Early on Monday a colleague of mine messaged me with a link to a Politico article detailing how Russian intelligence has allegedly gathered “kompromat” on about 2,300 well-known American media personalities and politicians, apparently in conjunction with Vladimir Putin’s ongoing effort to subvert American democracy.
My political writer friend added, “This is scary. What do you think will happen?”
“Nothing,” I wrote back. “Not as long as Trump insists this is nothing more than a scam by the Democrats because Hillary lost.”
We can’t repeat this enough: The United States and our democratic institutions were attacked by a hostile foreign power, yet President Donald Trump refuses to do a damn thing about it. Not only is he still infuriatingly chummy with the Russians, gifting them (without reciprocation) classified intelligence inside the Oval Office and reopening housing compounds that serve as bases for Russian spies. He won’t even acknowledge as legitimate the very basic nut of the story, that Russia hacked the 2015-16 election cycle. Never mind the question of possible collusion for now. The Russians attacked us and there’s copious evidence to prove it.
Imagine if, in the wake of 9/11, the George W. Bush White House had refused to accept that the attack even occurred. The entire world would have thought Bush had lost his mind or that our entire nation was caught in the grip of mass delusion.
Either way, Trump is behaving as if a series of ongoing events that were palpably real weren’t so at all. Those of us who have followed Trump’s ridiculousness since the 1980s know that he’s perpetually full of crap. For example, you may recall his yarn: “Trump Steaks are the world’s greatest steaks and I mean that in every sense of the word.” But as a presidential candidate, and subsequently as the country’s chief executive, his world of make believe is unparalleled. Everything orbiting in Trump’s universe — a universe that includes his 62 million voters along with Fox News — is a fantasy.
Everything that’s real is fake and everything that’s fake is real.
Trump held a Cabinet meeting on Monday morning where he asked his department-level secretaries to offer allegedly unsolicited praise for him and to express effusive gratitude for the honor of serving Trump personally. The usually stoic CNBC reporter John Harwood described the meeting by saying, “Honestly this is like a scene from the Third World.” Indeed. Vice President Mike Pence said serving Trump was “the great honor of [his] life.” (Pence has three children, by the way, whose births must be way down on the list of honors.) Chief of staff Reince Priebus, who’s fighting for his job, said, “Thank you for the blessing you’ve given us.” Yes, I’m sure it’s quite a blessing to be in charge of scooping the rhetorical feces from the cage of a clownish supervillain who needed four tries to correctly spell “hereby.”
The Cabinet’s gooey, over-the-top praise was cloying and artificial, but in Trump’s world of make believe the president and his disciples were sufficiently fluffed, injecting every word of the Cabinet’s Eddie Haskell-ish ass kissing into the news cycle. Insofar as perception is reality, we can assume it worked on the faithful. If all these serious people think Trump is the greatest president God ever created, then it must be true!
Likewise, Trump expects everyone to believe there might be tapes of his one-on-one meetings with former FBI Director James Comey. Knowing Trump and the mendacity of his online blurtings, it’s safe to say there aren’t any tapes even though (to coin a phrase), “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.” If the tapes exist, he’d release them. But releasing the tapes is irrelevant because as long as his base believes Comey is what Trump claimed — a crazy, cowardly grandstander who’s obviously lying about the meetings — then pretending that such tapes might exist is enough for the voters who matter.
Contrary to Trump’s world of make believe, there weren’t 3 million illegal Hillary Clinton voters, nor did former President Barack Obama have Trump’s “wires tapped.” The tax reform bill Trump says is being negotiated doesn’t actually exist. The American Health Care Act (also known as “Trumpcare”) will not provide health insurance to more people and will ultimately leave tens of millions of people with no coverage, among other terrible things. His tweets about the “travel ban” won’t help his chances in court and only make matters worse for the future of his executive order.
Meanwhile, Trump praised his record on jobs so far: While 1.1 million new jobs have been created since Election Day, 1.3 million jobs were created during the previous seven months during former President Barack Obama’s administration. (Trump has also forgotten about the supposedly “real” unemployment rate he mentioned so often during the campaign.) Trump insists the Democrats are feckless, rudderless failures who can’t get anything done yet they’re also effectively obstructing his entire agenda despite the fact that the GOP controls everything. And sorry, James Comey is telling the truth.
I could do this all day. Nothing Trump says is real or accurate — nothing. Even discussing his statements as if they’re mere off-the-shelf political lies serves to only normalize him when, in fact, what he’s doing is galactically destructive. The world has lost faith in America’s leadership or is losing it fast. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe Trump has gone bye-bye. Why? Because his fictitiousness is so completely obvious that we have no choice but to wonder whether he’s mentally fit to lead. (He’s not.) He seems to sincerely believe that his kooky outbursts and cartoonish threats sound legitimate when anyone with a brain knows he’s tilting at windmills — even some of his core supporters.
Congressional Republicans are excusing Trump’s loony behavior, for the moment, as the consequences of his being “new to the job,” arguing that his rookie stature is the source of his nonstop flailing. I’m all in favor of any excuses that underscore the president’s massive incompetence, thanks. But the GOP seems to forget that Trump has acted like this for his entire career. He sculpts his own reality to compensate for his endless roster of inadequacies.
But before too long — and I hope this is true — the president and his supporters will be blindsided by reality. Sometime soon, Trump will be fully exposed for his part in the Trump-Russia attack whether as a willing participant or a conspirator after the fact, orchestrating the cover-up. No fairy tales from his Twitter feed will dig him out. The story has to end this way. Trump and all Trump’s men have to be held accountable, otherwise we might as well resign ourselves to believing our democracy is owned and operated by the Kremlin. We can’t allow Trump’s delusions to become American delusions. The bedtime story Trump is telling has to end and end the right way — or else.
Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon.com. He’s also the host of “The Bob Cesca Show” podcast, and a weekly guest on both the “Stephanie Miller Show” and “Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang.” Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Jump into your time machine and let me transport you back to another age.
It’s May 2001 and The Atlantic has just arrived in the mail. I’m tantalized by the cover article. “Russia is finished,” the magazine announces. The subtitle minces no words: “The unstoppable descent into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance.” Could it be that the country I had worried most about as a military officer during all those grim years of the Cold War, the famed “Evil Empire” that had threatened us with annihilation, was truly kaput, even in its Russian rather than Soviet guise?
Sixteen years later, the article’s message seems just a tad premature. Today’s Russia surely has its problems — from poverty to pollution to prostitution to a rickety petro-economy — but on the geopolitical world stage it is “finished” no longer. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has recently been enjoying heightened influence, largely at the expense of a divided and disputatious superpower that now itself seems to be on an “unstoppable descent.”
More than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.
Sixteen years after Russia was declared irrelevant, a catastrophe, finito, it is once again a colossus — at least on the American political scene, if nowhere else. And that should disturb you far less than this: more than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.
Yes, the US has a Soviet problem, and I’m not referring to the allegations of the moment in Washington: that the Trump campaign and Russian officials colluded, that money may have flowed into that campaign via Russian oligarchs tied to Putin, that the Russians hacked the US election to aid Donald Trump, that those close to the president-elect dreamed of setting up a secret back channel to Moscow and suggested to the Russian ambassador that it be done through the Russian embassy or even that Putin has a genuine hold of some sort on Donald Trump. All of this is, of course, generating attention galore, as well as outrage, in the mainstream media and among the chattering classes, leading some to talk of a new “red scare” in America. All of it is also being investigated, whether by congressional intelligence committees or by former FBI director — now special counsel — Robert Mueller.
When it comes to what I’m talking about, though, you don’t need a committee or a counsel or a back channel or a leaker from some intelligence agency to ferret it out. Whatever Trump campaign officials, Russian oligarchs or Vladimir Putin himself did or didn’t do, America’s Soviet problem is all around us: a creeping (and creepy) version of authoritarianism that anyone who lived through the Cold War years should recognize. It involves an erosion of democratic values; the ever-expanding powers exercised by a national security state operating as a shadow government and defined by militarism, surveillance, secrecy, prisons and other structures of dominance and control; ever-widening gaps between the richest few and the impoverished many; and, of course, ever more weapons, along with ever more wars.
That’s a real red scare, America, and it’s right here in the homeland.
In February, if you remember — and given the deluge of news, half news, rumor and innuendo, who can remember anything these days? — Donald Trump memorably compared the US to Russia. When Bill O’Reilly called Vladimir Putin “a killer” in an interview with the new president, he responded that there was little difference between us and them, for — as he put it — we had our killers, too, and weren’t exactly innocents abroad when it came to world affairs. (“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”) The president has said a lot of outlandish things in his first months in office, but here he was on to something.
My Secret Briefing on the Soviet Union
When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources”; you know, books, magazines and newspapers. The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years (though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991). Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our archenemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless Communist oppression.
Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?
I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with: that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment and an extensive prison system featuring gulags. All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.
In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing — eight points in all — one item at a time.
1. An authoritarian, surveillance state: The last time the US Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.
2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales: The US continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of President Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the USA is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.
3. Bent on nuclear domination: Continuing the policies of President Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.
4. Imperialist and expansionist: Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the US is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly. When the US military speaks of global reach, global power and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.
5. Persecutes critics and dissidents: Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the US is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse. As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.
In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “Lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.
6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment: Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the US today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma. Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.
7. Extensive prison systems: As a percentage of its population, no countryimprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.
8. Stalemated wars: You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration (even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion). US forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there. Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, US leaders continue to over-deploy US Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.
In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.
What Is to Be Done?
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union.
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union. Just to begin the list of similarities: too many resources are being devoted to the military and the national security state; too many over-decorated generals are being given too much authority in government; bleeding-ulcer wars continue unstanched in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; infrastructure (roads, bridges, pipelines, dams and so on) continues to crumble; restless “republics” grumble about separating from the union (Calexit!); rampant drug abuse and declining life expectancy are now American facts of life. Meanwhile, the latest US president is, in temperament, authoritarian, even as government “services” take on an increasingly nepotistic flavor at the top.
I’m worried, comrade! Echoing the cry of the great Lenin, what is to be done? Given the list of symptoms, here’s one obvious 10-step approach to the de-sovietization of America:
1. Decrease “defense” spending by 10 percent annually for the next five years. In the Soviet spirit, think of it as a five-year plan to restore our revolution (as in the American Revolution), which was, after all, directed against imperial policies exercised by a “bigly” king.
2. Cut the number of generals and admirals in the military by half, and get rid of all the meaningless ribbons, badges and medals they wear. In other words, don’t just cut down on the high command but on their tendency to look (and increasingly to act) like Soviet generals of old. And don’t allow them to serve in high governmental positions until they’ve been retired for at least 10 years.
3. Get our military out of Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Reduce that imperial footprint overseas by closing costly military bases.
4. Work to eliminate nuclear weapons globally by, as a first step, cutting the vast US arsenal in half and forgetting about that trillion-dollar “modernization” program. Eliminate land-based ICBMs first; they are no longer needed for any meaningful deterrent purposes.
5. Take the money saved on “modernizing” nukes and invest it in updating America’s infrastructure.
6. Curtail state surveillance. Freedom needs privacy to flourish. As a nation, we need to remember that security is not the bedrock of democracy — the US Constitution is.
7. Work to curb drug abuse by cutting back on criminalization. Leave the war mentality behind, including the “war on drugs,” and focus instead on providing better treatment programs for addicts. Set a goal of cutting America’s prison population in half over the next decade.
8. Life expectancy will increase with better health care. Provide health care coverage for all using a single-payer system. Every American should have the same coverage as a member of Congress. People shouldn’t be suffering and dying because they can’t afford to see a doctor or pay for their prescriptions.
9. Nothing is more fundamental to “national security” than clean air and water. It’s folly to risk poisoning the environment in the name of either economic productivity or building up the military. If you doubt this, ask citizens of Russia and the former Soviet Republics, who still struggle with the fallout from the poisonous environmental policies of Soviet days.
10. Congress needs to assert its constitutional authority over war and the budget, and begin to act like the “check and balance” it’s supposed to be when it comes to executive power.
There you have it. These 10 steps should go some way toward solving America’s real Russian problem — the Soviet one. Won’t you join me, comrade?
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a regular contributor to TomDispatch. He has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
Why are we focusing on who leaked what to whom, when our democracy is under siege?
It was a breezy, surprisingly pleasant summer week in Washington as the frenzy around potential Trump-Russia revelations reached near-carnival levels. On Thursday, brightly clad groups scattered across the lawns of Capitol Hill could almost have been picnickers — if not for the mounds of cable leashing them to nearby satellite trucks. Every news studio in D.C. seemed to have spilled forth into the jarring sunlight, eager for the best live backdrop to the spectacle that awaited. Bars opened early for live viewing of former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. Political ads against Comey — who isn’t running for anything — aired during coverage of the hearing, often back-to-back with vibrant ads praising President Trump’s first foreign trip, where he “[united] forces for good against evil.”
Only D.C.’s usually opportunistic T-shirt printers seemed to have missed the cue, forced to display the usual tourist “FBI” fare in rainbow spectrum but offering no specialty knitwear for the occasion. The conversion of America’s political arena into a hybrid sporting event/reality show was nonetheless near complete.
Russian state media — eagerly throwing peanuts into the three-ring circus in the days before by endlessly looping Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin’s mockery of America’s “hysteria” on all things Russia, and on the day after by running headlines of American “collusion” with ISIS — was dead silent on either of this week’s Senate hearings, during both of which intelligence leaders offered bleak and candid assessments of the cascading Russian threat against America.
And this is perhaps the banner flying over the investigations circus: Missing from the investigation of the supposed Russia scandal is any real discussion of Russia.
The starkest aspect of Comey’s prepared statement was the president’s lack of curiosity about the long-running, deep-reaching, well-executed and terrifyingly effective Russian attack on American democracy. This was raised more than once in the hearing — that after Trump was briefed in January on the intelligence community’s report, which emphasized ongoing activity directed by the Kremlin against the United States, he has not subsequently evinced any interest in what can be done to protect us from another Russian assault. The president is interested in his own innocence, or the potential guilt of others around him — but not at all in the culpability of a foreign adversary, or what it meant. This is utterly astonishing.
Since the January intelligence report, the public’s understanding of the threat has not expanded. OK, Russia meddled in the election — but so what? Increasingly, responsibility for this is born by the White House, which in seeking to minimize the political damage of “Trump/Russia” is failing to craft a response to the greatest threat the United States and its allies have ever faced.
Even if the president and his team were correct, and the Comey testimony definitively cleared the president of potential obstruction of justice or collusion charges — even if that were true, that does not also exonerate Russia. Nonetheless, this is a line the president seems to want drawn.
So here are the real issues — about Russia; about the brutal facts we have yet to face; and about some hard questions we need to ask ourselves, and our political leaders, and our president.
1. No matter what is true or not, we have moved toward the fractured, inward-looking, weakened America that President Putin wants to see.
An honest assessment of where we are reads like the setting of a dystopian spy novel. Paid advertising is defaming private American citizens viewed as opponents of the president, while political ads praise our glorious leader. The policy process is paralyzed while both party caucuses, once well-oiled legislative and messaging machines, have factionalized into guerrilla-like cells. The same can be said of many government agencies, whose halls remain quiet, awaiting political appointees who may never arrive. Policies are floated and tweeted and drafted and retracted. There are uneasy relationships between the White House and the intelligence community, and between the White House and Congress, and between the White House and other parts of the White House — which is bleeding over into how the intelligence community interacts with the Congress, as well.
This factionalization mirrors a deep and deepening public divide, which has been greatly accelerated by a war on truth. The Russian narrative is increasingly being echoed by far right media, and finding its way into mainstream conservative media. Episodes of violent unrest, and the potential for wider chaos, don’t seem far off.
Meanwhile, no one seems to be watching what Russia is still doing to us. No one is systematically speaking about the tactics of Russian hybrid warfare, and that these go beyond “fake news” and “hacking” into far-reaching intelligence operations and initiatives to destabilize Western countries, economies and societies. No one is talking about how Russia provides training for militants and terrorists in Europe, even as U.S. generals say it is supporting the Taliban as it attacks American forces in Afghanistan. No one is leading a unified effort to roll back Russian influence in Europe or Asia or the Middle East. No one is commenting on Russia’s new efforts to entrench its presence near eastern Ukraine, escalate the fighting there and destabilize the government in Kyiv.
No one is commenting on how Russia is sparking and fueling Middle Eastern wars — first a physical one spiraling out from Syria, and now a diplomatic one that sweeps across the region. In a very real sense, if you want a glimpse of the world that Putin’s “grey Cardinal” Vladislav Surkov imagined when he described nonlinear warfare — “all against all” — the current churn throughout the Middle East, the Gulf states and North Africa is a pretty good example. This is a massive realignment that deeply affects U.S. interests, and which will cost us, in blood and treasure, in immeasurable ways.
But no one is commenting on the new hardware and manpower that Russia has deployed to the eastern and southern Mediterranean, or to its eastern and western borders. Our trenches will draw nearer again after the summer exercise season, but who will man them on the Western side is more uncertain. Europe’s newfound fortitude is absolutely critical — but their military capabilities will lag their ambitions for years to come.
Our relationships with our truest allies are frayed and fraying — and not just in headlines, but in trust and intelligence sharing and functionality, even as critical ambassadorships and administration jobs gape open. Those who remain, especially from the Pentagon and military commands — Defense Secretary James Mattis and the EUCOM and SOCOM commanders, notably — have been patrolling Europe with trips and reassurances, good work that was undone when the president removed mention of Article 5 from his speech at NATO headquarters. Though he committed to the principle of collective defense on Friday during a news conference with the president of Romania, that one act of petulance is devastating to years of NATO’s strategic planning.
Even behind closed doors, Trump reportedly did not once mention Russia to the NATO heads of state — not to discuss Russian attacks against our allies, and not to discuss Russia’s menacing of NATO skies, seas and borders. Instead, he browbeat our allies. Maybe it’s news to the White House — but it was Russia’s aggression, not Trump’s hectoring, that inspired the alliance to boost national military spending. Days later, the sting still on the slap, Trump lashed out at the mayor of London following a terror attack. These words and images, next to those of the president yukking it up in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister, add a dangerous element of fragility to the greatest military alliance in history.
It leaves us to wonder — who does President Trump imagine will come to our aid after the next attack on our soil? Who does he imagine will stand next to our troops and ease the burden at the front lines in the many wars he is fighting?
For while our attention is on the center ring and who may next find their head inside the lion’s mouth, we are engaged in expanding special warfare in Africa, a tense standoff on the Korean peninsula, expanding operations in the Middle East. The president has requested a military budget to match this operational appetite — even if his inability to manage Congress makes it near-certain this will be trapped behind a continuing budget resolution until after the midterm elections. The Pentagon is clear on the purpose and direction of these operations, but the president’s tirades against countries hosting our men and military assets — Qatar, South Korea, Germany, etc. — complicate our ability to execute on-task.
Even Putin admits that “patriotic” Russian hackers were behind the attack on America — a fact the president will still not mention without caveat. Trump is isolated, manages those around him with Stalinesque puppeteering, and rightly views himself as under attack. But even if given every benefit of the doubt about the election, it is clear he does not think Russia is a threat.
2. Russia has altered American policies, our relationships with our allies and our view of our place in the world.
To be clear: I am not saying Trump did not win the election, or that he didn’t have considerable momentum toward the end of the campaign. Candidate Trump had a narrative that captured many hearts and minds — but this did not happen in a vacuum, but rather a landscape awash in Russian active measures.
A constantly misunderstood narrative was revisited during the Comey hearing — questions about whether Russian actions “changed” the vote. The focus on whether this means Russia physically changed votes is the greatest diversion tactic of all. Ironically, D.C.’s political class — whose existence is based upon the ability to deploy narratives that get some people to vote, and others not to — refuses to admit that outside interests could change a small percentage of votes in the Rust Belt.
If the Trump campaign itself has openly discussed its use of data-backed information operations to conduct targeted voter-suppression campaigns, possibly at the individual level — why would we believe the Russians wouldn’t be experimenting with the same tools and tactics? Do we really think Russian-friendly parties, oligarchs and state-owned interests hire U.S. political consultants and pollsters and technology firms merely to run ad campaigns, rather than to learn how to use these things against us?
These tools and tactics in the information space work better against America than anywhere else because there are a lot of us, and because English is the language of internet — and the amplification factor because of these things is staggering, especially when one of our presidential candidates was borrowing and repeating Russian narrative and disinformation. What possible claim could any sensible American politician make that these factors had no impact in the decisionmaking process of the American voter?
In fact, you can track the radical changes in the belief of certain narratives during the time period Comey identified as when the most intensive Kremlin-led activities were underway (beginning in summer 2015 through present day). During this time frame, Republican views on free trade agreements dropped 30 points, from roughly the same as Democrats to radically divergent (Democratic views remained relatively steady). Putin’s favorability rating increased, even while unfavorable views remained constant, fueled by a 20-point increase among Republicans and an 11-point increase among Independents. Between early 2016 and now, Republican views of whether media criticism can help keep political leaders in line — which for the previous five years was almost identical to Democratic views — dropped by 35 points.
An isolationist America that is softer on Russia and more in favor of authoritarian traits in leaders fits right into the narratives that the Kremlin nurtures and spends billions to promote. And if views changed so dramatically on these aspects of Russian narratives — why is it we believe their efforts didn’t change any votes?
In many ways, the trust-based, state-based U.S. voting system is surprisingly resilient to basichacking or meddling. Every state, sometimes every county, runs its own elections with its own rules with its own machines (or not) serviced by their own vendors. Certainly, there are easy ways to hack this infrastructure — technicians servicing software, unsecured machines, etc. — but the decentralized system makes it a complicated affair. It’s uncertain and it’s messy and it would leave a trail of money and evidence that can be found and exposed.
Far simpler, it turns out, is just hacking people — getting them to change their views over time without realizing that they are doing so on the basis of deliberately coercive and false information that is targeted at them because they exhibit certain traits and habits that “data scientists” have profiled. And no one can prove anyone did anything.
And yes, this is indeed terrifying. So yes, it would be great if everyone would move on from denying the existence of the “hacked votes” no one is looking for to looking instead at the far more important issue: that Russian information warfare has come of age thanks to social media. Perhaps then, the tens of thousands of “programmers” working for Russia’s three largest data companies will make a lot more sense.
3. It will happen again; it is still happening now.
One final point, on the tactical weaponization of discrete pieces of information. Ours was not the only case where hacking introduced info or disinfo that came to dominate specific parts of the information space (particularly when massively amplified by botnets that know how to game the algorithms).
Just this week, the planting of a single false report, allegedly by Russian hackers, was used to justify a diplomatic rift that will fuel the realignment of the Middle East. Russia has been working to accelerate this process since 2011, when it used the Syrian civil war as a pretext to deploy to the region. It is no accident that this realignment has meant a proxy war that has empowered Iran — which has been helping kill Americans in Iraq since at least 2004 — and special efforts targeting countries that the U.S. has relied on for regional basing and power projection — including Turkey, Egypt, Qatar and Iraqi Kurdistan.
This tactic works because it prays on doubts and grievances that are already present — as the best information warfare does. Truth doesn’t matter. Once we know how we feel about something, who cares what the truth is? And information is just one act of Russia’s shadow war.
So this is where we are, six months after first taking stock of what Russia did to America. We are paralyzed and divided, watching a salacious sideshow of an investigation while Russian initiatives are underway in countless places, completely unchecked. The American president, eager to be rid of this “cloud,” has equated dismissing Russia’s global imperialist insurgency with loyalty to him.
As I wrote for Politico in January, Russia is clear about what its objectives are. When I said then that Russia was at war with the United States, this was an edgy, controversial view. Now, it is regularly repeated by senators and TV commentators. But our societal understanding of the war we face has not expanded fast enough.
Even looking only at the advance of Russian military assets — men, materiel, supporting infrastructure — the picture is grim. And yet the most concise encapsulation of the Russian concept of hybrid warfare — the chart depicting the “Gerasimov doctrine,” developed by the Russian chief of the general staff — shows that information warfare is the constant through all phases, and that the ideal ratio of nonmilitary to military activities is 4:1. The more important war is, by far, the shadow war. And yet we still refuse to accept what’s happening.
I don’t know why we just choose not to believe what Russia says, when they have repeatedly outlined what their strategic goals are and then moved to achieve them by force and guile. But it’s a bridge of disbelief we need to be willing to cross.
The war is in the shadows. And right now, Russia is winning. There is only one question that we should be asking: What are we going to do to protect the American people from Russian acts of war — and why doesn’t the president want to talk about it?
Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton and the true cause of Donald Trump’s legitimacy crisis — his own actions
HEATHER DIGBY PARTON
Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton (Credit: AP/Reuters/Rainier Ehrhardt/Photo montage by Salon)
On Wednesday Vox’s Ezra Klein published a long piece about the current crisis in our government. He wrote that “our president lacks legitimacy, our government is paralyzed, our problems are going unsolved.” I would say that legitimacy, the first of those issues, is the source of all the others.
Donald Trump’s legitimacy problem is not just a matter of losing the popular vote. Other presidents have assumed office after such an outcome. In 1824 John Quincy Adams became president after the election decision was thrown to the House of Representatives. In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes became president after losing the popular vote to Samuel Tilden by more than 250,000 votes — although corruption was so rife in that election it’s fair to say no one will ever know for sure who got the highest tally. In 1888 Benjamin Harrison won 233 electoral votes to Grover Cleveland’s 168, but lost the national count by about 90,000 votes. It didn’t happen again for 112 years when George W. Bush was installed by the Supreme Court after a virtual tie in Florida and a dubious vote count. And then just 16 years later, it happened again.
Throughout that last 16 years questions have been raised about our democracy, including the workings of the anachronistic Electoral College, the fact that every locality and state seems to have a different system, and the way Republicans have systematically disenfranchised voters whom they believe would be likely to vote for their opponents. There has been underlying doubt about the integrity of America’s electoral system simmering for a long time. This year it has come to a boil.
For at least a year we’ve been aware of social-media propaganda and foreign actors hacking the systems of various arms of the Democratic Party in order to influence the presidential campaign. The experts tell us that the Russian government has directed a number of similar cyber operations around the world and that this one was their most sophisticated. Evidently, the idea was to sow chaos and undermine Americans’ already sorely tested faith in our electoral system.
According to a highly detailed investigative report by Massimo Calabresi of Time, the evidence suggests that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had a particular ax to grind against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what he termed a “signal” she sent in 2011, which he claimed sparked protests against him. The extent to which Putin truly favored Donald Trump is still unknown, and the question of whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is now the focus of various investigations of Congress and a Justice Department special counsel. The odd behavior of Trump’s close associates as well as his obsession with shutting down the investigation certainly raise suspicions. But at this point it is pure speculation to think about what kind of “deal” might have been made.
This week’s story by The Intercept, reporting on an National Security Agency document that showed evidence the Russian military had made serious attempts to infiltrate voter information rolls around the country, suggests, however, yet another way the goals of Donald Trump and the Russian government were the same. Former FBI counterterrorism officer and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts (best known for his quip “follow the bodies of dead Russians” in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee) raised some additional questions in a piece for the Daily Beast this week. He believes that the main objective of this operation was not to alter the vote count but rather to instill more doubt about the process.
Watts wrote, “I noticed a shift in Kremlin messaging last October, when its overt news outlets, conspiratorial partner websites, and covert social-media personas pushed theories of widespread voter fraud and hacking.” He cited a Reuters article indicating that a Kremlin-backed think tank report “drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election.” The think tank also advised it would be “better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency.”
It’s interesting to note that at the same moment the operation shifted in that direction, Trump himself was relentlessly flogging exactly the same accusation, saying in every rally from October on that Clinton and her campaign had “rigged the system” in her favor. Over and over again he would suggest that the outcome was predetermined:
When the outcome is fixed, when the system is rigged, people lose hope — they stop dreaming, they stop trying
He routinely told his followers stories like this:
One of the reasons I’ve been saying that the system is so corrupt and is so rigged, is not only what happens at the voters’ booth — and you know things happen, folks.
In fact, Trump did more to create mistrust and doubt in the U.S. electoral system than the Russian government’s highly developed hacking and misinformation campaign. Whether they were working together is still unknown but they were definitely rowing in the same direction. As much as the president likes to whine and complain about the Democrats being sore losers, the irony is that Trump himself played the greatest role in undermining the legitimacy of his win.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet exchanges greetings with then President George H.W. Bush (Library of the National Congress of Chile | Wikimedia Commons)
THE U.S. liberal media seem to be suffering from amnesia.
In response to Donald Trump’s praise for Vladimir Putin and his crawling visit to Saudi Arabia, numerous establishment doyens have complained that the U.S. tradition of championing democracy and freedom throughout the world is being seriously endangered by Trump’s uncritical embrace of despots and dictators.
An editorial in the New York Times recently claimed: “The United States has long seen itself as a beacon of democracy and a global advocate of human rights and the rule of law…Mr. Trump erodes American’s reputation when he uncritically embraces those who show the least regard for [those traditions].”
This must come as a shock to all those who have lived under U.S.-backed dictatorships past and present. The truth is that U.S. foreign policy has always involved overthrowing democratically elected governments and propping up brutal dictatorships.
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IN HER 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Jeane Kirkpatrick, a future Reagan administration adviser and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, attempted to articulate what had always been dominant ruling class opinion in the U.S.:
[Dictatorships] do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations. Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope…
[Revolutionary regimes] claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands.
Kirkpatrick concluded that the U.S. should encourage democracy in dictatorial regimes only if it would not lead to the threat of revolution; where that threat exists, it is necessary to support violence, terror and dictatorship.
This opinion was hardly new–it simply articulated the U.S. foreign policy practice of the 20th century.
In response to the Russian Revolution of October 1917–an event in which the majority of Russian workers and peasants put an end to the mass killing of the First World War–President Woodrow Wilson ordered U.S. troops to join invading forces from Great Britain and France.
Their mission was to kill and maim as many Russian workers and peasants as possible and eventually starve the population to death. At the height of the mass murder in December 1919, Wilson announced: “Let those beware who would take the shorter road of disorder and revolution.”
During the Second World War, Harry Truman, who was then a senator, but would later become president, said: “If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way, let them kill as many as possible.” At home, the war effort was used by President Franklin Roosevelt to ban the right to strike and violently suppress those who did not obey.
After hundreds of thousands of workers overthrew Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in the north of Italy at the end of the war, the U.S. State Department ensured that the police, courts, military and civil service in the South remained in the control of former Mussolini supporters. They were seen as reliable figures as a workers’ revolution became an imminent threat.
The U.S. would go on to help Greek military generals and conservative politicians, with the support of fascist paramilitary gangs, systematically murder hundreds of thousands of unionists, Communist Party members and anti-fascist sympathizers during the Greek Civil War.
And during the Arab revolutions of 2011, the Obama administration maintained support for pro-U.S. dictators until it seemed no longer possible to do so. Obama called on Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down, only to support Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s military coup in 2013. As el-Sisi’s regime became increasingly repressive, the Obama administration increased the supply of money and weapons to him.
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THE U.S. ruling class frequently expresses admiration for anti-democratic practices and dictators.
For example, the response of every leading newspaper to the Russian Revolution was horror and dismay. In November 1917, the editorial of the Washington Evening Star bemoaned: “It is a new revolution. The most serious aspect of the situation is that the new power in Russia declares for ‘an immediate just peace.'”
Their tune changed, however, at the height of Stalin’s forced industrialization. This resulted in the rollback of material gains achieved by workers during the revolution. The New York Times drew a positive comparison between U.S. business practices and Stalin’s ideas: “Improvement of the organization of labor in industry in order to distribute the proper strength among factories and to end ‘irresponsible’ methods.”
Mussolini’s U.S. admirers ranged from the mainstream media to Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. After his regime had overturned all democratic institutions, and jailed and murdered hundreds of thousands of trade unionists, socialists and communists, U.S. media tycoon William Randolph Hearst wrote: “Mussolini is a man that I have always greatly admired, not only because of his astonishing ability, but because of his public service.”
When Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet died in 2006, the Washington Post editorial board hailed “the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle.” Pinochet had seized power in 1973 through a military coup and murdered tens of thousands of trade unionists and political opponents under his rule.
When a right-wing coup momentarily removed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002, the editorial board of the New York Times hailed it as “a victory for democracy.” Chávez had been democratically elected and enjoyed overwhelming support from workers and the poor.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had this to say about murderous Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak not long before he was overthrown: “I really consider president and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family”. After the coup of 2013, Clinton’s successor John Kerry hailed Sisi for “restoring democracy.”
While Obama refused to meet with Sisi, he had no qualms when it came to Saudi King Abdullah. After the latter’s death in 2015, Obama canceled all his appointments to attend the funeral, at which he eulogized the dictator’s achievements: “At home, King Abdullah’s vision was dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world.” This was in reference to a despot who routinely beheaded dissidents and denied women basic democratic rights.
Lenin described well the hypocrisy of such politicians and their media shills, who mouth democratic rhetoric while supporting barbarity:
All your talk about freedom and democracy is sheer claptrap, parrot phrases, fashionable twaddle or hypocrisy. It is just a painted signboard. And you yourselves are whited sepulchers. You are mean-spirited boors, and your education, culture and enlightenment are only a species of thoroughgoing prostitution.
For the U.S. ruling class, the lie that they are committed to spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world helps legitimize the barbarity of imperialism. A whole network of institutions exists to reproduce this fiction daily–elected representatives, policy “experts,” administrators, advisers, journalists, etc. From the editorial board of the New York Times to the halls of the State Department, this is a narrative that they tell the world to justify their position as arbiter of the behavior of other populations.
When Trump doesn’t stick to that narrative, the fiction starts to break down. The problem is not that Trump is embracing dictators–Obama did that as well. The problem is that Trump openly embraces despots precisely because of their authoritarianism.
Less than a week after US President Donald Trump returned to the United States from his overseas tour of the Middle East and Europe, it is clear that a shift in world politics with vast implications is underway. Global relationships and institutions that for decades set the framework for international economy and public life are rapidly unraveling.
The rising threat of trade war and the resurgence of the military ambitions of all the imperialist powers are signs of the advanced state of collapse of the international institutions created after the United States emerged from World War II as the dominant imperialist power.
This collapse is the product of processes that have matured over decades. In 1991, when the Stalinist dissolution of the Soviet Union deprived the NATO alliance of a common enemy, tensions between the imperialist powers were already surging. As US strategists declared a “unipolar moment,” in which the disappearance of the Soviet Union eliminated any immediate military rival, they aimed to use this military advantage to counterbalance the declining economic position of the United States.
A 1992 Pentagon strategy paper asserted that Washington had to convince “potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture,” and to “discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order.”
A quarter century later, this policy has failed. It led to a series of imperialist wars and interventions by the NATO powers, led by the United States, that shattered Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and other countries. While costing millions of lives, destroying entire societies, and creating the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, these acts of militarism have produced debacles and failed to reverse US imperialism’s fortunes. Now, a new stage of the crisis has been reached: The United States’ imperialist rivals are preparing direct, far-reaching challenges to US imperialism’s global primacy.
Trump’s attempts at the G7 and NATO summits to secure better economic terms for the United States from Europe have backfired. He had blamed the Europeans for “not paying what they should be paying” for military spending in the NATO alliance, and denounced Germany as “terrible,” adding, “We will stop” German car exports to the US. Europe’s response was not sympathy and financial aid, however, but a series of actions indicating that the continental European powers are preparing for a political and military break with America.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a Munich beer tent rally Sunday, referred to both Trump’s performance at the summits and Britain’s vote to exit the European Union (EU): “The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over—I experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” Going forward, she added, “we have to fight for our own future ourselves.”
Events in Europe over the past week confirmed that Merkel’s statement reflected a deep crisis in the NATO military alliance founded in 1949 between America and Europe. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel declared that under Trump, Washington had cast itself outside the “Western community of values.” He added that this signaled “a shift in global power relations.”
Then newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron, a close ally of Berlin, invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to a high-profile summit at Versailles. Standing next to Putin in a joint press conference, Macron criticized all the main US-EU foreign interventions in recent years. He called for an end to the conflict in Ukraine provoked by the 2014 US- and German-backed coup in Kiev, called for closer economic and intelligence cooperation with Russia and even floated the possibility of re-opening France’s embassy in Damascus, Syria.
Also this week, a new EU military headquarters in Brussels went into operation. Britain, which had blocked it in line with US fears that the EU would become a rival to NATO, could no longer veto it due to its exit from the EU.
Among US foreign policy strategists, it is widely acknowledged that these events mark a historic setback for Washington. “Every American administration since 1945 has tried to work closely with Germany and NATO,” Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in The National Interest, but America under Trump is “pushing Merkel to create a German superpower.”
Heilbrunn added, “Now that France has elected Emanuel Macron president, Merkel is moving to fashion a Franco-German axis that will pursue a common economic and military path. This will signal a significant diminution in American prestige and influence abroad. Imagine, for example, that Merkel decided to defy Trump’s push for sanctions and isolating Iran by establishing trade ties with North Korea, including selling it weapons.”
These tensions are not simply the product of the extreme nationalist policies of the current occupant of the White House, however. Indeed, as the Democratic Party relentlessly demonizes Russia and accuses it of subverting American democracy, it is ever clearer that a victory of Hillary Clinton in last year’s US presidential election would not have resolved the conflicts with Europe. Rather, the tensions are rooted in deep contradictions between the interests of the major imperialist powers, which twice in the last century led to world war.
This is underscored by the escalating rivalries between the imperialist powers in Asia. Last month, as China inaugurated its so-called Belt and Road Initiative—designed to build a web of energy and transport infrastructure integrating China, the Middle East, and Europe—Washington was reduced to a role on the sidelines, as China and the EU developed their ties. The response of Japan and India, Washington’s allies in its “pivot to Asia” aimed at isolating China, is not, however, fundamentally friendlier to US imperialist interests than that of the EU powers.
Last week, Tokyo and New Delhi released a “vision document” for an “Asia Africa Growth Corridor,” aiming to present an alternative to China’s Belt and Road that would develop India as a production-chain hub and military counterweight to China. The goal of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his supporters in the ultra-nationalist Nippon Kaigi organization is not only to outstrip China, but also to rearm Japan and supplant America as Asia’s dominant power.
Abe, whose government is pushing aggressively for the elimination of the constitutional ban on Japanese overseas wars imposed after its defeat in World War II, has repeatedly declared that an Indo-Japanese alliance has “the most potential” of any “in the world.”
The events surrounding Trump’s trip to Europe reflect a crisis not only of American imperialism, but of the entire world capitalist system. None of Washington’s rivals—neither the EU, despised at home for its austerity policies, nor the economically moribund, right-wing regime in Japan, nor the post-Maoist capitalist oligarchy in China—offer a progressive alternative.
Anyone who asserted that a coalition of these powers will emerge to stabilize world capitalism, and block the emergence of large-scale trade war and military conflict, would be placing heavy bets against history. As Trump demands trade war against Germany, Berlin and Tokyo re-militarize their foreign policy, and a new French president comes to power who supports restoring the draft, everything indicates that the ruling elites are tobogganing eyes closed towards a new global conflagration on the same—or an even greater—scale as the world wars of the last century.
The force that will emerge as the alternative to the collapse of bourgeois politics is the international working class. It is being driven into action by intolerable conditions of life, mass unemployment, and social misery after decades of austerity and war. And as corporations like Amazon and Apple, with vast workforces spread over dozens of countries, predominate in a globalized world economy, the working class is increasingly conscious of its character as an international class, whose interests are fundamentally separate and opposed to those of the financial aristocracies that rule in every country.
The collapse of international capitalist relations goes hand in hand with the discrediting of the various social democratic and liberal parties and trade union bureaucracies that emerged to contain the class struggle in the post-World War II era. The surprise vote for Brexit, the election of Trump and the disintegration of France’s two-party system in the recent presidential election testify to the collapse of the old ruling establishments. A global eruption of the class struggle is being prepared.
The crisis that has emerged has vindicated the International Committee of the Fourth International’s (ICFI) insistence that the Stalinists’ dissolution of the Soviet Union did not signify the end of the struggle of the international working class for socialism. Capitalism had not overcome the fundamental conflicts identified by the great Marxists of the 20th century—the contradictions between global economy and the nation-state system, and between socialized economic production and the private appropriation of profit—that led to war and to social revolution.
The way forward for the working class is revolutionary struggle on an internationalist and socialist program in the tradition of the October Revolution a century ago. Workers cannot support the militarist policies of any of the contending imperialist powers. The necessary response to the deepening crisis of global capitalism is the unification of the working class in struggle against imperialism through the building of a world socialist anti-war movement.
In an op-ed, the Trump administration’s “adults in the room” envision America in the image of its leader: selfish, isolated, brutish, domineering, and driven by immediate appetites rather than ideals or even longer-term interests.
H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn may not be the most influential people in the Trump White House. But the national-security adviser and the director of the National Economic Council are surely the White House’s most presentable faces. When they sign their names to a statement of Trumpism at its most dangerous, we are warned: The so-called adults in the room are shirking their responsibilities.
On Tuesday, TheWall Street Journalpublished an op-ed bearing McMaster’s and Cohn’s names. It’s a good guess they did not actually write very much of it. However, they now own it—and the United States must bear the consequences.
The op-ed originates as an attempt to tell a story of success about Donald Trump’s catastrophic first trip abroad. During that trip the president spoke at the dedication of a monument to NATO’s Article 5 pledge of mutual defense—but notably omitted to endorse Article 5 itself. That omission was heard loud and clear. Its power was only amplified by the shadowy Russian connections of Donald Trump, his family, and his entourage. In private meetings, NATO leaders were dismayed by Trump’s behavior and bearing, so much so that the ultra-cautious chancellor of Germany declared in a major speech shortly after Trump’s departure that Europeans could no longer completely rely on the United States. Her chief political opponent in autumn elections agreed with her, and went further, comparing Donald Trump to an authoritarian leader.
So that’s the pig on which McMaster and Cohn tried to put lipstick. How’d they do it?
First step is the Trump administration’s fail-safe response to embarrassment: untruth.
As the president stated in Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is rooted in “the courage of our people, the strength of our resolve, and the commitments that bind us together as one.” While reconfirming America’s commitment to NATO and Article 5 …
This did not happen. You’ll find here examples of statements by President Bush and Obama that illustrate actual commitments to Article 5. Trump quite visibly veered away from saying anything like that. More to the point—since language is judged by what it communicates—none of his European hearers believe that he said it.
In any event, the WSJ op-ed confirms: He did not mean it.
Here is a key passage:
The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.
This passage purports merely to describe. But in reality, it is recommending—and recommending something incompatible with American leadership. The United States leads an alliance of other wealthy and powerful states. Italy alone has an economy equal in size to Russia’s. This alliance defers to American leadership, to the extent that it does, because it trusts that leadership to be exercised with a view to something bigger than the selfish interests of the United States.
Since 1945, American leaders have based policy on two facts: a zone of cooperation encompassing democratic, rule-of-law states; a zone of completion between the group of democracies and other groups on this planet. Within the zone of cooperation, the usual frictions and disagreements of international life were to be managed by rules, especially trade rules, adjudicated by neutral arbiters. The ultimate expression of national power—military force—would be put utterly beyond the realm of things to be contemplated. But even such less-extreme manifestations of sovereignty as intelligence gathering would be done collectively, as if in this area the five closest democracies—the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—almost formed one government.
The national egoism that had inflicted so much suffering before 1945 would be suppressed on a new vision in which international politics would come to look more and more like domestic politics.
This vision was not always achieved of course. There were and are many disputes even between friends. But the theory of the case was that within the democratic world, cross-border cooperation would be regarded as the norm and the ideal; state-versus-state competition would be abnormal and unwelcome. All established democracies at least formally committed themselves to trade regimes based on the principle of gains from exchange.
This is the vision that the Cohn/McMaster op-ed rejects.
The rejection adds a sinister tint to these words:
At every stop in our journey, we delivered a clear message to our friends and partners: Where our interests align, we are open to working together to solve problems and explore opportunities. We let adversaries know that we will not only take their measure, deter conflict through strength, and defend our interests and values, but also look for areas of common interest that allow us to work together. In short, those societies that share our interests will find no friend more steadfast than the United States. Those that choose to challenge our interests will encounter the firmest resolve.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and none of it is good.
First, those bold words about defending “interests and values” against adversaries sound ill in the mouth of administration officials who may owe their high offices in some degree to the clandestine assistance of a foreign adversary. So long as Russia’s attack on U.S. democracy in 2016 goes not only unpunished—but actively denied—by the Trump administration, they have no standing for this kind of robust language.
But they may attach a private meaning to that language. Trump himself and some of those who influence him pretty obviously regard the European Union, not Russia, as their most important adversary. Donald Trump has consistently refused to recognize even the existence of the EU, vainly attempting to negotiate trade agreements with individual member nations, despite their treaty obligations to each other. You can mark that attempt to Trump’s ignorance if you like, but according to German reports, Cohn himself—the former COO and president of Goldman Sachs!—tried the same gambit on the president’s trip.*
But here is the truest tell. You can have friends. Or you can have people you work with only when your immediate interests align. Those are not the same thing. The Cohn/McMaster op-ed uses the word “friend”—without ever making clear who belongs to that category—but its logic is that of a nation friendless and alone. Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the Trump presidency is the way even its most worldly figures, in words composed for them by its deepest thinkers, have reimagined the United States in the image of their own chief: selfish, isolated, brutish, domineering, and driven by immediate appetites rather than ideals or even longer-term interests.
Like Trump himself, this general and this financier who speak for him know only the language of command, not of respect. They summon partners to join them “to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence around the world”—and never anticipate or answer the question, “Why should we British, French, Germans, Canadians, Australians, and on and on through the catalogue of your disrespected allies join that project?”
Under the slogan of restoring American greatness, they are destroying it. Promising readers that they want to “restore confidence in American leadership,” they instead threaten and bluster in ways that may persuade partners that America has ceased to be the leader they once respected—but an unpredictable and dangerous force in world affairs, itself to be contained and deterred by new coalitions of ex-friends.
* This article originally named Gary Cohn as CEO of Goldman Sachs. We regret the error.