Obsession With the Russia Connection Is a High-Risk Anti-Trump Strategy

Obsession With the Russia Connection Is a High-Risk Anti-Trump Strategy

Obsession With the Russia Connection Is a High-Risk Anti-Trump Strategy

It lets Democrats off the hook for their own failures—and betting the resistance on finding a smoking gun is a fool’s game.


I’m in favor of anything that undermines, or brings about the downfall of, Donald Trump. He’s a monster. And to the degree that focusing on his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia to game the 2016 election helps with this, then fine. The Senate should investigate and independent journalists should look for more damning information. But it’s high risk to bet the resistance on finding a smoking gun, proving that Donald Trump—not an associate, not some weird hanger-on, not even an in-law—knowingly worked with Putin to hack the DNC, or offered some back-channel dollars for a détente deal. Anything short of tying it to Trump means Trump survives. Tim Weiner, a former New York Times national security journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, says the investigation of the Russian story could last years.

As many others have pointed out, an obsessive focus on Putin absolves the Democratic Party from having to reckon with their own failings, as if it was Moscow that tricked Hillary Clinton to not campaign in Wisconsin, or to spend the whole month of August (after Bernie Sanders’s gracious call on his supporters to back her campaign) courting neocons.

Meanwhile, MSNBC has turned itself into the equivalent of the Christic Institute, which in the 1980s lost a lawsuit surrounding an Iran/Contra bombing by chasing “unsubstantiated conspiracism.” Iran/Contra was a real conspiracy, much of which by nature was “unsubstantiated.” But as Alex Cockburn liked to remind, conspiracies are natural terrain for the right but a rough one for the left. At best, they exert a powerful pull toward depoliticization and cynicism. At worst, they lead to Alex Jones Infowars–style anti-government lunacy.

With Trump on the ropes—arguably because of the Russia entanglements but also arguably not, especially in the parts of the country the Democrats need to win back—now is the time to put forth an aggressive social-democratic platform, one that includes single-payer, student debt relief, a real industrial policy, and free education.

Instead, we have Rachel Maddow giving 20 minutes of her show to a petition on the whitehouse.gov site calling on the United States to return Alaska to Russia. Less than 40,000 people signed that petition, but Maddow smells something rotten. “Our examination of those signing and posting on its petition revealed an odd pattern,” she begins the segment, going on to connect dizzying constellation of dots leading back to Putin: “It is fascinating, boy, they’ve come a long way from their give Alaska back to the Russia of petitions, right?” Right. Like Holmes’s Moriarty, Putin appears to be the “organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected….He is a genius, a philosopher, and abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations.” And Maddow will pluck each one.

There are many sane people who say that serious crimes have been committed and that the investigation should continue. I don’t disagree. But the dangers are many and the rabbit hole is deep, and it might not have a floor. “Do cats eat bats?” Alice asked herself as she fell down down down, or “Do bats eat cats?” As she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t much matter which way she put it.

“Why can’t we do both?” some ask of those who criticize the obsession with Russia. “Why can’t we investigate and renew the Democratic Party?” It’s a good question, and it should be put to the DNC. Why can’t they? To me, it looks like both is exactly what they are not doing. From the outside, the long-term DNC strategy seems to be this: Russia, Russia, Russia; 2018, damn we almost took the House were it not for gerrymandering; Russia, Russia, Russia; try to win the White House in 2020 with a candidate who can rebuild the Obama coalition. Oh so close.

To understand how this could all go wrong for the Democrats, how they might blow it, it is good to take instruction from, as one always should, Iran/Contra.

A little over thirty years ago, with Reagan in power, the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa reported on the White House’s secret, high-tech missile sale to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, which violated an arms embargo against that country and contradicted President Ronald Reagan’s personal pledge never to deal with governments that sponsored terrorism. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed that profits from the illegal arms sale went to support the Nicaraguan Contras, bypassing a congressional prohibition against supplying lethal aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels.

The full scandal of what became Iran/Contra had its origins in a series of shadowy meetings, in the Middle East and Central America, before and after Reagan’s 1980 election, not unlike all the dalliances that are coming to light now involving the likes of Michael Flynn, Erik Prince, Jared Kushner, and Jeff Sessions. On one level, this is standard operating procedure: New administrations send out feelers, probe to see what is possible in advancing their foreign-policy agenda, and send out formal and informal envoys. These conversations have often been illegal, such as when Richard Nixon’s campaign, in 1968, urged South Vietnam to reject a ceasefire that might have helped his Democratic opponent, or when Reagan’s campaign director, William Casey, worked with Tehran to delay the release of US hostages. As early as 1979, two Reaganite retired generals, including John Singlaub, who had ties to the fascist World Anti-Communist League, which was basically an international consortium of death squads, traveled to Central America and told Guatemalan officials that “Mr. Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done.” Genocide and mass murder followed. There were many such meetings, in Tehran, Tegucigalpa, Beirut, all laying the groundwork for what became Iran/Contra.

When Iran/Contra broke, Democrats, after years of banging their heads on Reagan’s popularity and failing to derail his legislative agenda, couldn’t believe their luck. Here’s a bit from something I wrote for TomDispatch a decade ago on the twentieth anniversary:

investigations soon uncovered a scandal of epic proportions, arguably the most consequential in American history, one that seemed sure to disgrace every single constituency that had fueled the upstart conservative movement. The Reagan Revolution, it appeared, had finally been thrown into reverse. The New York Times reported that the National Security Council was running an extensive “foreign policy initiative largely in private hands,” made up of rogue intelligence agents, mercenaries, neoconservative intellectuals, Arab sheiks, drug runners, anticommunist businessmen, even the Moonies. Profits from the missile sale to Iran, brokered by a National Security Council staffer named Oliver North, went to the Nicaraguan Contras, breaking yet another law, this one banning military aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas. The ultimate goal of this shadow government, said a congressional investigation, was to create a “worldwide private covert operation organization” whose “income-generating capacity came almost entirely from its access to US government resources and connections.”… The Democrats, now the majority in both congressional chambers, gleefully convened multiple inquiries into the scandal. From May to August 1987, TV viewers tuned in to congressional hearings on the affair. They got a rare glimpse into the cabalistic world of spooks, bagmen, and mercenaries, with their code words, encryption machines, offshore holding companies, unregistered fleets of boats and planes, and furtive cash transfers. Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s secret shredder, told of smuggling evidence out of the Old Executive Office Building in her boots, and lectured Representative Thomas Foley that “sometimes you have to go above the written law.”…

Reagan’s poll numbers collapsed. The word impeachment was on everyone’s lips.

But within a year, Iran/Contra was a dead issue. The multiple investigations lumbered forward, yet the public had lost the thread and dropped interest. When Congress released its final report in 1988, Reagan dismissed it: “They labored,” he said, “and brought forth a mouse.” Later that month, George H.W. Bush was elected president, despite being implicated in the scandal. Meanwhile, Reagan’s approval ratings rebounded, and he is now held up by many Democrats as an exemplar of an acceptable, responsible Republican.

What happened? How did Reagan and his band of génocidaires and co-conspirators escape from the clutches of the Democratic investigation into Iran/Contra?

Part of the reason is that the Democrats, in all the many, many hours of hearings broadcast on PBS, never once questioned the underlying objectives Iran/Contra was designed to carry out, never once critiqued the assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan blowback policy in the Middle East or its brutal, inhumane war on the Sandinistas. At the heart of the Democrats’ disaster was their unwillingness ever to question Reagan’s support for the Contras, whose human-rights atrocities were well-documented. Rather than attacking Reagan’s restoration of anticommunism as the guiding principle of US policy, they focused on procedure—such as the White House’s failure to oversee the National Security Council—or on proving that top officials had prior knowledge of the crimes. But, in what should be a big red flag to those hoping Russia will bring down Trump, they never found the smoking gun, and Reagan sailed off into the future.

My favorite bit of Iran/Contra theater is Democratic Senator George Mitchell’s seven-minute lecture to Oliver North, who had just essentially confessed. For nearly eight minutes, Mitchell dilates on the procedural virtues of America, its “rule of law,” etc. North had earlier testified that he had been doing God’s work, which earned this rebuke from Mitchell: “God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.” But Mitchell had already lost the argument: He started his sermon admitting the legitimacy of intervening in Nicaragua and “containing” the Sandinistas. “There’s no disagreement on that,” the senator said.

Let me be clear: The analogy between Iran/Contra and Trump’s Russia file isn’t perfect. Erik Prince isn’t John Singlaub (though taken as a pair, they represent the long 30-year run of theocratic paramilitarist internationalism).

The main difference between Iran/Contra then and the Russia scandal now is that the Democrats in the 1980s couldn’t capitalize on the conspiracy because they shared the broad Cold War, anti-Communist, militarist consensus that led the New Right to organize it. Today, in an important contrast, Trumpgate reflects more the fracturing of that consensus, especially after the catastrophe of the Iraq War and the collapse of financial markets in 2008.

Trump’s election has revealed deep divisions among our governing elites on how to respond to the twinned failures of neoliberalism and militarist internationalism. The nature of those divisions is complex and crisscrossing, and the public has only a dim perception of their outlines. They comprise military power, budgetary resources, law enforcement, and energy policy, all refracted through the ideological and psychic distortions of what has become an endless global war. I doubt there is any single person, no matter how burrowed he or she is in the deep state, who knows what is fully at stake in all its many dimensions.

But I do know that liberals baying for a new Cold War as a way of isolating Trump is extremely, extremely dangerous, especially given the volatility and fracturing of our governing elites. Where will it end? With Trump reversing course and supporting NATO expansion? Bombing Iran to prove he isn’t Putin’s lap dog? Deeper into Syria, even as Washington’s bloody hands in Yemen go unnoticed? North Korea? George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and David Frum have now been inducted into the resistance. Even Sesame Street’s Elmo can only be defended from Trump by weighing his worth in relation to national security, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal just did in The New York Times. But of course we have to conscript Elmo and Grover because, as Paul Berman now tells us, we have always been at war with Russia: “Hostility to Russia is the oldest continuous foreign-policy tradition in the United States, and that is because, apart from the ordinary conflicts of interest that might be expected to arise between two very large nations, a philosophical conflict has pitted America against the Russians, and has done so throughout the centuries, with the fate of the world at stake.”

It’s an enduring myth that George W. Bush’s disastrous response to 9/11 was exclusively a neoconservative scheme. At least since the fall of the Berlin Wall, post–Cold War liberals were hoping for a new foreign-policy mission to give meaning to American power, witnessed by how quickly “progressive interventionists” like Berman fell into line. The invasion of Iraq was sparked by 9/11 and organized by Cheney’s gang. But it was a bipartisan project over a decade in the making, with the terrain softened by Bill Clinton’s breezy bombings of Baghdad.

So, if the current situation in the Middle East is what a united ruling class and trigger-finger intellectuals brought us, what hell awaits us now that the establishment has turned against itself, with competing factions using militarism to leverage the polarization and gain position?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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