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“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
Equally enigmatic is how Mr. Trump went about representing the national interest of the United States at Helsinki. Until Mr. Mueller is ready to provide possible clarification, the fog around the president’s motivation persists: narcissistic ineptitude almost surely; perhaps also kompromat, collusion, and/or fear of money laundering becoming exposed.
All the confusion provides an object lesson in the plasticity of enemy-imaging. As someone old enough to remember the lame British-American interference in Iran in the fifties, the hysteria of McCarthyism, Hoover’s clandestine harassment of Martin Luther King Jr., and far greater debacles like the wanton destruction of Vietnam and Cambodia, I persist in my skepticism concerning the degree of competence we can expect from the bureaucrats and generals to whom we reluctantly entrust our safety.
But now, with the executive branch demonstrably willing to gallop bareback off the established foreign policy reservation, the knee-jerk adversary of progressives for decades, the so-called “deep state,” with its reflexive fear of Russian totalitarian infiltration and its perpetuation of military dominance in all earthly spheres, may at least be providing a sorely needed element of restraint and integrity.
The plot is further thickened by an interesting analysis in The Nation magazine by Stephen Cohen, a Princeton professor emeritus and lifetime Russia watcher. He asks us to take a deep breath in the midst of our anxiety about the president’s apparent capitulation to his authoritarian friend in power.
Cohen asserts that when the president states that “I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. … And I think we’re all to blame,” he is onto something:
Cohen continues: “For the past 15 years, the virtually unanimous American bipartisan establishment answer has been: Putin, or “Putin’s Russia,” is solely to blame. Washington’s decision to expand NATO to Russia’s border, bomb Russia’s traditional ally Serbia, withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, carry out military regime change in Iraq and Libya, provoke the Ukrainian crisis and back the coup against its legitimate president in 2014, and considerably more—none of these, only “Putin’s aggression,” led to the new Cold War. This explanation has long become a rigid bipartisan orthodoxy tolerating no dissent.”
Tragically, the president’s compulsive willingness to lie, his thin-skinned, possibly guilt-motivated defensiveness, his Kissingeresque lone-cowboy-riding-to-the-rescue style, along with the appallingly short-sighted withdrawal from both the Paris Accords and the Iran nuclear deal, has pretty much destroyed his credibility as a heretical and possibly creative anti-establishment actor. When he assigns blame equally between America and Russia for the new Cold War, all most of us can see is an echo of the false equivalence of his assigning blame equally to the neo-Nazis and the civil rights protesters in Charlottesville.
Where does a citizen go in all this craziness for an authoritative sense of context? One useful perspective is the long-term history of the nuclear arms race, out of which came a bracing truth from another apparent adversary of progressive thinking, Ronald Reagan: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In spite of our finding ourselves, more than a half-century beyond the Cuban missile crisis, still building new nuclear weapons on all sides, we humans have not gotten the message: continuing the arms race on the basis of deterrence prophesies not greater security but only inevitable mass death through error, misinterpretation, or miscalculation.
The “establishment” is well aware of this. They are designing new nuclear weapons to be less powerful so that they become strategically more “flexible” and “useful,” and presumably can avoid fatal consequences like nuclear winter. But smaller weapons only make the nuclear threshold easier to cross, and once it is crossed, who will prevent escalation to the larger, world-ending weapons?
As Churchill said, the key to Russia is national self-interest. Planetary self-interest in the nuclear age provides a common-sense context for our contemporary circus. When Mr. Trump convenes an international conference of the military leaders of the nine nuclear powers to discuss joining the 122 nations who have outlawed nuclear weapons as self-destructive and unusable, I will be among the first to commend him as an anti-establishment hero. Meanwhile—the mind reels.