Almost Everyone Gets Russia Wrong – Apart From Obama

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Almost Everyone Gets Russia Wrong – Apart From Obama

Those itching for conflict like to portray Putin as a grandmaster. In reality, his country is weak and his strategy is one of desperation

'Increasing military tensions with Russia is now a bipartisan issue,' writes Timm. (Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/TASS)

These days it is en vogue in Washington DC to be itching for conflict with Russia. Politicians and pundits alike are outdoing each other for how they can describe the supposed threat Putin now poses to the west. To his credit, Barack Obama seems to be the only politician not playing into the cold war 2.0 hysteria.

In little noticed comments last week, Hillary Clinton suggested that the US should start preparing “military” responses to cyber-attacks allegedly perpetrated by Russia on the DNC and voter registration files. And her campaign has also spent the last few weeks ratcheting up the fear-mongering that the Trump campaign is secretly a Russian plant of some sort.

Increasing military tensions with Russia is now a bipartisan issue. Republicans not named Donald Trump spent much of the primary earlier this year calling for a no-fly zone – a certain path to war – in Syria and were perfectly willing to shoot down Russian planes over the region, despite the real possibility of starting world war three.

Meanwhile, House Democrats recently called on the FBI to “investigate” unknown links between the Trump campaign and Russia, seemingly unaware of the historical analogies (and the irony) of calling for a government investigation into their political enemies. Trump is a menace and a buffoon in countless ways, but the idea that he is secretly doing secretly Putin’s bidding is beyond absurd.

The media, in turn, largely seems to be eager to portray Putin as a 11th dimensional chess grandmaster, who is behind every major world event. (Conspiracy theories are almost universally mocked in the US, unless they involve Putin and Russia – then they are encouraged.)

Even some inside the Obama administration, like defense secretary Ash Carter, seem open to ratcheting up the tension with Russia, which, by the way, the sprawling defense industry is also openly rooting for. The Intercept reported weapons manufacturers have been telling investors that the “new” Russian threat is great for business. (Increased cyber tensions, needless to say, lead to better bottom lines for all the cybersecurity companies that have popped up in recent years as well.)

Obama has been generally right about Russia for years. In a 60 Minutes interview last year, correspondent Steve Kroft kept trying to get Obama to admit that Putin was asserting his dominance over the US, but as Obama calmly (and correctly) explained, what Russia is doing in Syria and Ukraine is not borne out of strength, but out of desperation. The idea of using our military purely to “show strength” against Russia in some sort of macho capacity may only make things worse.

One of Obama’s best moments during the 2012 debate was mocking Mitt Romney for calling Russia the US’s “number one geopolitical foe,” quipping “the 80s called and wants their foreign policy back.” Yet this has now been turned into an attack on Obama by the very same people who seem to be almost wishing that Russia returns to its cold war status as Enemy No1.

The Obama administration seems intent on trying to negotiate a deal with Russia in Syria. Putting aside the flawed rationale for bombing Syria at all, this seems like the entirely logical move – yet it barely gets mentioned by the various parties who are currently fanning the Russia-is-the-enemy flames.

By the way, Reuters reported last week how Obama’s comments on Russia in Syria have been borne out by reality: Russia has realized that their airstrikes in Syria aren’t having the effect they thought they would (beyond killing a lot of civilians).

All this is not to say that the allegations against Russia aren’t disturbing. And no one is saying the US should be best friends with Russia or that they shouldn’t be publicly criticized. If they are trying to disrupt the US election for whatever reason, it’s a significant story and cause for alarm for anyone concerned about the sanctity of our elections. But as Obama calmly stated the other day: “We are moving into a new area where a number of countries have significant capacities. And frankly we have more capacity than any other country, both offensively and defensively.” We know that the NSA, after all, is authorized to hack political parties in other countries as well.

Yet agitating for yet another foreign policy crisis and ratcheting up the pressure on the administration to “do something” – even if no one knows what that is – is only going to make things worse. The goal should be de-escalating the chances of a larger war, not finding ways to encourage it.

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm

Trevor Timm is a co-founder and the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. He is a writer, activist, and legal analyst who specializes in free speech and government transparency issues. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and has also contributed to The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, Harvard Law and Policy Review, PBS MediaShift, and Politico. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorTimm

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