By Paolo von Schirach
February 25, 2014
WASHINGTON – During an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox a few days ago, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Assistant Majority Leader and thus number two in the Senate hierarchy of the Democratic Party, in reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he used to be the head of the KGB:
“…Let’s not forget that Vladimir Putin was not just a member of the KGB, he was the head of the secret police, the Soviet KGB. This is a man that we should take very seriously”.
Putin was a KGB Colonel, not the head of the Soviet secret police
Well, there is no doubt that we should take Putin very seriously. He is the head of government of a (not friendly) large country with lots of oil and gas and plenty of nuclear weapons. The problem is that in the Soviet era Putin was a colonel in the KGB; and not its head. And this is not just a small detail. (Note: It is true that Putin was made head of the FSB, the many times reformed and restructured successor to the KGB, by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But this was in 1998, well after the demise of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. And Putin served for only one year as head of the FSB. Putin was only a colonel, never the head of the KGB, during the Soviet era).
The fact that Durbin, a very prominent US national political figure, does not know the difference looks bad. The additional fact that nobody (as far as I could see) said anything about this factual error is even worse. And why is that? Well, because this means that lack of information, ignorance and major misunderstanding do not matter in America, when it comes to foreign affairs.
Sure enough, for the general public there is no huge difference between saying that Putin was a KGB colonel or that he was the head of the KGB. Arguably the essence is the same. The man has a long experience in senior positions in the old Soviet secret police. Fair enough.
US senior national leaders should know the facts
But I believe that we should hold our national elected leaders to a higher standard. We should expect them to be knowledgeable about basic facts regarding foreign leaders.
The fact that it is alright to be misinformed and that nobody really cares one way or the other is an indication of intellectual laziness. If I combine this major factual error with the bland generalities uttered by Durbin during the same Fox interview about the unfolding crisis in the Ukraine, I have reason to be concerned about how prepared our national leaders are when it comes to foreign affairs.
Granted, Senator Durbin is not the Secretary of State. He is not engaged in running US foreign policy. But he is a very senior national leader. He should be better prepared. If the average US Senator or Representative is equally misinformed, then this is cause for worry.