|Leaf from a Manichean book, 8th-9th c., from the ruins of Karakhoja in the Taklamakan, Xinjiang, Museum für Indische Kunst, Berlin, via Silk Road Seattle.|
Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, tackles the tergiversations ("Our Russia Problem") on Russia policy of Republican presidential candidates over the past 16 years, from George W. Bush gazing enthusiastically into President Putin's soul through Willard Mitt Romney fighting the Soviet threat 30 years after its death to Donald Trump getting seduced by Putin's honeyed tongue. It just goes to show—what?—how incoherent the Democrats are:
Over the same period, Democrats have gone from mocking George W. Bush’s naïveté about Putin … to mocking Mitt Romney for describing Russia as America’s main geopolitical foe … to spinning theories about Trump being an agent of Russian influence that seem ripped from a right-wing periodical circa 1955.Sorry, but Bush was ridiculously naïf at that point, though his administration eventually reached a more cautious approach.
Romney, too, was eminently mockable for calling Russia "the main geopolitical foe". It wasn't quite as bad as the way Douthat puts it, as if Romney was ignoring China or "radical Islamic terrorism" (say the magic words, Ross)—Romney was talking about Russian conduct in the UN Security Council, not geopolitics in general. But he was totally wrong about that: Russia was doing many things the US didn't like much, but the traditional Russian obstruction in the Security Council hardly existed any more, at all; in fact Russia was especially cooperative on the issues the US cared most about, Iran and North Korea. Obama's debate wisecrack was clearly justified:
The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years….When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.(The Soviet line was a slip of the tongue in the 2012 campaign, but Freud would have had something to say about it:
Attacking the Obama administration for "withdrawing in leading the free world," former Navy Secretary John Lehman argued on the call that the president's policies open the nation up to "huge new vulnerabilities."Especially since Lehman's mental stability was seriously questioned by colleagues back in the Reagan administration Evil-Empire days.)
As for Trump, he obviously couldn't be a Russian agent—he's far too undisciplined—but he's certainly surrounded by people who could: Paul Manafort may have been forced out by publicity on his Russia-Ukraine connections, but equally compromised Gazprom consultant Carter Page and RT contributor Michael Flynn are still there, Trump's new campaign manager Steve Bannon, ex-Breitbart, is a noteworthy Putin backer himself, and Breitbart's funding sources are mysterious enough that they might as well come from Moscow; and now Trump's shown up on RT himself, helpfully doubting that the Russian government had anything to do with hacking Democratic National Committee computers:
"I think it's probably unlikely. I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out. Who knows? But I think that it's pretty unlikely," he said. "I hope that if they are doing something I hope that somebody's going to be able to find out so they can end it, because that would not be appropriate."
King also asked Trump about Russian President Vladimir Putin's assertion that the hack was a "public service," even as he claimed the Russian government was not involved.
"I don't have any opinion on it. I don't know anything about it. I don't know who hacked. I'm not sure. You tell me. Who hacked? Who did the hacking?" Trump said."Probably unlikely" is a great phrase in the history of smart-sounding redundancy.
Putin himself, in his career from champion judoka to KGB station chief in East Germany to Fearless Leader, seems almost to have invented himself out of 1950s spy fiction anyhow.
But the establishment-Democrat attitude toward Russia has really been reliably more or less the same since the USSR collapsed, even as Republicans lurched between hysterias, and it's been based on the fact, which is really true, that Russia is complex: part empire struggling to be reborn, part failing petrostate, and all those nukes. It's not a real empire, just a collection of little strips of its old self in East Prussia and bits peeled off of Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, with the obstreperous and disobedient tribute states of Belarus and the Caucasus and Central Asia, and it's not likely ever to have the kind of weight and influence it did during the Cold War, but it can't be ignored, with its willingness to throw its military around and with the many really important areas where the US and the Federation should be working, and indeed want to work, together.
There can't be a simple policy because there's not a simple reality; the need is to be able to engage Russia in a lot of different ways on a lot of different tracks, and manage what can be managed, as Philip Gordon put it for the State Department in 2010:
The United States and Russia have significant common interests and where the United States and Russia have common interests, we should cooperate. Where we have differences, we will be honest about them, both in private and in public, and work to move the Russians to more reasonable positions. We will pursue a better relationship with Russia in our mutual interest and we will do so without sacrificing our principles or our friends. With these basic propositions as a guide, we have pursued a path of principled engagement.And the approach has not done too badly, bringing the huge new START deal of 2010, cooperation (not very effective) on North Korean sanctions, Russian entry to the WTO, the extremely important agreement on Iran's nuclear program, Russian cooperation in the Paris climate accord, the continued existence of the international space program, joint anti-piracy efforts, and cooperation on Afghanistan, and most recently another agreement to suspend hostilities in those parts of Syria where US and Russian forces are active which is supposed to end all Syrian government air attacks, open up besieged cities for food and medical supplies, joint US-Russian efforts against ISIS and the Nusra Front (which now claims to have broken up with al-Qa'eda), and a timetable for negotiating a new Syrian government. The last has really taken far too long, and nothing can excuse the suffering and death that have gone on while the world waited, but it's hard to see how more American belligerence would have made that better, and this time the path from cease-fire to final negotiations might really work, and it could be a very big deal.
Not that the Monsignor would care about that. What he's up to here isn't just setting up that false equivalence between Trump on the one hand and Democrats on the other; his intentions are more Manichean.
Because Ross claims to be a Christian, but he really belongs to that other early-medieval sect, the Manicheans, so deeply hated by St. Augustine, according to which the powers of Good and Evil are equally matched, and the important thing isn't to make the world a better place but to know which side you're on. It's the question "that both parties ought to be debating: Just how right was Romney?" Who's the embodiment of evil? And damn if he hasn't forgotten "radical Islamic terrorism" again: China or Russia, Russia or China?
If the last four years really are a Cold War 2.0 overture, then our approach to the Middle East and Asia needs to be refashioned with an eye toward winning a new twilight war with Moscow.
But if Beijing is, in the long run, a more important rival than Moscow — if China’s capacities and ambitions are more dangerous than Putin’s bold play of a weak hand — then we may need a path to de-escalation and wary cooperation with the Russian regime.It's to that end that he assembles his factoids and myths here. We have to have a singular enemy, dammit! An all-evil to our all-good. We just need to decide which one!
Update 9/12: Dr. Krugman channels me, naturally following the usual Times courtesy and not mentioning Douthat by name:
Weirdly, some people think there’s a contradiction between Democratic mocking of the Trump/Putin bromance and President Obama’s mocking of Mitt Romney, four years ago, for calling Russia our “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” But there isn’t: Russia has a horrible regime, but as Mr. Obama said, it’s a “regional power,” not a superpower like the old Soviet Union.