Putin: A Convenient Enemy

A quarter of a century has passed since the United States scored a clear, undisputed foreign policy victory: the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And history did not end, as Francis Fukuyama boldly and erroneously asserted: since then, we have had multiple foreign policy challenges, shed precious American blood, and spent trillions of dollars in search of more victories, only to find stalemate and frustration. Thus, it is very curious that there is such a bipartisan effort to revive the Red Scare and erase the only points we have been able to score in a very long time.

Putin’s foes in DC are careful to couch their motives in noble terms, or in the name of national security, but their arguments don’t hold under the slightest scrutiny. The current bout of Russophobia sweeping Washington has little do with lofty principles or fear of the return of the Soviet empire. No — for pedestrian reasons and widespread intellectual laziness, Putin is simply a convenient enemy for both Republicans and Democrats.

Perhaps the most vociferous Putin opponents are Senator John McCain and his sidekick, Senator Lindsey Graham. Frustrated by Trump’s more conciliatory approach to the current Kremlin boss, McCain angrily declared that Putin was “a thug and a murderer and a killer”. Out of curiosity, did Senators McCain and Graham screen for thuggish and murderous behavior before insisting on arming rebels in Syria? Was Senator McCain concerned about the illiberal values of the Mujahideens when Reagan backed them against the Soviets? Others have been more restrained in their language than Senator McCain and simply claim their opposition stems from the Russian president’s authoritarian style, reactionary social conservatism, and his disregard for the rule of law, an independent press, and free and fair elections. Based on such rhetoric, one has to wonder how is it possible for America to continue to work with Turkey’s Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been matching all of Putin’s totalitarian moves and upping the ante. Or, for that matter, with Saudi Arabia, which is not exactly known for its socially liberal values. Apparently, it is perfectly acceptable for America to partner with authoritarian leaders as long as their last name is not Putin.

Thankfully, some of Putin’s opponents at least have the decency to spare us the lofty rhetoric and, instead, argue that Russia is our top geopolitical foe determined to revive the Soviet empire and challenge American hegemony. They point to Russia playing a much larger role in the Middle East to boost their case, but conveniently fail to mention that Putin’s increased influence in the region is a direct result of Americans, after nearly a decade of war, electing Obama, who promised to bring the troops home. Americans’ war weariness has not faded, and last November they chose Donald Trump, who promised to curtail military interventions and work with Russia, over a more hawkish Hillary Clinton, promising a confrontational approach to Putin. To suggest that no one else is entitled to fill a vacuum we chose to create and that such a move would be viewed as an aggressive act against America is, to put it mildly, unrealistic. They point to Crimea as evidence of Russian imperial designs, however, conveniently ignore our role in the Ukrainian coup that began a series of events culminating with the Russian annexation of the peninsula. They also ignore the historical fact that Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783 and only became part of Ukraine in 1954 because of a political gesture by Nikita Khrushchev at a time when communism felt history was on its side.

As far as challenging our status as the world’s sole superpower, China is better positioned than Russia can ever be, and yet no calls for sanctions in response to China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea or its cyber attacks on America are heard. Quite the opposite. Our foreign policy establishment has been arguing for decades that closer ties is the best way to deal with the totalitarian regime in Beijing and promote human rights in China. Apparently, the iron fist is only reserved for the Russian bear.

For Democrats still struggling to justify their stunning losses in November up and down the ballot to their donors and supporters, the Russian hacking story must seem like a godsend. Ever since John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira published their seminal work predicting an emerging Democratic majority, the donkeys decided to relax and ride the demographic wave to power — only to realize that white working class voters still matter in the Rust Belt. Better to blame Russian hackers than face the fact that the Democratic Party has not had an original policy idea since the Great Society. They dabbled in the “Third Way” under Bill Clinton but it resulted in trade deals that delivered Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to the Republican Party for the first time since the 1980s — and the financial deregulation championed by Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin led to the financial meltdown of 2008. Best to forget the 1990s, join forces with McCain, and pretend that Hillary would be heading for the Oval Office were it not for that dastardly Putin.

In contrast, Republicans enjoyed electoral success up and down the ballot in November. But they have their own failures they wish to avoid facing. Declaring Russia our top security threat is a convenient way to distract the American public from the failed global war on terror, a term that no longer crosses Republican lips. Like the Democrats, the GOP is also intellectually lazy and prefers to maintain policies and institutions that were established to confront the Soviet Union rather than do the heavy lifting of developing new ideas or approaches. When Trump had the temerity to point out the obvious — that NATO is obsolete — it was met with Republican howls of despair followed by frenzied attempts to resuscitate the Russian threat to Europe. They accuse Putin of attempting to destabilize Europe, and hold him responsible for the current populist wave sweeping the continent when the real culprit is the EU’s failed immigration and monetary policies. Some have even gone as far as to blame Putin for the migrant crisis and not Merkel’s decision to open Europe’s doors. But Germany is part of NATO and, as in the case of Turkey, best to look the other way or to Moscow. Besides: after struggling to find the right framework for defeating Islamism, it must be very comforting for Republican foreign policy experts to fight again an enemy they have studied for decades. No need to learn Arabic or Urdu. Just drag out the old Russian language textbooks.