, in the midst of the French Revolution.
Ninety years later, shortly before his more natural death, Gustave Flaubert defined America in his “Dictionary of Received Ideas” as the converse of the political romantic. It was, wrote the 59-year old novelist, a “fine example of injustice,” by which he meant that it had been misnamed: “Columbus discovered it, and it is named after Amerigo Vespucci.” Then Flaubert got down to practical business, speaking of the two plagues on France, and on his own pleasure, for which he blamed America. “If it weren’t for the discovery of America, we shouldn’t have syphilis and Phylloxera. Praise it all the same, especially if you’ve never been there. Expatiate on self-government.”
This week, it was possible to listen to the only president of France able to claim that he had really traveled the United States – the current incumbent, President Jacques Chirac. A politician who for every good reason that can be imagined detests both Bush and Blair, but whose public displays of sincerity can be as waxy as theirs, Chirac was obliged to refute Flaubert and endorse Roland. He did it in order to defend the right of France to say no to war. This, Chirac tried to explain, wasn’t anti-Americanism. It was, he implied, much closer to the American ethos that France respects than the American or British leadership could possibly understand right now.
Thus has the Washington gang, which has devised the doctrine of preventive war against an entire civilization that, in their imagination, threatens their power, invited the world to choose between what they call “civilization” and France’s choice. About Russia’s choice to side with France, there deserves to be at least as much celebration in front of the French Embassy in Moscow as there has been protest outside the American. But if, like most Russians, you have a historically founded nervousness of making a public demonstration out of your private convictions, you can be reassured the French know what you think and sympathize.
You see, it was another Frenchman who wrote the secret psychology of the Russians with such devastating accuracy that his book was banned in Russia from its publication in 1843 until 1996. Astolphe de Custine was the author; the son of a French diplomat and grandson of a general, both guillotined in Paris before Roland and whose mother, Delphine de Sabran, imprisoned at the same time, narrowly missed the same fate.
In parallel with his better-known countryman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who went to the United States at the same time to find lessons for the future of post-Revolutionary France, Custine entered Russia to see how the last of Europe’s despotisms was surviving. He went to Russia, Custine wrote, “to seek for arguments against representative government. I return a partisan of constitutions.” Democratic conservative that he was, Custine concluded that, under one-man rule, all Russians “practice the obedience that perpetuates the evil which they inflict or to which they submit.” Custine had been hoping to find evidence in Russia for the viability of an alliance with France. He decided the time wasn’t ripe. Russia, he thought, was aggressive, fanatical and dominated by “a master who shows mercy to no enemy, who considers vengeance as a duty.”
Under despotism, the Russians, wrote Custine, “are nothing more than a conquering community; their strength does not lie in mind but in war; that is, in strategem and brute force.” These days, it is Bush who represents local and global despotism. Along with France, President Vladimir Putin is trying to defend constitutionalism.
All the Moscow think tanks that have received American funds are servile in their support for Bush and their criticism of Putin. Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center writes that in order to modernize its economy, Russia “requires not just the absence of confrontation with the United States, but a genuinely strong and deep relationship with the world’s sole superpower.” Only U.S. investment, on U.S. terms, can save Russia, Trenin argues.
This servility would be unremarkable if Trenin wasn’t acting as if a decade of then-President Boris Yeltsin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Laurence Summers and the International Monetary Fund hadn’t already provided enough evidence to refute the argument. It is precisely because the United States proved so inimical and so untrustworthy in those years that Putin must find an alternative now.
Unembarrassed to talk straight, Sergei Markov of the Institute of Political Studies attacks Putin’s stance with Chirac by declaring that “we should not take too-principled a stance.” In recommending subservience to Bush, Markov claims the payoff will be in oil. “The price of oil will be decided in the White House. We have to enter into negotiations on a fair price, $19 a barrel.”
Thus do those who have made a career parroting U.S. demands for market reforms in Russia believe Washington should be trusted to accept, dictate and preserve a worldwide cartel pricing formula. Nothing in a decade of U.S. behavior toward any of Russia’s raw-materials exports or its manufactured products allows the faintest support for the view that Washington would make such a deal, or, if it did, that it could be trusted to honor its commitment.
In a world where no one in power can be trusted, Putin and Chirac are saying quite simply that what is right is what is lawful.