Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Now in their fourth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen deeply regrets that the discussion must begin again with neo-McCarthyism, but it has become perhaps the most important factor in today’s American political-media establishment, and it is growing by the week. In recent days, for example, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has cast wild aspersions and specific allegations of “Russian connections” and Putin puppetry at both the White House and State Department—all without any verified facts. A reliable stenographer of Clinton-Obama opinion declares, while denying any McCarthyism on his part, “We do have evidence of Americans having actual contacts with Russians,” in addition, it seems, to familiar narrower charges that “Trump associates” have been “in contact with Russian intelligence officials.” Where, Cohen wonders, is this headed?
A CNN “documentary” on Russian President Putin—The Most Powerful Man in the World—provided the kind of degraded historical narrative needed for McCarthy-like hysteria and witch hunts. Traumatized by the end of the Soviet Union, Putin has since been afflicted by an abiding fear of “revolution” in Russia. Hence his dictatorial politics at home, hence his “hatred for Hillary Clinton,” who encouraged Moscow protests in 2011–12, hence his plot to hack the Democratic National Committee and disseminate its embarrassing e-mails in order to undermine her presidential campaign, hence the possibility of “collusion” with Donald Trump’s campaign, etc. The many social, political, and international factors that have shaped Russia, and Putin himself, since the end of the Soviet Union were all but omitted or scarcely credited. Among the many “experts” presented in the documentary, none challenged this pseudo-history, except obliquely Putin’s own press spokesman, hardly a credible counter-expert. Meanwhile, developments in Congress, including ample funding, suggest that a latter-day Committee on Un-American Activities may be in the making, one that would again ferret out “Russian apologists” and censor them.
“Investigations” of nefarious “Russian connections” in American politics begin in Congress next Monday. Cohen asks what they will investigate, since no documented facts have actually been publicly presented for any of the allegations—only “assessments” based on presumed Kremlin motives and Trump complicity. Cohen thinks it’s more likely that the “investigations” will produce months of enhanced demonizing of Putin and Russia, and thus, in the McCarthyite tradition, of Trump’s guilt by implied association—as in wanting better relations with Russia and refusing to vilify Putin personally, which is being adduced as evidence. We should hope, Cohen adds, some actual facts are presented that we can “investigate” and evaluate them, but so far there are none.
Consider, he points out, the allegation that Putin ordered the hacking of the DNC to undermine Clinton’s bid for the presidency, which is the foundational allegation of the new McCarthyism and pivot of its narrative. The only official “evidence” for this version of what happened was the Intelligence Community report in January, which presented not one piece of factual evidence. The existing and potential fallacies of this version have been summarized by the award-winning investigative journalist Robert Parry (consortiumnews.com, March 8). Which leaves us, Cohen suggests, with four (at least) hypothetical explanations of how the e-mails were taken from the DNC:
§ Russians hacked the DNC computers, but not on orders of the Kremlin.
§ Putin’s Kremlin did it and gave the e-mails to WikiLeaks to disseminate.
§ Some non-Russian individuals or agency hacked the DNC and left “false flags” pointing to the Kremlin, possibly even (as a few people suggest) an American agency.
§ The DNC was not hacked at all. Instead the e-mails were taken and leaked by an insider, as argued by the organization Veteran Intelligence Officials for Sanity, which despite its credentials is unable to get a hearing in the mainstream media.
There are, Cohen reiterates, no facts to support any of these hypotheses, but all four should be investigated, not just the one pointing to the Kremlin. Moreover, contrary to the Putin-hates-Hillary supposition, there is little logic for such a Kremlin operation against the DNC. Would Putin have actually taken such risk, even if he could have, knowing that disclosure or suspicion could only favor Clinton? Or, regarding claims that Putin is “joyous” today over the scandal he has allegedly inflicted on American politics, how does this square with the claim that he sought to put an effective “puppet” in White House, one now ensnared by the scandal and its investigations?
Nonetheless, Kremlin-baiting of Trump is widely assumed to have ended his promise of better relations, or détente, with Russia. Trump has stopped discussing this aspiration publicly (and understandably, in today’s toxic atmosphere), but has taken possibly significant steps in this direction. Cohen cites four examples:
§ Trump’s nomination of Jon Huntsman to be his ambassador to Moscow was regarded by the Kremlin as an important positive signal, because Huntsman, unlike preceding recent ambassadors, is a major American political figure, and thus a sign of Trump’s respect and seriousness of purpose. In addition, Cohen points out, Huntsman, as a former ambassador to China, is highly qualified to deal with the US-Russian-Sino element of détente that would emerge.
§ Reports of increased US-Russian military cooperation in Syria, almost entirely absent in the past, are highly significant, partly because Trump always suggested he wanted to begin cooperation in that fight against terrorism and because the dangers of a US-Russian military clash in Syria were, and perhaps remain, too immediate. We will know more about the degree of cooperation as the battle for Raqqa, the last ISIL stronghold in Syria, unfolds. Both the Russia-Syria coalition and the US-led one want to “liberate” the city. Cooperation in this pursuit will send an even stronger signal that US-Russian détente-like relations are possible elsewhere.
§ There is also the public silence in this regard on the part of Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, which has been interpreted in various negative, even degrading, ways. Cohen thinks it possible, however, that Tillerson is doing what he should be doing in these very poisonous times in Washington: quiet diplomacy with Russia and with other relevant governments.
Whatever lies ahead, Cohen concludes, Putin—“The Most Powerful Man in the World”—is now conveniently blamed for all the US establishment’s woes in the world, from Trump to electorally endangered allies in Europe, from the crisis of the US-backed government in Ukraine to Syria, even, it is being said, to Democratic Party electoral losses around the United States. And the list is growing.