Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-American Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Russians pride themselves on an awareness of “living history”—memories of past events whose recurrence or consequences continue to influence current politics. The phenomenon known as “Russiagate” suggests that many Americans have less such awareness or memories, though this may be partly generational. Cohen, who is old enough to be emeritus (retired) at two universities, has vivid memories of past events and practices that are precedents ignored by today’s promoters of Russiagate. He discusses the following examples:
§ A fundamental tenet of Russiagate is that the Kremlin sought, primarily through social media but not only, “to create or exacerbate divisions in American society and politics.” Even if true, there is no evidence that this purported campaign had any meaningful impact on how Americans voted in the 2016 presidential elections. And even if true, the social and political “divisions” were hardly comparable to those experienced by Cohen and his generation of Americans, which included segregation and the black civil-rights struggle (Cohen grew up in the Jim Crow South); the social-political barricade in American life generated by the Vietnam War (Cohen was draft-age and a graduate student at Columbia during the 1968 events on that campus); or the religious-political division over abortion rights during several electoral cycles. And these “divisions” leave aside those associated with Watergate, which drove a president from office, and the actual impeachment of President Bill Clinton. To assert that the much lesser “divisions” in 2016 were any less American in origin or needed to be exacerbated by Russia is a kind of unwitting or willful amnesia. Certainly, such allegations are uninformed by history.
§ Closely related is the allegation that “Russian propaganda and disinformation” has been playing, at least since 2016, an oversized role in American life and continues to do so. But Cohen vividly recalls, at least since his schoolboy days in Kentucky, that this was an everyday allegation back then as well, including during the civil-rights struggle. Indeed, the primary source of those dire warnings was none other than the longtime director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, whose writings were very often assigned readings in schools. Hoover’s essential theme was, of course, that Americans posing as loyal citizens were actually agents of Soviet (Russian) Communist “propaganda and disinformation.” And that allegation was also widely used for political purposes, and perhaps widely believed. Still more, when blacklisting came to Hollywood in the 1950s, films were “investigated” for latent “Communist propaganda,” which was purportedly found. This was a search, so to speak, for “Russian trolls” in the movies, and Cohen cites a particularly preposterous example, not unlike those being found today in ongoing investigations.
§ On these flimsy and historically uninformed premises, Russiagaters go on to allege that Russia “meddled” in the 2016 US presidential election, which results in their warmongering charge that this was “an act of war against America.” Whatever “meddle” means—the word is very imprecise—states have meddled in the elections of other states for centuries, in one form or another. Israel has, of course, meddled in US elections for decades. More to the point, according to a study cited recently by The New York Times, the US government ran 81 “overt and covert election influence operations” in foreign countries from 1946 to 2000 (Soviet and post-Soviet Russia ran 36 such operations during the same period). Indeed, any informed observer knows that official and unofficial American institutions have been very deeply involved in—meddled in—Russian political life generally ever since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. (See Stephen F. Cohen, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia.) But the instance that should dispel any amnesia, unwitting or otherwise, is the financial, on-site, hands-on American effort to help a badly failing President Boris Yeltsin get reelected in 1996. (There is some doubt as to whether he really was). Nor was this especially covert. An attentive visitor to Moscow that year could observe parts of it, as Cohen did. And afterwards, no secret was made of it, only prideful boasts. A Time magazine cover story declared, “Yanks to the Rescue.” And in 2003 Showtime made a feature film, still available for viewing on-demand, glorifying the meddling, called Spinning Boris. That is, Americans acted as “foreign agents” in a Russian presidential election, and proudly. Two wrongs may not make a right, but less amnesia would put the considerably lesser Russiagate allegations, almost none of the truly significant ones yet having been proved, in perspective.
§ One way or another, to some degree or another, at least two US intelligence agencies, the CIA and FBI, have played unsavory roles in Russiagate. And yet most mainstream American media and leading Democrats in particular are exalting them as paragons of verified, nonpartisan information, including their recurring leaks to media. This is puzzling and probably best explained by willful amnesia or denial, since not a few of these same media and politicians had been highly skeptical, even sharply critical, of both agencies’ roles in the past. Leave aside well-documented assassinations by the CIA and FBI persecution of civil-rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. Recall instead only the quality of CIA information that led President John F. Kennedy to the Bay of Pigs disaster; President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress ever deeper into the Vietnam War; and the nation to the catastrophic war in Iraq, whose consequences still plague the Middle East—and America—today. And yet the information provided by the CIA regarding Russiagate is to be accepted uncritically? Is its past role, and that of the FBI, forgotten or forgiven?
§ Unable to provide proof linking Russia or President Trump to the alleged original sin—the hacking and dissemination of DNC emails—media investigators and special counsel Robert Mueller himself have settled for seeking and prosecuting past financial misdeeds on the part of Trump “associates,” Paul Manafort in particular. (Since Manafort’s laundered millions are said to have originated mostly in Ukraine, not Russia, perhaps all of this is actually Ukrainegate?) But here too precedents are forgotten or deleted. The “shock therapy” urged on Russia by Washington in the 1990s led to the creation of a small group of billionaire oligarchs and the “globalization” of their wealth, especially between the United States and Russia. Predictable scandals ensued. Two resulted in very high-profile US convictions for money laundering and other financial improprieties, not unlike the charges against Manafort. One involved the Bank of New York; the other a Harvard University institute. Both featured high-level “Kremlin-linked” officials of the Yeltsin government, which the Clinton administration, to say the least, strongly supported. In various ways, one dwarfed the charges against Manafort financially, and both did so politically. In the end, however, the Manafort case and other Russiagate financial ones, like their predecessors, are likely to turn out to be mostly the everyday corruption of the 1 percent and its servitors. This too seems to have been forgotten or, considering the fully bipartisan nature of that corruption, deleted.
§ A final example is particularly remarkable. Even though the new or “second” Cold War with Russia has been unfolding for nearly 20 years, the head of America’s most prestigious think tank and foreign-affairs organization discovered it only recently and “unexpectedly.” Is such myopia on the part of one of America’s most esteemed foreign-policy experts amnesia—he did not remember what the preceding Cold War looked and sounded like—or is it denial of the role he and his fellow experts had played in bringing about the “second one”?
Whatever the explanation, all of these aspects of Russiagate are, of course, part of the new, more dangerous US-Russian Cold War. Which leads Cohen to worry that Marx’s famous adage—history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce—may in this case turn out to be, first as tragedy, then as even worse.