The most astonishing aspect of the discourse on Russia is how little attention is paid to the risks of fueling a new Cold War.
The New Yorker is aggressively touting its 13,000-word cover story on Russia and Trump that was bylined by three writers, including the magazine’s editor-in-chief, David Remnick. Beginning with its cover image menacingly featuring Putin, Trump, and the magazine’s title in Cyrillic letters, along with its lead cartoon dystopically depicting a UFO-like Red Square hovering over and phallically invading the White House, the article is largely devoted to what has now become standard — and very profitable — fare among East Coast newsmagazines: feeding Democrats the often xenophobic, hysterical Russophobia for which they have a seemingly insatiable craving. Democratic media outlets have thus predictably cheered this opus for exposing “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s influence on the presidential election.”
But featured within the article are several interesting, uncomfortable, and often-overlooked facts about Putin, Trump, and Democrats. Given that these points are made here by a liberal media organ that is vehemently anti-Trump, within an article dispensing what has become the conventional Democratic wisdom on Russia, it is well worth highlighting them:
A major irony in the Democrats’ current obsession with depicting Putin as the world’s Grave Threat — and equating efforts to forge better relations with Moscow as some type of treason — is that it was Barack Obama who spent eight years accommodating the Russian leader and scorning the idea that Russia should be confronted and challenged. Indeed, Obama — after Russia annexed Crimea — rejected bipartisan demands to arm anti-Russian factions in Ukraine and actively sought a partnership with Putin to bomb Syria. And, of course, in 2012 — years after Russia invaded Georgia and numerous domestic dissidents and journalists were imprisoned or killed — the Obama-led Democrats mercilessly mocked Mitt Romney as an obsolete, ignorant Cold War relic for his arguments about the threat posed by the Kremlin.
Hillary Clinton, however, had a much different view of all this. She was often critical of Obama’s refusal to pursue aggression and belligerence in his foreign policy, particularly in Syria, where she and her closest allies wanted to impose a no-fly zone, be more active in facilitating regime change, and risk confrontation with Russia there. The New Yorker article describes the plight of Evelyn Farkas, the Obama Pentagon’s senior Russia adviser who became extremely frustrated by Obama’s refusal to stand up to Putin over Ukraine but was so relieved to learn that Clinton, as president, would do so:
The Russian experts heralded by the article also feared that Clinton — in contrast to Obama — was so eager for escalated U.S. military action in Syria to remove Assad that a military conflict with Russia was a real possibility:
It’s impossible to overstate how serious of a risk this was. Recall that one of Clinton’s most vocal surrogates, former acting CIA chief Michael Morell, explicitly said — in a Dr. Strangelove-level creepy video — that he wanted to kill not only Iranians and Syrians but also Russians in Syria:
There’s a reason that those who were so eager for U.S. military intervention in both Syria and Ukraine were so passionately supportive of Clinton. They knew there was a high likelihood that she would do what Obama refused to do: risk war with Russia in pursuit of these foreign policy goals.
One can, of course, side with the Clinton wing on the ground that the U.S. has been too soft on Russia, but what should not be suppressed — and what the New Yorker article makes clear — is that the hawkish views on Russia now dominant (even obligatory) in the Democratic Party were exactly what Obama resisted up until the day he left office.
That’s why people like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio, along with various neocon organs, relentlessly attacked Obama on the ground that he was too accommodating of Putin in Syria, Ukraine, and beyond. The post-election Democratic Party orthodoxy on Russia has deliberately obscured the fact that the leading accommodationist of Putin was named Barack Obama, and in that, he had a radically different approach than Clinton advocated.
The most astonishing aspect of the post-election discourse on Russia is how little attention is paid to the risks of fueling a new Cold War, let alone of military confrontation between the two nuclear-armed powers. A different New Yorker article in December, by Eric Schlosser, described how many times the two countries came quite close to nuclear annihilation in the past, and how easy it is now to trigger a nuclear exchange merely by miscommunication or misperception, let alone active belligerence:
Today, the odds of a nuclear war being started by mistake are low — and yet the risk is growing, as the United States and Russia drift toward a new cold war. … The harsh rhetoric on both sides increases the danger of miscalculations and mistakes, as do other factors. Close encounters between the military aircraft of the United States and Russia have become routine, creating the potential for an unintended conflict.
Constantly ratcheting up aggressive rhetoric and tension between Washington and Moscow is not a game. And yet it’s one that establishment Democrats — and their new allies in the war-loving wing of the GOP — are playing with reckless abandon, and with little to no apparent concern about the risks. They have re-created a climate in the U.S. where a desire for better relations with Russia triggers suspicions about one’s loyalties.
The New Yorker article is rife with warnings about how close the two countries are to returning to full-blown Cold War animosity, with all the costs and horrors the prior one entailed. This harrowing passage is typical:
Some old foreign policy hands in the Clinton circle believe the U.S. and Russia are already in a second Cold War and are angry that Trump is not doing enough to win it (and, even though they are loath to say it, they believed the same about Obama):
There are, as usual, numerous highly influential factions in Washington that would stand to benefit enormously from the resurrection of the Cold War. They’re the same groups that benefited so much the first time around: weapons manufacturers, the think tanks they fund, the public/private axis of the Pentagon and intelligence community, etc. And the people who exert the greatest influence over U.S. discourse continue to be the spokespeople for those very interests. When all of that is combined with the Democratic Party’s massive self-interest in inflating the Russia threat — it gives them a way to explain away their crushing 2016 defeat — it is completely unsurprising that the orthodoxy on Russia has become hawkish and pro-confrontation.
One can debate whose fault it is that the two nations are so close to re-starting the Cold War. A primary obligation of Good Patriotism is to insist that it’s always the other side’s fault. But for those who would like to hear the other side of this equation, as a tonic to the singular message of the U.S. Patriotic Media, here’s Noam Chomsky speaking last year to German journalist Tilo Jung:
But regardless of where one wants to pin blame for these heightened tensions, the risks of heightening them further are incredibly high — one could plausibly say: incomparably high. Yet in the name of being “tough” on Putin, those risks are virtually never discussed, and anyone who attempts to raise them in the context of advocating better relations will almost instantly be accused of being a Kremlin stooge, or worse.
U.S. media accounts often note that “Putin believes” that the U.S. government has repeatedly interfered in Russia’s political process. Given how often Putin publicly makes this claim, that’s hard to suppress. But what they almost never comment on is the rather significant question of whether Putin’s claims are true: Does the U.S., in fact, try to manipulate Russian politics the way Russia now stands accused of interfering in the U.S. election?
The New Yorker article demonstrates how steadfastly this question is ignored. Here’s a classic formulation of it:
So, the New Yorker notes, Putin claims Clinton’s State Department supported and promoted anti-Kremlin protests during Russia’s parliamentary elections, yet offers no evidence. But is that true? Did that happen? As most media outlets typically do, the New Yorker simply does not say. Here’s another classic example from this genre:
Is it true, as Putin claims, that the U.S., in fact, “has long funded media outlets and civil-society groups that meddle in Russian affairs”? Again, the article believes it’s significant enough to note that Putin claims this, but never bothers to tell its readers whether it is actually true, or even if evidence exists for it.
What makes this steadfast silence so bizarre is that there’s virtually no question that it is true. Some have noted the 1996 Time magazine cover boasting of how U.S. advisers helped the U.S.’ preferred candidate, Boris Yeltsin, win Russia’s presidency. And, of course, the U.S. has continually and repeatedly interfered in the domestic political processes, including democratic elections, of more countries than one can count.
But far more relevant, and more recent, are the very active efforts on the part of the U.S. government to alter Russian civic society more to its liking. Many of these efforts, needless to say, are covert, but many are not. Here’s the National Endowment for Democracy — funded by the U.S. Congress through the State Department — openly touting the dozens of Russian political groups it funds.
In response to all this, one can offer the same cliché that is invoked when it’s pointed out after a terrorist attack that the U.S. has killed countless innocent people all over the world: It doesn’t matter because two wrongs don’t make a right. That may well be true, but just as it’s difficult to actually fight terrorism if one refuses to grapple with its causes or if one objects only when one’s own side is the victim but not the perpetrator, it’s very difficult to credibly object to — let alone prevent — other countries from interfering in U.S. politics if you make no effort to object to U.S. interference in theirs.
And at the very least, U.S. journalists who discuss Putin’s claims in this regard should not just summarize those claims but report on whether they are valid. The refusal to do so is as conspicuous as it is troubling.
That Putin ordered Russian hacking of the DNC’s and John Podesta’s emails in order to help Trump win is now such consecrated orthodoxy that it’s barely acceptable in Decent Company to question it. But that obscures, by design, the rather important fact that the U.S. government, while repeatedly issuing new reports making these claims, has still never offered any actual evidence for them. Even the New Yorker article, which clearly views the theory as valid, acknowledges this fact:
Recall that even hardened Putin critics and Western journalists in Moscow were aghast at how evidence-free these government reports have been. The lack of evidence for these theories does not, of course, prove their falsity. But, given the stakes, it’s certainly worth keeping in mind.
And it further underscores the reasons why no conclusions should be reached absent a structured investigation with the evidence and findings made publicly available. Anonymous claims from agenda-driven, disinformation-dispensing intelligence community officials are about the least reliable way to form judgments about anything, let alone the nature of the threats posed by the governments they want Americans to view as their adversaries.
Denouncing the autocratic abuses of foreign adversaries such as Putin has long been the go-to tactic to distract attention from the failures and evils of U.S. actions — including the unpleasant fact that support for the world’s worst despots has long been, and continues to be, a central precept of U.S. policy. Or, as then-Secretary of State Clinton put it in 2009 about the decades-ruling Egyptian tyrant: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
That Putin abuses the civic freedoms of Russians plainly answers none of the policy debates over Russia, given how ready and eager the U.S. is to align with the planet’s worst monsters. It’s instead designed to encourage Americans to fix their gaze on bad acts by people thousands of miles away in order to obfuscate the corruption of their own society and savagery by their own leaders. In several places, the New Yorker article warns against exploiting and inflating claims about Putin as a means of ignoring that the real causes of America’s problems reside not in Moscow but at home:
It is true that Putin is used to avoid confronting the fact that Trump is “a phenomenon of America’s own making.” It’s also true that he’s used to avoid confronting the fact that Trump is a byproduct of the extraordinary and systemic failure of the Democratic Party. As long as the Russia story enables pervasive avoidance of self-critique — one of the things humans least like to do — it will continue to resonate no matter its actual substance and value.
And this avoidance of self-examination extends to the West generally:
As Even The New Yorker Admits™, the primary reason for Trump, for Brexit, and for growing right-wing über-nationalism throughout Europe is that prevailing neoliberal policies have destroyed the economic security and future of hundreds of millions of people, rendering them highly susceptible to scapegoating and desperate, in a nothing-to-lose sort of way, for any type of radical change, no matter how risky or harmful that change might be. But all of that gets to be ignored, all of the self-reckoning is avoided, as long we get ourselves to believe that some omnipotent foreign power is behind it all.
Using Russia — yet again — to whitewash our own sins and systemic failures is bad enough. Let’s just hope it doesn’t lead the two countries back into a protracted and devastating Cold War or, worse still, direct military confrontation. With tensions rising and rhetoric becoming harsher and more manipulative, both of those outcomes are more likely than they’ve been in many years.
When Jen Psaki scoffed at the idea of sending Americans free rapid tests for covid-19, it was a reminder that a for-profit healthcare system still limits the U.S. pandemic response.