In early February, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the first of what promises to be many hearings on the topic of Russia in 2017. Retired Air Force general Philip Breedlove testified alongside former National Security Council official Julianne Smith on the current state of US-Russian relations. On the face of it, the decision to call Breedlove and Smith before the committee makes perfect sense. Breedlove, fresh off his final assignment in uniform as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, drove the alliance’s response to the outbreak of violence in Ukraine that began four years ago this February. Smith served as a national security adviser to then–ice President Joe Biden, who was the Obama administration’s point man on Ukraine.
Both Smith, who is currently a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and Breedlove, now a board member of the Atlantic Council, have impeccable establishment credentials and have testified on Capitol Hill on issues relating to Russia and Ukraine numerous times over the past several years.
Not surprisingly, both share a common a view of what ails the US-Russian relationship. Smith told the senators that in her estimation “Russia poses a serious threat to the security and interests of the United States and its allies in Europe. Russia is engaged in a sophisticated, long-term strategy to undermine the rules-based order that the United States and its allies constructed after World War II.” “Russia’s tactics,” Smith continued, “aim to undermine our democratic institutions, sow divisions within NATO and the EU, and carve out a sphere of influence.”
For his part, Breedlove told the committee that “President Putin has made clear that he wants to upend the post-Cold War order established in Europe.” Russia’s goal, in Breedlove’s telling, “is to weaken NATO, the European Union, and the transatlantic relationship.”
Breedlove and Smith’s testimony was met with bipartisan agreement by the members of the committee. In fact, The Hill reported that “There was so much agreement between the witnesses that chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) joked it was hard to tell which was a Republican and which was the Democrat.”
One could be forgiven, then, for wondering why the hearing was held in the first place. After all, the views of the two witnesses are by now well-known. Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2016, Breedlove told Senator John McCain that he personally favors a policy of sending lethal arms to Kiev, even though this was contrary to Obama administration policy. Breedlove was such a fervent advocate for sending arms to Kiev that, as The Intercept reported last year, Breedlove spent many hours while on active duty enlisting the help of retired general and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark in lobbying the Obama administration to take a more active role in the fight in Ukraine. As for Smith, she has testified on Capitol Hill on matters relating to Russia, and what is often euphemistically called “transatlantic security,” on four previous occasions in the last three years.
None of this is to single out General Breedlove or Julianne Smith. Indeed, congressional hearings featuring witnesses who merely echo and reinforce each another’s testimony is by no means unique nowadays; hearings of this nature have become the norm on Capitol Hill.
But it wasn’t always like this.
There was a time when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee included members who possessed a wide variety of views, when Cold War hawks faced off against doves, as opposed to the uniformity of opinion that prevails today, particularly with regard to Russia policy.
In the final years of the Cold War, the Foreign Relations Committee invited a vast assortment of experts to give their views on how to address the challenges of that era: There were prominent neoconservatives (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle), liberal interventionists (Madeline Albright, Jeffery Sachs), realists (Dimitri Simes), academics (Robert Legvold, Frederick Starr, Graham Allison), former diplomats and negotiators (Paul Nitze, George F. Kennan), former cabinet secretaries (Robert McNamara, James Schlesinger), economists (John Kenneth Galbraith) and labor representatives (Lane Kirkland).
These could be adversarial, occasionally even contentious affairs. Here’s Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen, then the director of Russian Studies at Princeton, giving a rather candid appraisal of the testimony of two fellow witnesses (Harvard’s Richard Pipes and Boston University’s Uri Ra’anan) at a hearing on US-Soviet policy in February 1991:
…the country they describe as the Soviet Union is not a country that I recognize from 30 years of study and of living there…. The country they are describing may be Switzerland, or Luxembourg, or Mississippi, or Kentucky, where I come from. But it’s not the Soviet Union.
It hardly needs saying that we’re a long way from a time when that kind of candor was welcome in the halls of Congress; but it shows there was a time when senators and representatives actually tried to inform themselves instead of merely cherry-picking from a selection of Washington experts most likely to confirm what they think they already know, as is common practice today.
Perhaps the last time there was an actual debate before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a Russia-related policy matter was 20 years ago, in 1997, when the committee, chaired by none other than arch-conservative Jesse Helms, held a series of seven hearings on whether the Senate should approve the Clinton administration’s plan to enlarge NATO. Once again, but perhaps for the last time, there was a robust debate featuring a multiplicity of views and policy recommendations.
On October 9, 1997, Helms’s committee considered the “Pro and Cons of NATO Enlargement” and heard testimony from the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who told the committee that NATO’s enlargement would be “a vivid testimonial to the dynamism of the democratic ideal” and “is very much in America’s long-term national interest.” John Hopkins University professor Michael Mandelbaum, on the other hand, testified that in his opinion, “we get no benefits whatsoever from NATO expansion…. Whatever the costs of NATO expansion…. I believe that the advantages we incur are zero.”
Needless to say, the pro-enlargement view carried the day—but it did so only after having been debated and challenged by the preeminent experts of the day.
Six years later, during the spring of 2003, the committee, now chaired by Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, held another series of hearings, this time on the second round of NATO expansion. This series of hearings initiated what has become, nearly decade and a half later, the norm on Capitol Hill, with all discussion of US policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe relegated to what might charitably be called “show hearings.”
The Lugar hearings on NATO featured virtually no dissenting voices from what had become a bipartisan consensus in favor of enlarging the alliance to include the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; former Warsaw Pact members Bulgaria and Romania; and the newly independent Balkan states of Slovakia and Slovenia.
Here’s a representative sample of the witnesses who were called before the committee to testify in favor of moving NATO’s front line right to Russia’s western border: William Kristol, a neoconservative magazine editor not previously known to possess any expertise on the region; Bruce Jackson, another well-known neoconservative who served with Kristol on the Project for the New American Century; and Ronald Asmus, a former Clinton administration official and one of the driving intellectual forces behind the first round of NATO expansion.
To no one’s surprise, all seven candidate nations were accepted as full members of the alliance a year later, in March 2004. Four years later, in Bucharest, the alliance made a fateful pledge: that Ukraine and George “will become members of NATO.”
With the return of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency in 2012—and the subsequent onset of the Ukraine crisis, sparked, in part, by Russian concern over NATO expansion—it has become increasingly clear that congressional hearings are now held mainly in order to showcase, reinforce, and promote a uniformity of opinion regarding US policy toward Russia and Eastern Europe.
Consider that the Republican-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee began to hold hearings on Ukraine a full two years before the overthrow of Ukraine’s nominally pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. In February 2012, the committee heard testimony from a number of Washington think-tank scholars, including Brookings Institution fellow Steven Pifer and Atlantic Council executive Damon Wilson, who argued on behalf of American efforts to “democratize” and “Westernize” Ukraine.
At that hearing, both Pifer and Wilson expressed concern over the direction Ukraine was heading under Yanukovych.
“Since the early 1990s, the United States has supported Ukraine’s development as a stable, independent, democratic state,” Pifer testified. “Such a Ukraine is in the U.S. interest as it would contribute to the goal of a wider, more stable and secure Europe.” Pifer warned that under Yanukovych, “the Ukrainian government is moving in the wrong direction.”
The Atlantic Council’s Wilson argued that Ukraine was the key to fomenting regime change in Russia. “Change in Ukraine,” he said, “may be among the best hopes for change in Russia. Most analysts think about how developments in Russia will impact Ukraine. I tend to believe that developments in Ukraine can influence Russia.”
In the years that have followed, in hearing after hearing, congressional committees have continued to turn to the same pool of establishment experts, not in order to have their assumptions challenged but in order have their preconceived biases, and the wisdom of their preferred policies—such as democratization and regime change—confirmed. In the months and years following Yanukovych’s ouster, Pifer and Wilson made a number of return appearances to Capitol Hill.
Pifer appeared again before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June 2014, when he argued for greater American involvement in Ukraine. “One area where the United States should do more is military assistance,” he said. Pifer returned again in March 2015 to tell the committee that “the United States should make preparations to provide increased military assistance to Ukraine, including defensive weapons.” The United States should also, according to Pifer, “consider increasing the size of its ground force presence in the region.” On this occasion Pifer was again joined by Damon Wilson, who echoed Pifer’s call for increased American military involvement. “Assistance to Ukraine should include substantial military assistance,” which would, according to Wilson, include “lethal military assistance such as anti-armor missiles, as well as intelligence support.” At that hearing, Wilson and Pifer were also joined by two globally recognized critics of Putin’s Russia, the former chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, and former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, both of whom condemned Russia in no uncertain terms.
To be clear, none of this should be read as criticism of either Damon Wilson, a former NSC staffer under George W. Bush, or of Steven Pifer, a respected arms-control expert and former US ambassador to Ukraine. While their conclusions are open to debate, as think-tank scholars it is their job to appear before Congress and to try to influence policy debates in Washington. Rather, it is an indictment of congressional committees like Bob Corker’s on foreign relations, which complacently calls before it a remarkably familiar cast in order to hear the same things over and over again. Indeed, it is not just complacent, it is an abdication of the committee’s responsibility, which includes the “study and review, on a comprehensive basis, matters relating to the national security policy, foreign policy, and international economic policy as it relates to foreign policy of the United States.”
It should be noted that during the current crisis period in US-Russian relations (which began in roughly 2012), not a single outside voice or dissenter from the Washington foreign-policy community’s consensus view of Russia has appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Indeed, committees in both Houses of Congress have held multiple hearings on the alleged threat posed by Russian state media, Russian human-rights abuses, and Russia’s military intervention in Syria and Ukraine, but have held not a single one on topics which might threaten to upend the Washington foreign-policy consensus, like the troubling rise of anti-Semitism in Ukraine in the years following the overthrow of Yanukovych.
Those who would stake out adversarial positions or who are not members in good standing of the Washington establishment need not apply. Today it would seem the goal of these hearings is to buttress narratives that have already been decided upon. Yet the prevailing narrative as it concerns Russia and Ukraine is one that is largely unsupported by facts, evidence, and logic. Today, congressional hearings merely function as a high-end salon for the foreign-policy establishment’s chattering class, enforcing conformity of opinion and narrowing the scope of acceptable policy options available to the president.
The trend toward “show hearings” accelerated markedly during President Obama’s second term, particularly after the onset of the crisis in Ukraine. Every few months, one or another Senate or House committee with purview over foreign affairs rounds up the usual suspects from the usual Washington institutions for what amounts to an exercise in prejudice reinforcement. This is a new and worrisome development. It also represents a break with a long tradition in US foreign policy, particularly with regard to Russia. We will be living with its consequences for many years to come.