In the wake of last week’s indictments alleging that 13 Russian nationals and entities created fake social media accounts and sponsored political events to sow political discord in the U.S., something of a consensus has arisen in the political and media class (with some notable exceptions) that these actions not only constitute an “act of war” against the U.S., but one so grave that it is tantamount to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Indeed, that Russia’s alleged “meddling” is comparable to the two most devastating attacks in U.S. history has, overnight, become a virtual cliché.
The claim that Russian meddling in the election is “an act of war” comparable to these events isn’t brand new. Senators from both parties, such as Republican John McCain and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, have long described Russian meddling in 2016 as an “act of war.” Hillary Clinton, while promoting her book last October, described Russia’s alleged hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s email inbox as a “cyber 9/11.” And last February, the always war-hungry Tom Friedman of the New York Times said on “Morning Joe” that Russian hacking “was a 9/11-scale event. They attacked the core of our democracy. That was a Pearl Harbor-scale event.”
But the last few days have ushered in an explosion of this rhetoric from politicians and journalists alike. On Friday night’s Chris Hayes show on MSNBC, two separate guests — Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler and longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines — posited Pearl Harbor as the “equivalent” of Russian meddling, provoking a shocked reaction from Hayes:
The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, complaining about President Donald Trump’s inaction, asked readers to “imagine how history would have judged Franklin D. Roosevelt in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, if he had taken to the radio airwaves to declare that Tokyo was ‘laughing their asses off.’ Or if George W. Bush had stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn and launched a name-calling tirade against the Democrats.”
David “Axis of Evil” Frum went back a century earlier to write that Trump’s inaction amounts to “a dereliction of duty as grave as any since President Buchanan looked the other way as Southern state governments pillaged federal arsenals on the eve of the Civil War.” Podesta — who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, as well as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chair — called Trump a “draft dodger” for failing to engage what he called this “war” with Russia.
Let’s leave aside what a stinging indictment this claim is of the Obama presidency. It not only means that Barack Obama allowed an attack of the magnitude of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to happen on his watch, but worse, did very little — basically nothing — in response, allegedly due to fears that any retaliation would be criticized by Republicans as partisan. But for those who really believe this rhetoric, can fears of political attacks really justify inaction by the commander-in-chief — whose primary duty, we’re so often told, is to protect the nation — in the face of a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11? To posit this equivalence is to condemn Obama in the harshest possible terms, to accuse him of utter malfeasance in protecting the nation.
But the more important question is the one these chest-beating politicians and pundits notably refrain from addressing. If Russian election meddling is on par with the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks, then should the U.S. response be on par with its response to those attacks? Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor prompted U.S. involvement in a world war and, ultimately, dropping two nuclear bombs on Japan; 9/11 initiated wars in multiple countries that still, 17 years later, have no end in sight, along with a systematic and still-worsening erosion of basic civil liberties.
This has been a long-standing tactic during the war on terror of neoconservatives: They love to accuse everyone of being insufficiently “tough” or “aggressive” with whatever country they crave heightened tensions, but they never specify what greater “toughness” is needed, because to do so would expose their extremism. Indeed, for years, GOP hawks such as John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush often accused Obama — who repeatedly tried to accommodate and even partner with Russian President Vladimir Putin — of being insufficiently “tough” on the Russians, of being too “weak” to “stand up” to the Russian leader, without specifying what they wanted him to do beyond arming Ukrainians. Regarding Obama’s alleged weakness toward Putin, McCain said in 2014 that “history will judge this administration incredibly harshly.”
The only specific proposal one hears now when it comes to responding to Russian meddling is a call for “sanctions.” But if one really believes that Russia’s actions amount to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, then sanctions seem like a very lame — indeed, a woefully inadequate — response. To borrow their rhetoric, imagine if Roosevelt had confined his response to Pearl Harbor to sanctions on Japanese leaders, or if Bush had announced sanctions on Al Qaeda as his sole response to 9/11. If you really believe this rhetoric, then you must support retaliation beyond mere sanctions.
Indeed, Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for years, but critics like McCain insisted that it had no hope of changing Putin’s behavior, let alone imposing any real punishment. “The only thing that will dissuade Vladimir Putin from what he is doing is when coffins come back to the families in Russia,” McCain said of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
At least McCain, for all his faults, is following his rhetoric through to its logical conclusions. If you really believe that Putin attacked the U.S. on a level even close to what was done at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11, then of course you’d be arguing for retaliation far greater than sanctions; you’d be arguing for military action such as arming Russia’s enemies if not beyond that, as McCain has done. You’d also be furious with Obama for allowing it to happen on his watch and then doing so little in response, as McCain is:
All of this underscores the serious dangers many have pointed to for more than a year about why all this unhinged rhetoric is so alarming. If you really believe that Russia — with some phishing links sent to Podesta and some fake Facebook ads and Twitter bots — committed an “act of war” of any kind, let alone one on par with Pearl Harbor and 9/11, then it’s inevitable that extreme retaliatory measures will be considered and likely triggered. How does one justify a mere imposition of sanctions in the face of an attack similar to Pearl Harbor or 9/11? Doesn’t it stand to reason that something much more belligerent, enduring, and destructive would be necessary?
At the very least, no politician or pundit should be able to get away with issuing rhetoric of this type without being required to specify what they think ought to be done. Here, for instance, is “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, doing his best 2002 impression of Bill Kristol, decreeing in a predictably viral tweet that all patriotic Americans are duty-bound to focus on the question of what we should do to “punish Russia”:
If you work in American politics or in the Gov’t on any level and your first reaction to today’s Mueller indictment is NOT ”how are we going to prevent this from happening again and how are we going to punish Russia,” then you need to rethink your priorities as a citizen.— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) February 16, 2018
Note, though, that Todd himself neglects to specify what “punishment” he advocates. This is reckless rhetoric of the most irresponsible kind: demanding that everyone agree that “punishment” toward Russia is warranted (upon pain of being found guilty of bad citizenship), while failing to specify what punishment would be just, warranted, and rational. To do that is to deliberately beat the drums of war, cultivate an atmosphere of belligerence and aggression, without any limits or notions of proportionality.
That’s exactly what is being done by those who keep declaring the U.S. to be “at war” with Russia, and especially those who invoke the worst attacks in U.S. history when doing so, all while refusing to state what they think should be done in response. It’s simultaneous reckless and cowardly.