The self-blinding Russia prism

Many have been quick to conclude that it was his strong anti-Russia position that led to Rex Tillerson’s dismissal as U.S. Secretary of State by President Donald Trump on March 13. The nerve agent used to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain on March 4 clearly came from Russia, Mr. Tillerson had said, while the White House was more guarded initially. It “sets a profoundly disturbing precedent in which standing up for our allies against Russian aggression is grounds for a humiliating dismissal,” said House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

The Trump singularity

History, that had been declared ended, appears to have started all over again for the U.S. on November 8, 2016 when Mr. Trump won the presidency. The mainstream punditry in America that missed the revolt around them initially blamed Mr. Trump’s victory on the lack of education, racism and misogyny of his supporters. But the revival of the cult of liberal capitalism appeared elusive; it needed visions of a demon at the door. Enter Russia. Mr. Trump’s suspected ties with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin have remained the obsessive theme of American media almost every day for more than a year now. Ms. Pelosi’s explanation of Mr. Tillerson’s sacking would have fitted perfectly with the bizarre notion that has become the new Washington Consensus: a President allegedly helped into office by the country’s arch-enemy. But for the fact that until recently Mr. Tillerson himself was accused of being soft on Russia.

The insinuation that Mr. Tillerson had questionable links to Russia coursed through reporting on him since the day his appointment was announced. This March alone, news reports linked Mr. Tillerson to the State Department’s failure to spend the $120 million available to it for countering Russian influence operations; a widely commended profile of a former British spy, Christopher Steele, who prepared a salacious dossier on Mr. Trump for the Hillary Clinton campaign, in the New Yorker, suggested that the President may have acted on the Kremlin’s advice in not appointing former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as his Secretary of State. “The choice [of Mr. Tillerson] was a surprise to most, and a happy one in Moscow,” the article said, and blamed him for not being tough on Russia.

What is Russia accused of?

The moment he was sacked, Mr. Tillerson became the anti-Russia hero who had paid the price for his boldness. “Russia is at war with us right now,” said James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, discussing Mr. Tillerson’s dismissal on CNN. “He has been an advocate for more muscular response to Russia.”

Reporting on what is loosely called “Russia collision” is largely based on selective leaks. The substantive allegations against Russia are in a court document filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, indicting 13 individuals and some entities connected to Russia. He has charged them with “information warfare” against the U.S. and “spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” in the context of the 2016 election.

Starting in 2014, Russians spent “thousands of dollars every month,” the indictment says. The amount was around $100,000 between 2015 and 2017, according to Facebook — the key platform of this alleged Russian operation — which deposed before a U.S. legislative committee through its lawyer. Russian-linked entities placed ads that in turn led users to Facebook pages on which they ran propaganda. They posted 80,000 pieces of content over the same time. For context, during the same years, American users saw 11.1 trillion Facebook posts. Facebook told the committee that 126 million people may have seen a post generated by Russian operatives or bots, 56% of which happened after the election. As per the indictment, some Russians misrepresented their purpose and travelled to the U.S. to collect intelligence on the country’s political process, and from unwitting Americans, they learned they should focus their campaign on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida.” Meanwhile, $1.2 billion was spent on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and $600 million on Mr. Trump. The indictment says the Russian campaign supported Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary and Mr. Trump during the presidential election. They also magnified Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and groups such as Black Lives Matter.

Whether or not all this constitutes an act of war as concluded by Mr. Clapper, what is unmistakable is the pervasive bipartisan push for tougher retaliation against Russia. The Trump administration is willing to oblige them. With two documents in recent months, the National Security Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the U.S. has declared Russia as its main adversary, slightly above China in the order, and left little room open for reconciliation. The NPR declares that the era of great power rivalry is back, and has lowered America’s threshold for a nuclear first strike, citing Russia as the main reason. All-round modernisation of its nuclear infrastructure, by upgrading delivery systems, weapons and defence systems, and widespread battlefield deployment of tactical nuclear weapons are part of the new posture. All of this is estimated to cost more than a trillion dollars in inflation adjusted dollars, assuming no cost overruns, over the next 30 years. Stocks of American defence companies have consistently outperformed the market since Mr. Trump came to power. His administration has a declared policy of “hard power, not soft power.” How much more muscular could it get? On Thursday, two days after sacking Mr. Tillerson, the White House announced a new round of sanctions against Russia.

The ability of a journalist or a citizen to independently verify the allegations against Russia is only as much she had in verifying the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, before the U.S. invaded the country in 2003. Assuming that all that has been said and all that can be said about it is true, the current obsession of the American elite with Russia is still counterproductive and potentially dangerous in at least two ways.

First, it disenfranchises U.S. citizens and delegitimises its democratic process. The groundswell of public outrage against America’s economic and strategic culture took two forms in 2016. Mr. Sanders represented one; and Mr. Trump represented the other. As the only advanced country in the world where life expectancy is falling, where 96 people die from gun violence every day, where heroin related deaths increased six-fold since 2002, where opioid overdose kills 115 people a day, the signs of distress are unmistakable. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump relied on Russian intelligence to run a scorched-earth campaign in swing States in the last days of the 2016 campaign; without any inputs from Russia, Ms. Clinton also focussed her efforts on swing States, though not as much as her rival. What is clear is that those who voted were Americans. By repeatedly asserting that it is impossible to determine the extent of Russian imprint on the Sanders movement or Mr. Trump’s victory, the onus has been shifted to any citizen critical of the American system to first prove that she is not acting on behalf of Russia or, even worse, she is not a Russian bot. The theocratic enthusiasm to protect American democracy from Russian digital pamphlets is, ironically, undercutting it.

This neo-McCarthyism

While this denial of agency to its average citizens can corrode America’s democracy further, a second upshot of this neo-McCarthyism is that it has rendered any diplomacy between the nuclear rivals impossible. The ‘Russia collusion’ commentaries presuppose that unless proven otherwise any contact between a Trump official and a Russian is illegitimate and treason. When a democratically elected President’s authority to pursue diplomacy is undermined, the U.S.’s political system is weakened and the world becomes a more dangerous place. The Russia prism has not merely bent perspective, but blinded vision in America. Perhaps, deliberately and conveniently.


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