Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

Whatever might come of the remaining details of the Mueller probe, lessons ‘learned’ by the American press won’t be among them. The story was never about truth, so exposing bits and pieces as untrue won’t undo its success. And the government officials and pundits who put it forward largely got what they wanted from the effort. The national security and surveillance establishments were rehabilitated, the ‘press’ was shown once again to be a reliable mouth-piece for official interests and the 2016 electoral outcome was successfully portrayed as an accident of history made worse by the moral depravity of voters.

Given that Russia’s economy today is smaller than Italy’s and its military budget wouldn’t buy a toilet seat or hammer in the U.S. military procurement system, the question of why Russia would seem a great mystery outside of history. And left unstated is that the U.S. defense industry needs enemies to survive. ‘Radical Islam,’ an invention of oil and gas industry flacks that turned out to be serviceable for marketing Tomahawk missiles and stealth fighter jets as well, lost some of its luster when ISIS and Al Qaeda came over to ‘our side.’ And humanitarian intervention ain’t what it used to be with Libya reduced to rubble and open-air slave markets now dotting the landscape.

From 1948 through the early 1990s Russia was Pennywise the evil clown, helping to sell bananas, nuclear weapons and cut-rate underwear around the globe wherever American empire alighted. Costumed ‘communists,’ locals paid a day-rate to dress up and shout whatever slogans conveyed evil most effectively, were a staple of CIA interventions from Iran to Guatemala to the streets of New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Never mind that the slayer of monsters is more monstrous than an army of evil clowns, as the Koreans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans, Chileans, Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis and on and on, were to learn.

The big why (?) here would suggest an eternal mystery were it not for the arithmetic we learned as tykes. The U.S. has an annual military budget that is larger than the next seven evil empires combined. Killing people and blowing shit up is what America does. Stated reverse-wise, what is the point of being able to end all human life on earth more than once?  Yet the U.S. can do it 3X – 5X or 30X – 50X, depending on which analysis is chosen. And while it would be anti-historical to remove mal-intent as motive, an alternative explanation of the militarization of the police is ‘overstock,’ that there is nothing else to do with the stuff that the Pentagon produces.

This would seem a tremendous waste of resources under any reasonable theory of their efficient use (e.g. capitalism). The explanation of ‘national defense’ reads as legitimate until history is brought back in. For a few thousand years, the argument against maintaining a standing army was that standing armies tend to get used. Preparations for armed conflict facilitate armed conflict. The mobilizations for WWI and WWII were mobilizations, not drawdowns from existing military inventory. There is something to be said for wars requiring large expenditures of time, effort and resources from everyone for whom they are undertaken. Otherwise, they are likely to be started lightly.

The U.S. has long been the most militaristic nationin the world. This probably doesn’t read right to most Americans. ‘We’ are a peace-loving nation that only sends in the military as a last resort, goes the myth. And ‘we’ changed the name from the Department of War to the Department of Defense. It was early in the twentieth century that U.S. General Smedley Butler proclaimed that ‘war is a racket’ (racket = organized crime) as he described his military career as a ‘gangster for capitalism.’ The business of war in support of capitalism had long been a business in its own right, just ask Wall Street.

When the George W. Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security following 9/11, the obvious question from people who thought about such things was: what are these people going to do all day? With daily briefings presented to Mr. Bush entitled ‘Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.’before 9/11, the only intelligence failure, if that is what it was, occurred in the White House. Mr. Bush’s entourage had been rumbling about going back to Iraq to ‘finish the job’ since the end of his father’s war. How much of a leap was it then to assume that Mr. Bush’s WMD scam was a pretext for re-invading Iraq?

But the question isn’t rhetorical. With 240,000 people employed by DHS to find terrorists, terrorists will be found. The basic insight is that justifying one’s employment is crucial to keeping it. In this light, the FBI counter-terrorism unit spent its time since 2001 enticing poor and desperate people to claim each other as terrorists. The first person to point out that there are no terrorists would be the first to receive a pink slip. And the same is true of government contracting. Brave entrepreneurs who feed at the trough of military largesse need to justify their existences. If they don’t, some other proud patriot will step forward and do so. A logic of necessity becomes a legitimating belief system.

Graph: in the U.S., militarism is a business. The military budget in 2017 was larger than that of the next seven largest military budgets combined. With no known enemies, the question of how to justify this expenditure is ever-present. Russiagate is an effort to manufacture enemies to justify the military budget. And it worked. Aside: the Peterson Foundation that produced this graphic is a right-wing atrocity. The graphic was used because it is accurate and available, not to support its producer. Source: Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

More broadly, one could argue that manufacturing terrorists has been the strategic goal of U.S. military operations for much of the last century. If you bomb enough villages and wedding parties, people will fight back. Wasn’t this the implied storyline of anti-communist agitprop like Red Dawn and anti-Muslim agitprop like Zero Dark Thirty— if you invade ‘our’ country and / or bomb ‘our’ villages and wedding parties, we will fight back. As a business proposition, the more people that are killed, the more legitimate the operation is made to appear. Make the weapons, then employ hundreds of thousands of people to explain why ‘we’ need to bomb villages. Then make more weapons.

Graphic: Time Magazine was the voice of post-War liberalism in the 1970s— it reflected the opinions emanating from American officialdom through a faux-critical lens. This cover featuring Muammar Gaddafi presaged the Obama administration’s destruction of Libya by 35 years. The main difference then was relative honesty about U.S. motives— ‘Oil’ was the lede in 1973, where ‘humanitarian’ concerns drove the American propaganda effort in 2011. Note: ‘Arab’ was replaced by ‘Muslim extremist’ following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Source: Time, Inc.

Propaganda theory is relevant here because of the ease with which the Russiagate story was sold— all evidence, no matter how contradictory, was claimed to point in only one direction. Contrariwise, Russia isn’t the Soviet Union. America’s political leaders have long supported strongmen and dictators. The biggest threat to free and fair elections in the U.S. is American oligarchs followed by Israel. The Democrat running in the 2016 presidential election openly manipulated the 1996 Russian presidential election. Russia today is a neoliberal petrostate. Vladimir Putin is admired in Russia because he booted out corrupt American ‘advisors’ who were looting the country. In other words, Russia today isn’t Russia!

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and ostensible end of the first Cold War, a ‘peace dividend’ of reduced military spending was expected to fund increased domestic spending, the classic ‘guns versus butter’ formulation shifted in favor of butter. A drop to pre-WWII levels of military spending would have meant 95%+ of the military-industrial complex went away. Following a very brief drop in the rate of growth of military spending in the early 1990s, a recession caused by the looting of Savings & Loans and its aftermath led to the argument that ‘the economy’ couldn’t withstand a reduced military. September 11th, 2001 was the best day ever for U.S. military contractors. America was back in the business of industrial-scale slaughter.

Early on, the American defense industry tried a few new enemies on for size. The George W. Bush administration’s WMD scam targeted an audience that had been primed by several decades of anti-Muslim propaganda (see Time cover above) tied to oil geopolitics. The only WMDs found in Iraq had come from the Reagan administration in its effort to keep Iraq warring with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Current American amnesia over the genesis of Islamophobia is quaint. The New York Times has been demonizing Muslims since the 1970s. It was hardly incidental that ‘reporting’ on the Iraq war contained breathless descriptions of newly created instruments of mass slaughter.

However, there were two tacks that propelled the Iraq War forward. Humanitarian intervention had been the liberal formulation for selling the carpet bombing of civilian populations as in the interest of those being bombed. The term was used for the aerial bombardment of civilian populations in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the mid-1990s. And it was the back-up explanation for the American war against Iraq— to remove an evil dictator in order to liberate the people of Iraq. It was also used to justify the U.S. / NATO bombing of Libya in 2011. To the certain dismay of the defense industry, none of those interventions retained the patina of good intentions once it became known that the target nations had been functionally destroyed.

Russiagate has been a godsend for those who profit from destruction. As the story goes, the wily Russian bear, led by an evil dictator and newly trained in the technologies of modernity, set loose a witch’s brew of inter-continental ballistic internet messages to sow dissent amongst the brothers and sisters of die Vaterland united by their common bond of loving America. For younger readers, the claim that foreign ‘agitation’ motivated the Civil Rights and anti-War movements, and more broadly, the American Left, has been a mainstay of CIA and FBI propaganda since these agencies were created. Old playbooks are good playbooks?

Those with a sense of humor, if humor includes installing a drunken buffoon to head a nuclear armed foreign power, might offer that ‘Trump’ is the English translation of ‘Yeltsin.’ In 1996 the American President colluded with people inside the Russian government to overturn the democratic will of the Russian people to install Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia. Yuk, yuk— an unstable jackass was installed to head a foreign government. The ‘payback’ narrative no-doubt motivated true belief amongst some American officials after 2016. But alas, as with bombed villages and wedding parties, unless you just will not stop fucking with other people, they generally have other things to do than plot revenge.

None of the propagators of the phony WMD stories suffered from passing off state propaganda as news. The New York Times and Washington Post found themselves on the winning side of the ‘fake news’ scam to shut down the opposition press. Even Judith Miller, brief heroine of the free press for being ‘stove-piped’ by Dick Cheney, went on to a well-paid gig at Fox News, wrote an autobiography that more than just her immediate family read and now lives as a ‘celebrity.’ Heroes of the #Resistance like David Corn, Rachel Maddow and Michael Isikoff have the proceeds from book sales and television appearances to sustain them until their services are needed to sell the next scam-with-a-purpose.

The economic role of American defense spending will lead to endless iterations of WMD and Russiagate scams until the Pentagon is shut down. And that’s the good part. The wars that these scams support are the bane of humanity. Their true costs, in terms of lives destroyed, appear to be meaningless to people living in twenty-room houses who want to live in thirty room houses. Winding down the warfare state would be less politically fraught if people had non-murderous ways of paying their bills. But how was this not understood as the warfare state was being built?

Finally, apologists for Russiagate claim that it has been nowhere near as dangerous as WMD lies. Let’s see: a cadre of national security officials spent two-and-one-half years claiming that it has secret evidence that the President of the U.S. colluded with the leader of a foreign government to assume power and then use his office for the benefit of that foreign leader. Following, the domestic press claimed that the U.S. ‘was under attack’ and ‘was at war’ with this foreign power. Meanwhile, the U.S. went about arming anti-Russian militias on Russia’s border while unilaterally abrogating a short-and-intermediate range nuclear weapons treaty after publicly announcing that it was ‘modernizing’ its stockpile of short-and-intermediate-range nuclear weapons.

Respectfully, this has all been a tad less than constructive.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.