Washington, DC, our nation’s capital and the center of governmental angst in fair times and foul, is going through its most profound trauma in years, a collective PTSD. For most of Washington’s political class, even on the Republican side of the aisle that divides the city, “this wasn’t supposed to happen.” Hillary Clinton was to be president and Donald Trump an also-ran, a showman who provided entertainment, though all-too-often holding up a mirror to the foibles and hypocrisies of those who do politics for a living.
But here we are.
At least three major institutions have been given an unprecedented shaking: the pollsters, who believe that their computer-driven Ouija boards can be dignified by a formal name–psephology; the Main Stream Media that (with few exceptions) worked assiduously to defeat Donald Trump, after first having raked in the big bucks by promoting him when they thought he was just a second-rate Elmer Gantry; and the foreign policy establishment, most of whose members will now be excluded from power and influence, deprived of their God-given right to set the nation’s agenda abroad and determine its directions.
The turmoil in these three institutions (and there are others) is so profound that more than a month after the election provided a definitive outcome–by the rule-book that every political animal knows by heart and follows assiduously, even when believing that the Electoral College “are an ass”–efforts are still underway to reverse November 8’s outcome. A truly minor candidate asked for and got recounts in three key Trump states–Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania–which, if Mrs. Clinton were judged the victor in all three, would have made her president. This maneuver came up empty.
The latest ploy is an effort by several Electors to ask that they play their constitutional role as actual deliberators. Striking, however, is that all but one of the many signatories to this plea come from states that Hillary Clinton won. But to be relevant, at least 37 additional Electors from states that Trump carried would have to play this game. In the few days left before they meet in their respective state capitals on December 19, there is little prospect of that, nor of postponing the legally-mandated date for this, the actual election of the President of the United States.
Russia and the Election
Each of these points is worth a major article or even a book. But here I will confine myself to the state of play as it relates to foreign policy and national security. There are two primary but interlocking activities underway: one is to reduce the legitimacy of Trump’s victory, perhaps hoping that this will make him more responsive to views of the Disappointed and Dispossessed after he becomes president; the other is to reduce his latitude for action in at least one major area of foreign policy.
The focus of these efforts can be summarized in one word: Russia. For months, there have been reports, some even endorsed by leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community, first, that Russia has been trying to show that American democracy is corrupt and not worthy of emulation; and, second, that Moscow has been using advanced cyber tools both to sow confusion in America and actually to sway votes. The clear implication is that Trump won the 2016 presidential election because Russia’s Vladimir Putin interfered, directly and indirectly, in the U.S. electoral process. He was, in this view, violating unwritten rules of how major states are supposed to conduct their struggles for power and influence (latter-day Marquis of Queensbury Rules, which were indeed devised and largely followed during the Cold War, when the consequences of not doing so could have been a nuclear conflict).
Make no mistake: this matter is serious. At the extreme, it could even produce a U.S. constitutional crisis without precedent. It turns on the presumption that the Russian impact on the U.S. electoral process was large enough in key swing states to determine the outcome (or at least to leave the validity of the outcome in doubt.) Maybe so, but highly doubtful. Yet the idea has attained widespread currency, including White House allegations of Mr. Putin’s direct engagement. The full case has been laid out in a five-page article, beginning in the middle of Page One, in the December 14 New York Times. Its bottom line is summarized as follows:
"Did he [Putin] seek to mar the brand of American democracy, to forestall anti-Russian activism for both Russians and their neighbors? Or to weaken the next American president, since presumably Mr. Putin had no reason to doubt American forecasts that Mrs. Clinton would win easily? Or was it, as the C.I.A. concluded last month, a deliberate attempt to elect Mr. Trump?
In fact, the Russian hack-and-dox scheme accomplished all three goals. [Emphasis added]"
It would be difficult to be more definitive than that!
Certainly, given the seriousness of the charges, Congressional hearings (endorsed by leaders of both political parties) are appropriate, as is President Barack Obama’s call for a root-and branch investigation. The key question is why he took so long to act, and why he is asking for a report only before he leaves office (January 20), instead of for some dispositive indicators much earlier–say, before the Electoral College meets in a few days’ time.
“They All Do It”
Anyone with experience in international politics or historical knowledge knows that interfering in other countries’ politics and even elections is SOP–standard operating procedure. Others regularly do it to us: legally through their embassies, tolerated through K Street lobbyists they employ to the tune of millions of dollars, and also through their expatriates or others who convince themselves that the interests of foreign government X are also in the best interests of the United States. In the early 20th century, Americans of Irish and Italian descent used to be masters of this game. In the 1930s, until discredited by Adolf Hitler’s actions, many German-Americans joined the German American Bund, which tried to keep the United States out of the Second World War. American citizens, misled by foreign propaganda and arguments that the United States had “lost China,” revered Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and kept the United States from normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until “Nixon’s visit to China” in 1971. And the Israel lobby actively seeks to influence U.S. Middle East policy. This was evidenced most clearly by congressional cheering for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress, when, in speaking of Iran’s nuclear program, he asked its members to trust his judgment rather than that of the U.S. president.
At the same time, the United States has regularly interfered in the politics and elections of other states, notably during the Cold War, and it still does now. People in both political parties argue that it is in a “good cause” or at least in a “necessary cause.” Perhaps at times they are right. The New York Times exposé, cited above, elides over one event, when it scolds Russia for “outing” a phone call between the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as they were trying to affect the outcome of Ukraine’s political struggle. According to the Times: “Ms. [Victoria] Nuland [the assistant secretary] was heard describing a little-known American effort to broker a deal in Ukraine, then in political turmoil.” In this case, “broker a deal” is a euphemism for “promote a coup d’état.” Maybe that was the right course (though I do not agree), and it certainly did not justify the Russian military intervention in Ukraine that followed; but it was not as though we were the impeccable “good guys,” just trying to promote democracy, to Putin’s demonstrable “bad guy.”
The Tillerson Nomination and Russia
Now, from the wings, enters Mr. Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. With all the media coverage, it is not necessary here to recount all the potential problems there might be with this choice in the one place that matters, legally if not politically: the U.S. Senate. Suffice it to recall that Mr. Tillerson’s company has massive business dealings in the Russian Federation, some of which he negotiated personally, that he is on record as having opposed sanctions imposed when Mr. Putin seized Crimea, and that he has had a long-standing relationship with the Russian president. This includes his having received a decoration, though not one on a par with the old Soviet honor of “Hero of the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Tillerson’s activities in industry are thus sufficient to raise questions about whether he would be an effective steward of American interests rather than being compromised, in fact as opposed to perception–the Caesar’s Wife of political combat, even when invoked by people whose own “skirts are not clean.” Perhaps he would be so inclined as Secretary of State, but given his experience and reputation, it is hard for an outsider like me (who has never met him) to conclude that he would sell out U.S. interests because of a supposed “friendship” with Putin or a mess of pottage for ExxonMobil. Mr. Tillerson has certainly displayed none of the traits of deep ideological bias that mark another of Mr. Trump’s senior national security selections, LTG Michael Flynn, who, while reportedly inclined to support a new approach in U.S. dealings with Russia, has repeatedly made statements and written a book about Iran and Islam that raise profound doubts about his fitness to be National Security Advisor.
Further, Mr. Tillerson’s nomination elides into the other question that is most pertinent, now: the allegations of Russian meddling in our election campaign, whether accurately portrayed or inflated in their impact (which can never be truly assessed). At one level, Mr. Tillerson is a stand-in for Mr. Trump, who has spoken so often of wanting to create a more positive relationship with Russia and Mr. Putin. What that would in fact mean is anyone’s guess–most likely Trump himself does not yet know. There is some risk that, in seeking both to “reach a deal” and to be different (and more effective) that President Obama, President Trump might compromise objectively-important interests–both America’s and others’. But it is easier for opponents of any change in U.S. policy toward Russia to challenge a nominee for a cabinet post than to take on the president, while sending the same “message.”
This debate comes at a difficult time in relations between the United States, along with several European states, and the Russian Federation, where “difficult” is defined not just in terms of some profound differences of interest and the facts of Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of other European countries. “Difficult” also means that in both Russia and the United States there has been a steady rise of attitudes that are redolent of the Cold War. People in both countries who should know better have been invoking the existence and even potential role of nuclear weapons; Russia has characterized NATO as its enemy; and some top U.S. military leaders have argued that Russia is an “existential threat” to the United States–a view, given that “existential” means “ready and perhaps willing to destroy us,” that is both absurd and as dangerous as some rhetoric by Russia.
The wheel thus comes full circle: allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. election campaign become a tool to limit, if not cripple, President Trump’s attempts to change the downward course of U.S. and Western relations with Russia. Of course, what calculations Putin is making are unknowable, but we do know one thing: he is playing a weak hand. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its economy was struggling even before imposition of sanctions. Its principal source of wealth and export earnings, hydrocarbons, is not worth what it was even a couple of years ago, and oil is unlikely, at least anytime soon, again to reach $100 or more a barrel. The Russian population is aging and, while its decline in numbers may have been arrested, the population is certainly not growing significantly. The Russian Federation is also socially fractured. Notably, Russia has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, a major part of which is disaffected from ethnic Russian domination. Thus, it is no wonder that Moscow has cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan and regarding the nuclear deal with Iran.
Unfortunately for Rex Tillerson, these factors will come together in his Senate confirmation hearings and will distract from due consideration whether he is qualified to do the job in terms that are truly relevant. His task before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will not be easy, given that so much extraneous material–he surely had nothing to do with Russian hacking–will be introduced. His background will work against him, both as portrayed by much of the main stream media, which already have him in their sights, and among any senators who choose to grandstand. But if because of Russian matters he is defeated for confirmation or must ask that his nomination be withdrawn, the implications will go far beyond the issues being debated. The new U.S. president could find himself crippled in trying to work out the kind of relationship with Russia that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry would have liked to achieve but could not–in major part because of Russian behavior, but also because of hardening attitudes here, including old Cold War overtones, that exist far more in the foreign policy establishment than in the country at large.
If that is what happens, we in the United States stand to be big-time losers.