Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Caution can be a virtue: Russian hacking and Trump foreign policy edition

Paul Pillar calls attention to the fact that we really have surprisingly little to go on in anticipating what the actual foreign policy of the Trump Family Business Administration is likely to be (Winning May Be the Only Thing for Trump, But Not For the U.S. The National Interest 01/03/2017):

Despite the earnest and usually sincere efforts by many commentators to discern pattern, direction, and purpose amid Donald Trump’s tweets and other utterances, the dominant picture is still one of inconsistencies, contradictions, slogans, and lack of a record. We are, late in the transition period, still mostly flying blind regarding the actual future foreign policy of this new presidency. We have little idea of what Trump really cares about in the substance of U.S. foreign policy, as distinct from rhetoric that has worked in a campaign and that helps in his effort to portray himself as a populist.
Citing this piece by Mark Katz, Can Putin and Trump Succeed at Improving Russian-American Relations? LobeLog Foreign Policy 12/31/2016, Pillar does describe a basic dilemma for Trump in dealing with Russia. On the one had, the two countries have common interests and there are good, practical reasons to cooperate on them. But Trump has also relied so heavily on his pro-wrestling tough guy image that he takes a risk being seeing as too compliant to Putin: "He has to be seen instead as having wrung concessions from Putin, and preferably as having gotten the better of him. Katz emphasizes that Trump especially must be seen doing so in the eyes of a domestic audience that includes hawkish, anti-Russian Congressional Republicans. Trump has the added baggage of the Russian hacking and interference in the U.S. election; any favorable move he makes toward Putin risks being interpreted as payback for election favors."

Pillar goes on to explain the risks of Trump approaching international negotiations as a win-loss zero-sum game in dealing with China and Iran.

And he makes a useful observation about not assuming that skills from the business world transfer easily to the Presidency:

Notwithstanding Trump’s trumpeting of his skills as a deal-maker, and notwithstanding all that has been said and written about the “transactional” approach this businessman is likely to take toward foreign policy, a man with his mindset is not about to operate in his new job the way he did in his old one. As head of a privately-owned business, profits and losses could be kept private—and with his refusal to make his tax returns public, they are largely staying that way. The public side of the business could be limited to his promotion of himself and his brand, with bragging about having the most luxurious buildings or the best golf courses. Now the game has changed for him. The public perception of gains and losses is different. If Trump really were to approach foreign relations in a pragmatic, businesslike way, that in general would be good for U.S. interests. But probably his need to be seen to “win” will get in the way. When winning is the only thing for the chief executive, that is not so good for the country.
Katz states the dilemma posed by the Russian hacking issue this way:

Since not just the outgoing Obama Administration, but also the U.S. Intelligence Community leadership, has declared that Russia intervened in the 2016 American presidential elections in order to hurt Clinton and help him, any concession by Trump to Putin risks being seen as payback to Russia for this help. Trump can rail all he likes that the Russians did not interfere in the elections, that he wasn’t aware of it, or that it somehow doesn’t matter anyway, but doing so will only increase concerns about his relationship to Moscow.
I'm glad to see him discussing this in terms of the narrative that has been established rather than the supposed certainty of the claims.

Because caution and careful reading of the hacking claims is still very much in order. Marcy Wheeler is continuing her able work at doing just that, as for instance in A Deep Dive on the Obama Response to Russian DNC Hack (and Theft and Harassment) Emptywheel 01/01/2017.

Democrats and journalists would also do well be hold back on dismissing any skepticism about the Russian hacking story as the result of someone being a Russian dupe.

The Nation presents a couple of recent article advising caution. One is James Carden's Is Skepticism Treason? 01/03/2017. Another is by Stephen Cohen, who writes:

Today’s hysteria, suffused with not a little neo-McCarthyism and a witch-hunt- like search for “Putin’s friends” in the US political establishment (first and foremost Trump himself and his nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson), are making any rational, fact-based discourse nearly impossible. Public discussion is urgently needed on NATO’s buildup on Russia’s western borders and on the civil/proxy wars in Ukraine and Syria, and more generally whether or not a new, less confrontational US policy toward Russia is needed. With the New York Times and Washington Post, and their echo chambers on cable TV networks, labeling anyone who rethinks US-Russia policy a “Trump apologist” and “Putin apologist,” civil discourse so vital to democratic resolutions, and to US national security, has become nearly impossible.
One has to wonder how long it will be before the Trump Family Business Administration will be making intelligence claims to justify some reckless foreign policy move and the Democrats will justify their inaction or support this time around by saying we can't dare impugn the omniscience of our Intelligence Agencies.

Still, the Russian hacking narrative will be a factor in US-Russia relations, as Katz observes in his conclusion:

Yet even if Putin is willing to make concessions, Trump cannot make a deal with him just on his own. Other governments (especially those whose countries are the subject of any Russian-American negotiation), the U.S. Congress, and Western public opinion will all seek to constrain Trump from conceding too much and to point out any instance when they see him allowing Putin to concede too little. In short: Russian interference in the recent presidential elections, and Trump’s effort to dismiss concerns about it, will only serve to increase the already considerable obstacles to improving Russian-American relations.

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