Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Understanding Terror

President George W. Bush last week embraced President Vladimir Putin as a fellow foe of terrorism. "President Putin has been a stalwart in the fight against terror," Bush said as the two leaders stood shoulder to shoulder in Canada. "He understands the threat of terror, because he has lived through terror."

"He has lived through terror" -- what could that mean? Bush presumably was talking about Chechnya, whose inhabitants, or at least some of whose inhabitants, have been waging a war of independence. Putin frequently has portrayed these Chechen fighters as terrorists, as some clearly are, and Bush was endorsing that official Moscow view.

But if terror is, by definition, the harming of innocent civilians in order to frighten a larger population, then the chief terrorists in Russia today work for Putin -- they are his soldiers and police. Bush understood this once; the question is what he thinks is to be gained by pretending it is no longer true.

A recent reminder of Russian terror came in a dispatch Saturday by The Washingon Post's Sharon LaFraniere, who described a zachistka, or cleansing operation, in Mesker Yurt, a Chechen village of about 2,000 only 11 kilometers from the supposedly pacified capital of Grozny.

Based on interviews with relatives and survivors, LaFraniere described what has become standard operating practice for Russian troops: how they surrounded the village and rounded up the males; how they released some in exchange for bribes and took those who could not pay to a field outside the village; how some of these men were later returned with fingers chopped off, an eye gouged out, a back that had been sliced by jagged glass, then doused with alcohol and set afire.

The relatives told about how, as always, some of the men did not come back. And about how, when the soldiers departed and the relatives went to the field, they found, in freshly dug furrows, parts of bodies that appeared to have been blown to pieces with explosives.

"He's seen terror firsthand, and he knows the threat of terrorism," Bush said last week.

These Russian tactics are nothing new. Russian troops fought and lost one war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, and Putin launched another before Bush was elected president. Cities have been reduced to rubble and a population that once numbered 1 million is largely dead, displaced or cowering.

"It is troubling for me as a potential president to see use of force on innocent civilians," candidate Bush told Russia's foreign minister in April 2000. He and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, criticized Bill Clinton for continuing to send aid to Russia even as the Chechen war proceeded. "When Bill Clinton compared Boris Yeltsin in Chechnya to Abraham Lincoln, what signal did that send to states around Russia's periphery?" Rice asked.

The war now gets less attention than before. That's in part because Putin has muzzled much of his domestic media, especially the broadcast media; in part because reporters in Chechnya have been attacked and kidnapped by both sides, and so few dare go; in part because European governments, though still terribly concerned for Palestinians, have pretty much given up on championing human rights in Chechnya. (Putin can export a lot more gas and oil than Ariel Sharon.)

And in large part, it's because Bush has slipped effortlessly into the Clinton role he once criticized: excusing, enabling, pretending. "He understands what I understand, that there won't be peace if terrorists are allowed to kill and take innocent life," Bush said. "And therefore I view President Putin as an ally."

This transformation is no mystery. Bush wants Putin's acquiescence in the stationing of U.S. troops in Central Asia, and his cooperation in securing Russia's nuclear and biological weapons. Chechnya just seems less important. And because there are Arab terrorists among the Chechen fighters, and Chechens who have attacked Russian civilians, it is easy to pretend that Putin's war and America's are parallel; just another useful inconsistency in the war on terror, like promoting democracy in Palestine but not Egypt, women's rights in Afghanistan but not Saudi Arabia.

But no one is fooled, not even Russians, who can see the difference between a war of liberation in Afghanistan and of oppression in Chechnya. "The West's support of your attempts to present the war as a counterterrorism operation is strictly temporary," Ivan Rybkin, a former State Duma speaker, wrote in an open letter to Putin last week. "It is a tactic used by the United States to promote its own geopolitical objectives. In the long run, this solution -- like the war itself -- will not lead us anywhere."

The Bush pretense comes at a cost, in other words, and not just a moral one.

Over time, Americans will not support, nor will Russians respect, a war that recognizes evil only when convenient.

Fred Hiatt is a columnist for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.