Thank goodness for moral clarity. President Bush's black-and-white picture of the war on terror has apparently made sense of Russia's complicated struggle with the Chechens. The White House offered its wholehearted support to President Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of the Moscow theater siege, despite accounts of a heavy-handed Russian operation that had little regard for the lives of the hostages or the terrorists. (The latter were shot dead despite being unconscious.) But that's all understandable. Russia is, after all, fighting terrorism.
Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, revealed that "the president's first reaction [to the events in Russia] is sorrow that other nations around the world are being victimized by terrorists." The notion of Moscow as victim in this conflict is strange. To review the history briefly: The Chechens were forced into the Russian empire in 1862, after 45 years of bloody resistance. They were granted independence in 1918, but in 1920 the Soviet Union invaded the country again and brutally suppressed periodic revolts. In 1944 Joseph Stalin applied a Stalinist solution to the Chechnya problem. He deported most of its inhabitants to Central Asia -- more than a half-million -- and burned their villages to the ground. (Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, allowed the survivors to return to their lands in the late 1950s.) In 1990, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, a national conference of all Chechen political groups declared independence. Russia refused to recognize it and in 1994 launched the first Chechen war. After two bloody years Moscow was unable to win and signed a peace treaty with the Chechens. In 1999 Russia reinvaded Chechnya, and since then it has had 100,000 troops in this republic, the size of Vermont.
When asked whether Russia's actions might also be to blame, Fleischer disagreed vigorously: "Your question supposes that the Russians are to blame for the terrorists' taking Russian citizens hostage. And the president does not share that. . . . The people who shoulder the burden and the blame are the terrorists. And there is no excuse around the world in any region for people resorting to terror against innocent civilians."
If terror against civilians is the yardstick, what does the White House call the actions of the Russian army in Chechnya? Over the course of the past decade, it has killed an estimated 100,000 civilians -- almost 10 percent of the prewar population -- displaced more than 200,000 and turned more than a quarter of the tiny republic into an ecological wasteland.
Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, has documented how Russian troops have terrorized the village of Tsotsin-Yurt during the past two years, driving half its population away. Over the course of 40 raids, Russian troops have rounded up the young men and demanded ransoms. "Those who could not pay were taken to the village outskirts, where they were beaten and tortured with electricity for several hours. Wires were attached to penises," Memorial writes. After taking these men, Russian troops raped and sodomized most of their wives. Almost 100 men are still missing. This is just one example among thousands that have been documented.
The Chechens are no angels. They have been ruthless warriors for their cause, utterly unable to form a stable government, and have indeed resorted to terror. But Russia's actions have helped turn them into terrorists. Russia has destroyed Chechnya as a place, as a polity and as a society. Chechnya is now a wasteland, populated by marauding gangs. No leader can control the increasingly radicalized and lawless youth, such as those who took over the Moscow theater. Putin has spoken of al Qaeda's presence in Chechnya, but none existed until recently, when Chechens, devastated by the Russian onslaught, took help from wherever they could get it. As things got worse, the Chechens got desperate, and increasingly their political conflict is taking on a religious dimension. This pattern recurs in other cases; violent repression creates extreme opposition.
The lesson to be drawn is that there is no moral clarity here. Terrorism is bad, but those fighting terror can be very nasty, too. And the manner in which they fight can make things much, much worse. It is a lesson we had better learn fast, because from Egypt to Pakistan to Indonesia, governments around the world are heightening their repression and then selling it to Washington as part of the war on terror. Russian officials called the Chechen fighters "rebels" or "bandits" until recently. Now they are all "international Islamic terrorists."
As a candidate, George W. Bush was asked by Larry King what he thought of Russia's actions in Chechnya. "Not acceptable," replied Bush. "And that's why we need to cut off foreign -- the aid to Russia." "Now?" King asked. "Yes, absolutely," Bush insisted, adding, "The nations of the free world [must] condemn the -- you know, the killing of innocent women and children."
Now, that's moral clarity.
The writer is editor of Newsweek International and is a columnist for Newsweek.