Othello and the War
The war in Ukraine, a horrific tragedy for the people of that unhappy country, fateful as well for many young Russians and potentially menacing for all the world, with burnished weapons of every size and destructive power waiting in silos or submarines for a slip, a blunder, a provocation. Tragic byproducts are further splits in weak, divided peace and leftist movements around the world. Who should bear the blame? For many the answer is a foregone conclusion. For some an inner dispute continues.
As one of those plagued by such torment, my bookish background calls to mind a tragedy of the stage—one of the most memorable. Is a parallel possible? The handsome African general Othello, though deeply in love with his beautiful young Venetian wife Desdemona, uses his strong hands to strangle her—a shocking crime. But, scene for scene, Shakespeare shows us how his sly enemy Iago conspired to cause this tragedy, misusing all around him to make Othello believe that his Desdemona betrayed his love. Do Iago’s intrigues absolve Othello? They cannot. But they reveal where the blame is really concentrated: Iago’s hatred, greed, jealousy, plain evilness, paired with a cunning ability to dissemble and deceive. “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve,” Iago resolves.
I am not what I am.
Can a pure coincidence—a change of two letters in Iago’s name—lead us to the conniving spirit weaving a web which Vladimir Putin ripped through in February 2022? He is certainly no Othello, and Zelensky has zero similarity with Desdemona. But what about NATO? Hasn’t its role been a long series of Iago-like intrigues, deception—and violence as well? Wasn’t its focus from its start directed at defeating the USSR, which for President Reagan was “the focus of evil in the modern world”?
An article in the Washington periodical “The Hill” described key methods used to defeat this “evil empire“: “… covert support of the Solidarity movement in Poland, an increase in pro-freedom public diplomacy through instruments like the National Endowment for Democracy, a global campaign to reduce Soviet access to Western high technology and a drive to hurt the Soviet economy by driving down the price of oil and limiting natural gas exports to the West.” This “secret declaration of economic war” forced the USSR, still not fully recovered from the immense damage done by the fascist invaders in World War II, to spend some $8 billion annually to deflect its impact.
However, the offensive was successful. George H. W. Bush could announce:
For over 40 years, the United States led the West in the struggle against Communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values… The Soviet Union itself is no more. This is a victory for democracy and freedom…
But soon after politely thanking Mikhail Gorbachev “for his intellect, vision and courage” in helping to make this victory possible, U.S. favor switched to the man who used tanks against the elected Duma so as to throw Gorbachov out and seize power. Bush made future principles clear:
We have been heartened and encouraged by President Yeltsin’s commitment to democratic values and free-market principles, and we look forward to working with him.
The Cold War chapter of history seemed closed. In January 1990 West German Foreign Minister Genscher stated that “the changes in Eastern Europe and the German unification process must not lead to an ‘impairment of Soviet security interests.’ Therefore, NATO should rule out an ‘expansion of its territory towards the east… closer to the Soviet borders.’” On February 10 Chancellor Kohl promised; if the Soviets approved German unification NATO would not expand to the east. Secretary of State James Baker assured Foreign Minister Shevardnadze three times of the “not one inch expansion” and told Gorbachev that “… also for other European countries it is important to have guarantees… not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread eastward.”
But—shades of Iago—this pledge was not put into writing, there were no signatures. Within a year Poland’s Foreign Minister visited NATO Headquarters and President Lech Walesa said that Poland wants “a safe Europe, which is guaranteed by NATO”. In March 1992, NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner assured Poland that “the door to NATO is open.” In 1999 Czechia, Hungary and Poland became NATO members, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Yeltsin was a weak, acquiescent head of state who opened the Russian door to capitalists from near and far (the Russian ones were called oligarchs). By 2000 the population had been robbed of billions, the economy neared total collapse—until a tough new ruler took over. Vladimir Putin rescued the economy in the nick of time, and was intent on raising Russia up from the third level it had been demoted to and re-establishing it as a major power.
In Munich, in February 2007, Putin recalled the “one inch” promises and questioned “the so-called flexible frontline American bases with up to five thousand men in each. It turns out that NATO has put its frontline forces on our borders… I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have anything to do with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them.”
The expansive plan to surround European Russia, economically and militarily, centered on Ukraine. As early as 2008, in a secret cable made known by Julian Assange, the American ambassador to Moscow, William Burns, sent a far-sighted warning to Washington:
Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov and other officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat.
“NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains ‘an emotional and neuralgic’ issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene,” the cable said.
Burns was promoted; he now heads the CIA. But his wise warning was purposefully disregarded.
This became crystal clear when Victoria Nuland, Hillary Clinton’s right-wing aide, spent $5 billion or more to organize an opposition to Ukraine’s elected government and then overthrow it in a bloody putsch in February 2014. A hacked telephone call revealed that she had even selected the next premier—in league with gangs of armed men, many wearing Nazi symbols, some giving Hitler salutes, and all honoring their dead hero Stepan Bandera, who had urged and led the murder of thousands of Russians, Jews, Poles and Hungarians in 1941.
In March 2016 the expert Australian journalist John Pilger warned that nuclear warhead spending “rose higher under Obama than under any other American president… In the last 18 months, the greatest build-up of military forces since World War Two, led by the USA, is taking place along Russia’s western frontier. Not since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union have foreign troops presented such a demonstrable threat to Russia.
Ukraine has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that is next door and hostile to Russia: a regime rotten with Nazis, literally. Prominent parliamentary figures… openly praise Hitler and call for the persecution and expulsion of the Russian-speaking minority… In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—next door to Russia—the U.S. military is deploying combat troops, tanks, heavy weapons.
In fact, the first measures taken by the new USA-backed Kiev government were to suppress the Russian-speaking parts of the country—leading to the breakaway of Crimea and the Donbas region—and to civil war. And while swift membership in NATO was not possible, a series of naval and military maneuvers on Russia’s southern borders was pursued, with most NATO members joining in.
In February 2022, just as Ambassador Burns had warned, Russia did feel forced to intervene. A frightening decision, with terrible, bloody results. I must condemn Putin, just as the audience blames Othello. But should Iago be praised?
What is the goal of those who finance, support and largely control the leaders in Kiev—and urge a battle until victory? Pres. Biden, at a Business Roundtable meeting of the wealthiest American elite, declared,
There’s going to be a new world order out there, and we’ve got to lead it. We’ve got to unite the rest of the Free World in doing it.
Noble sentiments—invoked in countless variations by almost every president, especially when the USA was engaged in a subversion, conflict, regime change, blockade or direct military intervention. No, when leafing through my history books, I cannot find one case where such actions by the USA and its NATO gauntlet in any way furthered a better “new world order”—or anything but death and destruction, chaos, misery, corrupt new rulers: Iran, Guatemala, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Honduras, Iraq, Congo, Ghana, Libya, most dramatically in Chile, most lengthily against Cuba, most catastrophically in Vietnam, and perhaps most bitterly in decades of support for apartheid in South Africa and the enforced “settlement” of Palestine. Is there a single example where Washington’s ”new order” brought improvement, not new suffering? I can think of none!
Looking beyond the Othello level to the world stage, I see three immense threats endangering not only the people of Ukraine and quite likely Russia, but all of us, everywhere. First of all—the climate catastrophe, heightening temperatures spreading from the Equator to the poles and, with them, disappearing islands, retreating coastlines, the extinction of fauna and flora, the despair of whole populations faced by droughts, floods, fires and hurricanes.
Secondly, in response to worsening living standards for millions, caused by the environmental collapse, by wars such as in Ukraine, by the resulting distortions of world trade and by weak labor movements whose resistance is limited by the lack of an active, uncorrupted, multipolar Left, there is a growing danger of brutal fascism. This became all too apparent in Washington in January 2021, it is visible in the growing strength of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), it is reflected in elections in France, Italy, Scandinavia, Austria and elsewhere.
Thirdly, and most menacingly, though all too often overlooked or ignored; the danger of atomic conflict and world conflagration. With growing military confrontation and both sides’ fear of defeat, a simple error of judgement, a mistakenly strayed missile, perhaps a local provocation could set in motion a chain leading to total catastrophe.
Lurking behind all three, I am convinced, we can find a dwindling number of obscenely wealthy clusters of the world’s multimillionaires and billionaires. No matter which field we examine, we find more or less a handful of corporations dominating it. Five or six auto makers, five or six pharmaceutic developers, even less seed and herbicide monopolists, a few mighty film-makers, newspaper czars and TV barons, even among book publishers. There are perhaps a few dozen of such mighty groups.
Three are especially alarming. The giant fossil fuel drillers, dealers and transporters, many more than a century in merciless boring and mining, have done the most to poison the world, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, from Amazon forests to the Niger delta—while bribing the hungry media bosses to help them dupe millions in the belief that the climate damage they cause does not take place.
Potentially even more dangerous is the “Silicon Valley” kind of wizardry, dominated by Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter/X, Facebook, Google, which increasingly influence our shopping, our entertainment, our social life (or lack of it), our mind patterns, with growing control of our purchases, preferences, movements, even, with such as Alexa, in our living rooms and bedrooms. Also our political decisions! And AI threatens far worse!
Yet even more fearsome are the armaments manufacturers. Dominated by six or seven in the USA, augmented by makers of mass killer machines in other countries, with the Germans, like Krupp or Rheinmetall having the lengthiest, ugliest backgrounds. These companies, to stay on top and please their profiteers, must produce more and more. When arms storage sites and hangars are full, their contents must be used to make room for more; expiration dates and warnings of obsolescence also demand action! Such manufacturers can never favor peaceful solutions; they would be their undoing!
These ruling clusters of the extremely wealthy—and there are some Russian and Chinese oligarchs among them—are influencing, dominating or controlling minds and actions of governments everywhere. It is they who deceive and defy on climate issues, it is they who, while rarely resorting to genuine fascism—as yet—frequently hold its ugly features and methods in reserve, not all too overtly. But when worsening living conditions or better organizers lead to growing resistance or even rebellion from below, endangering a smooth flow of profits or even their end, those reserves, impatiently polishing their weapons and their connections, are kept waiting eagerly in the wings.
Which brings me back to the stage—to Othello and Iago. I stress again; I can never approve of killing, no matter how motivated, not of killing and destruction in a neighbor’s country, except in self-defense. And Shakespeare lets Othello die, killing himself in a form of retribution.
But neither can I accept a lack of clarity about who really caused and precipitated the tragedy. Putin is no angel, no hero, not an Othello. Nevertheless, I believe that he is primarily motivated by the wish to defend Russia against encirclement, suffocation followed by subservience or dismemberment—the fate of an insubordinate Yugoslavia not so long ago. Perhaps he keeps in mind the fates of men who defied Washington’s drive for world hegemony: the heart attack of Milošević in a prison cell, the death of Allende, the torture and dissolving in acid of Patrice Lumumba, the castration and public hanging of Afghanistan’s Najibullah, the hanging of Saddam Hussein, the murder and oceanic body disposal of Osama bin Laden, the sodomy killing of Muammar Gaddafi.
Until the war on Ukraine began most of the violence in the world was a product of the intrigues, the aggression, the weapons managed and controlled by those powerful clusters who maintain such a tight control of congressmen and senators, half of them millionaires, of Supreme Court majorities, almost always of the White House, also of the Pentagon, CIA, NED, FBI and dozens of other institutions. It is they, a tiny number, less than 0.1%, whose wealth outweighs that of half the world’s population, but who can never be sated. They want to rule the whole world.
Two large barriers remain, two big countries bar their course. They are not the faultless, Utopian models some of us once dreamed of; they, too, require a host of basic changes and improvements. But they are barriers all the same, tough barriers in fact, also armed with Satanic weapons.
The world needs to drop a curtain on this confrontation, increasingly threatening in Ukraine, increasingly dangerous in East Asia. Regardless of differences it must be halted—not bloodily as in Shakespeare’s tragedy, but with some form of détente, however reluctant either side may be.
Such a cease fire and successful negotiations must be the world’s immediate and urgent goal. Ultimately it must face a deeper imperative; not only reining in the super-rich, super-powerful intriguers—but, as they are an outdated but constant source of danger and dismay, their total banning from the world stage.