Hitting Trump on Russia cannot disguise the fact that Clinton does not have a Russia policy.

July 30, 2016
February 16, 2019

One can forgive the Clinton campaign and the Democrats for wanting to make the 2016 Presidential campaign about foreign policy. Trump's nomination, the CV of their candidate, and the perceived "success" of the Obama administration's foreign policy have combined with a desire for sweet revenge after six decades of the Republicans turning the "patriotism" card against the Democratic party. And in reality there is merit to these beliefs. The prospect of what Donald Trump would do with control of the nuclear codes is probably the single strongest arguments against a Trump presidency, not because voters necessarily buy the extreme Democratic framing of Trump as a madman, but because they don't have to in order for it to be effective. Trump does not have to be mad to a menace. A lazy, petty, or merely ignorant Trump would be danger enough, and while few persuadable voters are likely to believe that Donald Trump is insane, there plenty who believe that he is dishonest, lazy, or petty, but nevertheless are still open to voting for him. Furthermore, the focus on the military allowed Democrats to thread the needle on an area of maximum danger for them, namely Trump's position on Muslim immigration, an issue where many immigrants share some of the "concerns" Trump vocalizes while perhaps being disturbed by the manner in which he presented them. A direct attack then on Republican "Islamophobia" would have risked a continued debate on whether Democrats thought "Islamic terror" was a unique problem. The party avoided that discussion entirely by featuring the parents of a Muslim American army captain, thereby making the issue the way in which Trump proposed a sweeping and ridiculous solution, neatly side-stepping whether any problem existed. Some on the left complained, but based on past experience, it was a battle perhaps better left unfought.

Democrats have now abandoned such caution regarding another area, namely the foreign policy of the Obama administration. While making much of Hillary Clinton's unprecedented "qualifications" for the Presidency, Democrats have been a bit cautious of defending the general thrust of her policies as Secretary of State. Some of this has related to economic questions, the shift towards an anti-trade stance in both parties has made support for deals like the Trans-Pacific-Partnership a double-edged sword, but that is a symptom of a larger problem. The abandonment by the Republican party of the post 1993 bipartisan consensus on international affairs and America's role in the world has left the Democratic party and the Clinton campaign the lone champions of what is a dubiously successful policy. While it has brought a host of high-level neoconservative defectors to the Clinton camp, it is questionable how much of an asset it is for the architects of the invasion of Iraq to be brought onboard. It also ignores the reasons why the bipartisan consensus of free trade, the indispensability of the United States as a world policeman both for the internal and external affairs of states, and an inflexible enemies and friends list seemingly impervious to events was rejected by the Republican primary electorate and very nearly by the Democratic one. Because the emerging consensus among American voters that US foriegn policy since 1993 is a failure.. Which parts were greater failures, Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, or Obama's destabilization of Libya and Syria is open to debate, but the important fact is that the sense of failure now crosses partisan lines. A large portion of GOP voters viewed Bush's foreign policy as a failure and a large proportion of Sanders voters viewed Bill Clinton's support of NAFTA and even Obama's drone strikes as undesirable as well. And over the course of this 24 year period of "failure", Clintons presided directly over eight years, oversaw Obama's policy for another four, and Hillary has the support of the authors of the remaining 12. If any doubt remained of the identification, to the extent the Clinton campaign has indicated that a second Clinton Administration would differ from Obama it is to stress that it would be more like George W. Bush. Less skeptical of American power, more confrontational with foreign foes, heavier on moral stands, and less compromising in conflicts such as Syria or the Ukraine.

It is true, perhaps, that Clinton has the support of all the "experts." But she does at a time when many voters believe the "experts" have been wrong across the board, and with good reason. This does not mean that Trump, for instance, is "right", but the great weakness to a positive case for Clinton on FP is not that hers will necessarily be successful, as it is based on premises that clearly are not working, but rather that Trump's will be worse. And the danger here has always been that especially on relatively simple issues such as free trade, immigration, or interventionism, voters might opt for "the field" over "traditional American foreign policy" on the assumption that anything else might well be better. Hence the focus on experience.

This is part of what makes the recent attacks on Donald Trump over his supposed closeness with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the claim that he somehow encouraged Russian intelligence to commit espionage by releasing Hillary Clinton's emails as secretary of state. On their face, the charges mark a departure towards the sort of logically sloppy, fact-free rhetoric more reminiscent of the Trump campaign. Despite the unhinged shrieks of Democratic surrogates and many journalists who should know better but who have allowed their anti-Trump partisanship to obscure common sense, Donald Trump could not possibly have been encouraging espionage. The 33,000 emails he called on the Russians to release have been deleted and hence no longer exist. If they do, not only senior Clinton advisers but Hillary Clinton herself is guilty of perjury, and a very serious case given that she would have committed it in the course of a FBI investigation. As such, if the Russians were to be able to release said emails, it means they have had them for years, and all Trump did was to suggest they might want to release them in that case. That may make him guilty of a lesser charge of inviting Russia to interfere in a US election, but that is a bit rich coming from an opponent who openly announced her opposition to Brexit in the UK, and a Democratic President who campaigned against it.

Ultimately what sustains the charges against Trump, when one peels away the baseless rhetoric about "treason" or "espionage" is the fact that the country he called on was Russia. Here we find the basis of the attack line. It is that Trump has a disturbing history of making statements favorable to Russia and Putin. He praised Putin repeatedly at debates, indicated that the United States should cooperate with Russia against ISIS, raised issues about the willingness of NATO allies to pay their fair share of defense costs, and finally, at the infamous press conference about the "hacks", suggested might be open to recognizing Russian ownership of the Crimea. To make matters worse, his campaign team is headed by Paul Manafort, who worked for Viktor Yanukovych, the former Pro-Russian President of Ukraine.

There is an indictment here perhaps, but one that relies heavily on the idea not only that Russia is inherently an enemy, but also an irreconcilable and irrational one, cooperation with which is not a reasonable option, a portrayal rejected by the Obama Administration itself. At the point at which one examines the policies suggested by Trump on an individual level, it becomes less clear what is being attacked, or more accurately, the bareness of what is being defended becomes readily apparent. The idea that Russia's intervention in Syria on behalf of Assad is anti-American was a line that both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio tried to use during the Republican primaries to if anything negative effect. The reason was quite simple. Assad may be bad, but most people agree ISIS is worse. The current policy of the Obama Administration, which is to varying degrees the policy of the entire American foreign policy establishment, has been to insist that there is in fact a "third force" in the form of "moderate Sunni rebels" who can somehow depose Assad and maintain control of the country while defeating ISIS and having no links with extremists. This line has been maintained despite increasingly evidence that not one of those assumptions is true. The Syrian rebels have proven militarily incompetent, facing a steady series of defeats against Assad, while their behavior has established them as effective ethnic and religious death squads such that Alawis, Christians and Secularists have rallied to the Syrian president. They seem to have a revolving door not just with extremists but with ISIS itself which keeps finding American aid intended for "moderate" rebels in its hands, and even if by some miracle they were to be able to win, the result would likely mirror that of Afghanistan after 1992 when the Mujaheddin managed to oust the Communist regime only to fall out among themselves and reduce the country to anarchy.

The policy also shows the penchent for mainstream American national security "experts" to not only refuse to make trade-offs but to intellectually reject they idea they even exist. The operating assumption of this policy is that the United States' concern in Syria is who governs Syria, and that it has the luxury of determining that. In reality, the far greater impact of Syria's civil war is in the form of the refugee population that is overrunning Europe, destabilizing politics across the continent. In the long run, there is a compelling strategic argument that the stability and strength of America's allies in Europe, both as economic and military partners, is far more important than who rules in Syria, or to put it harshly, what happens to any number of Syrians. And the cause of that refugee crisis is not Assad or the Rebels or ISIS, but the fact that the Syrian Civil War continues. In turn, the only way for it to end is for someone to win. And as evidence indicates that the rebels cannot win even with US support, that if they were to win they would worsen rather than improve the anarchy, and that they are proxies of an unstable Turkish government which itself is a destabilizing force in the region, they are out. That leaves ISIS, who we clearly do not want, though the fact they are anti-Russian I presume is a recommendation to some of those around Hillary Clinton, or Assad. And quite frankly Assad is the best of a bad lot. The simple fact is that the current policy, implemented by Obama, supported by Hillary Clinton, and supported by most of media and national security establishment is unworkable, and actively undermining US interests in the region and Europe. So at the point at which it makes sense to allow Assad to remain, why not get paid for it by making it look like a concession for improved relations with Russia? The only reason appears to be stubbornness, a justification for which is found in how Putin must "be contained."

The incoherence therefore of the attacks on Trump's support of cooperation with Moscow against ISIS collapse in the face of the absurdity of the policy those making them are forced to defend. But what about the other issues? NATO military spending is in and of itself an important issue as is the expansion of NATO. The simple fact is that regardless of what speechwriters and op-ed hacks like to think, the US did not win the Cold War. Rather, the Soviet Union lost it. No US troops arrived to liberate East Germany, Poland, Lithuania or the Ukraine until every Russian soldier had left, and the evidence from Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981 is none ever would have arrived. Not only did US policymakers recognize the impossibility of the United States "freeing" Russia's neighbors from Russian influence, they actively made clear it was not their policy. If Latvia were to be secure, it was not going to be because the  American people would risk nuclear war for Riga. They wouldn't do so for Poland or Hungary, and no sane person thought they should. Which is why it is somewhat absurd that the entire post-Cold War American policy in Europe, especially under Obama is based on the premise that is exactly what American policy is. The expansion of NATO is premised on the idea that NATO actually provides military protection to its members, which raises the important question of, with what? When NATO talks about moving "rapid reaction brigades" it is a discussion of moving 2-3000 soldiers when Russia can mobilize 500,000, plus multiples of that in irregulars. The United States army is no longer designed for deterring a landbased invasion on a mass scale after two decades of counterinsurgency, so ultimately any conflict would involve air power and the nuclear umbrella. And everyone insists on asserting the latter, that the Baltic states are somehow "under the American nuclear umbrella" despite the fact that such a policy would have been thought lunatic by everyone in Washington during the Cold War and few American voters would actually say they would want to risk New York City for Tallinn. America's policy in Europe is based on a bluff, but unlike an effective bluff which is at least plausible, it is a bluff that no rational human being would ever fall for. The only method for the successful protection of those states is for them to build strong enough conventional forces to deter subversion while removing the political root causes, but US policy has caused the reverse. It has encouraged the Baltics to mistreat their Russian populations, for Georgia prior to 2008 to adopt an aggressive anti-Russian policy, all on a misplaced assumption they can free-ride on US support.

Nowhere has this been more clear than in the Ukraine. The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych was motivated by his rejection of a trade deal with the EU, which became symbolic for whether Ukraine should seek to join Europe. Faced with the prospect of joining a prosperous EU, or being tied to a poor Russia, the inhabitants of Europe's worst economic black hole opted for the latter. In the process they broke both the geopolitical neutrality that had allowed Ukraine to retain ties with the West while hosting Russia's main naval base in the Crimea, as well as the domestic equilibrium which had allowed the country to function. The irony is they did this on the basis of a lie and a delusion. Two in fact. For one thing Ukraine has zero prospect of joining the EU. With Brexit demonstrating how unpopular freedom of movement has proven within the union for citizens from existing Eastern European states, it is inconceivable that Ukraine, which vastly poorer than Romania or Bulgaria and has a population more than twice their combined total would ever be offered membership which would bring with it freedom of movement within the EU. Even if by some chance Ukraine were to be offered it, it is equally impossible to imagine at least one member state not vetoing it, as shown by the Dutch electorate rejecting the association agreement by referendum. In effect, Ukraine has no future in the EU.

If the Ukrainians picked a fight with Russia on the basis of false economic prospects, they embarked on a military confrontation with false expectations of support from the United States and Europe. Yes the US and Europe have mostly condemned the Russian occupation of the Crimea, but they have done nothing other than sanctions to reverse it, nor shown much interest in helping the Ukraine to regain control over its eastern provinces. It is true that if a President Trump were to recognize Russian rule over the Crimea he would be putting the US in ugly company, and it would be an act of near treason to do it unilaterally, but it is worth noting that sanctions are designed to have a purpose. What then, precisely, is the purpose of those sanctions? Ie. what would the US and EU be willing to accept as a settlement. Is the policy to keep them in place forever unless Russia totally withdraws support for Ukrainian separatists, and returns the Crimea? If so, why not add withdraws from Syria, breaks all ties with Iran, and liberalizes LGBT laws? In effect that would be a policy of working to nothing less than the overthrow of the Putin regime, something that if it "worked" would bring concessions only from weakness. No Russian government, no matter how liberal, would be able to concede such things, not without secretly promising vengeance. What that leaves then is a hypothetical policy of compromise, where the goal of sanctions is to get Russia to support the reintegration of the eastern regions of Ukraine and perhaps the departure of Assad in favor of a non-Assad Damascus option in exchange for perhaps recognizing the Crimea. In that sense, it would be fully rational to have the Crimea on the table. Anything less is to state openly that Crimea is not only the cause of the sanctions, but more important than every other interest and issue where Russian cooperation is involved, while at the same time giving Russia no reason to ever be constructive on any of them unless Moscow is willing to return the Crimea. It is not a viable policy.

Trump has not expressed his views in these terms, but he has made allusions to most of these arguments, if not recently, then during the Republican primary debates. The attacks on him for raising these issues then are purely reactionary except insofar as one buys that he is in fact a Russian agent, not supporting these ideas because they make sense in general or seem to make sense to him, but because the "FSB agent" Manafort is pushing him, a charge which raises questions as to why he expressed many of these policy positions before Manafort came onboard. The other, of course, is to raise doubts about Trump's investments in Russia, a line which raises questions about the Clinton foundation's own lobbying efforts.

Ultimately, though, the attacks launched on Trump over the Russian connection show the premium being placed by politics over policy. The Clinton campaign is increasingly acting not as the possessor of clear program for government, but rather as a defender of the consensus which makes up the center ground of American politics, a dangerous, if understandable position for the presumed next President. But in the process, the same mistake is being made which was made by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in the Republican primaries. Rather than defending why the consensus is the consensus, they defended it against Trump by pointing out that it was the consensus, as if heresy should be enough to disqualify him. At moments, such as when the parents of the Muslim veteran were on stage, the Democrats made a stab at doing more. But on Russia, and foreign policy in general, Clinton's messaging amounts to a combination of listing how many experts agree with them and more or less screaming "witch" at their opponents in order to highlight their heresies. And while that may work against a deeply flawed, intellectually incurious candidate like Trump, it will do nothing to reverse the trend of declining public faith in that consensus, especially if it continues to fail to produce results. The Clinton campaign has made clear how worried it is about Trump's friendliness towards Putin and Russian interference in the election; at some point it needs to present a coherent vision of what it wants from Russia other than universal containment. Or if all it desires is the latter, what it intended to pay for it.

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