Friday, November 04, 2016

The current anti-Russia rhetoric in US politics

The Hillary e-mails pseudoscandal has been hot air as far as finding her doing anything illegal or unethical. And the general reporting on it has been sensationalist and sloppy.

Don't get me wrong. Some of the Clinton campaign e-mails Wikileaks produced provide an unpleasant look at the legal but in many ways fundamentally corrupt functioning of our political system. But there's a basic difference between the unseemly but legal and the illegal. And the whole e-mails brouhaha produced none of the latter. And put more major media malpractice on display of the Clinton pseudoscandal kind.

But I'm also not thrilled about the way the Clinton campaign has been using the Russia issues, for the reasons discussed in this editorial, Stop Running This Ad, Secretary Clinton The National Interest 11/02/2016:

Turning routine business relationships, attendance at conferences, or even support for diplomatic engagement with Russia into outright affection for Putin is a tempting political gambit. For political candidates, it offers an easy way to insinuate that the opposition doesn’t really consist of loyal Americans. For policy advocates, it also provides a way preemptively to shut down debate.
And it's not as though Democrats haven't been the target of such accusation. The editorial mentions one of the sleaziest examples, from the 1992 campaign when Old Man Bush's campaign accused Bill Clinton of being a KGB agent because he once took a trip to the (then) Soviet Union.

Masha Green summarizes the most recent round of this (The New Politics of Conspiracy NYR Daily 11/02/2016):

The second act of the Trump-Putin farce seems to be playing out faster than the first act, but following the same general trajectory: apparent revelations followed by exaggerated interpretation followed by a subdued debunking, all of it somehow giving weight to what, in the end, has never been much more than a matter of speculation. The theory is that Russian President Vladimir Putin is actively trying to bring Donald Trump to office and in fact has direct ties to the onsandidate. The evidence is scant, but the assumption is strong. The reality-based world view is further weakened and American political culture is the loser.

A dogmatic, propagandistic view of Putin's Russia can lead to what Jordan Michael Smith refers to as "the type of threat inflation that inevitably results from the view that ideologies, not interests or power, drive policymaking." (Putin’s More Perfect Union Boston Review 10/04/2016)

William Arkin tweeted a link to this article:

James Ludes, The Russians Read Our Cold War Playbook War on the Rocks 11/03/2016

Ludes gives a useful reminder of the kinds of political espionage the US practiced during the Cold War. Although he somewhat surprisingly says, "After America’s victory in the Cold War, Congress quickly and efficiently disassembled the country’s ability to conduct political warfare abroad."

While I'm sure that's true in some important sense, it's not as though the US has refrained from propaganda and regime change operations since 1991.

Ludes also seems to accept some of the claims about Russian political operations that may go beyond the evidence that's in the public record, his description of the Putin regime's views of Western political weaknesses sounds plausible:

The objective of Putin’s actions is to discredit western liberalism — the idea that societies should be organized for the benefit of the citizen; that individuals have God-given rights to freedom of thought, speech, and religion; that societies are best organized as democracies. These ideals have posed substantial challenges to Putin in places like Ukraine, where two separate popular uprisings have chased Russia’s favored strongmen from power. In the Baltic states, the insistence on popular democracy makes it impossible to imagine any sort of willing return to the Russian sphere of influence. And in Russia itself, a small but courageous cohort of activists challenge Putin’s grip on power, calling for more transparency, greater freedom of the press, and meaningful elections.

The central challenge for Putin is the appeal of western, liberal values. For him to achieve Russia’s policy goals, he must diminish their appeal and the moral authority of their greatest champion: the United States of America. The easiest way to achieve both outcomes is to shine a light on the rot implicit in the U.S. system:

  • Widespread government surveillance of citizens and their communications;
  • A corrupt political process that benefits insiders; and
  • The corrupting power of money in the American political process.
The last link in that quote is from the Voice of America, a reminder that US information operations developed during the Cold War haven't entirely ceased. (Although I have the impression that Voice of America's reporting is actually pretty good.)

Todd Gitlin offers his take on the current allegations about Russian political interference in The Putin-Trump Axis Moyers & Company 11/02/2016. He is cautious in this piece about what he credits:

It’s been bruited about that Putin’s strategy is to make trouble for the West in the interest of neutralizing NATO as he goes about his expansionist schemes. It’s a plausible notion on the face of it, but there might be many ways to disrupt the West. Funny thing, though, is the particular method to their meddling. Putin has a characteristic and consistent way of making trouble: backing the far right.
Robert Perry may sometimes be overly cautious when it comes to claims about Russian misconduct. But caution is something our current public discussion and reporting on Russia could use more of. He notes in Taking a Page from Joe McCarthy Consortium News 11/01/2016:

One trick of the original McCarthyism from the Old Cold War was to take some innocuous or accurate comment from a leader in Moscow — saying something like “poverty is a cruel side of capitalism” or “racism persists in the U.S.” — and to claim that some American reformer who says much the same thing must be a Kremlin tool.

Now, in the New Cold War, we are seeing a similar trend in the way some Democrats and the mainstream U.S. media are citing accurate assessments from Russian President Vladimir Putin and claiming that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is somehow in league with Putin for observing the same realities.
Of course, Trump says so many different things about any given subject that there are lots of ways to cherry-pick his syntactically challenged comments to make a desired point.

But it's a meaningful reminder. We need far more realism in foreign policy. Realism both in understanding and in sober assessments of the prospects for military adventures especially. Facile anti-Russian slogans get in the way of both.

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