Still Not Grasping the Nettle

I was happy to see that former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is acting on those April suggestions that he stand for the Senate in Utah, assuming seven-term Senator Orrin Hatch,  83, intends to retire next year.

No one, including Sen. John McCain, is better qualified than Romney to ride political herd on President Donald Trump, protecting both the Republican Party and the nation at large from the president’s rampages.  That’s the reason Romney suffered the humiliation of interviewing for the job as Secretary of State that Rex Tillerson took. But Romney needs to be in the arena.

Trump continues to campaign, not just against the mainstream media but against the national intelligence establishment as well. In a nearly half-hour talk yesterday with reporters aboard Air Force One accompanying him on his Asia tour, Trump lambasted former CIA director John Brennan, former national intelligence director James Clapper, and former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump  fired earlier this year.

Of the authors of a January report that described Russian government meddling in the 2016 election, the president said,

I mean, give me a break – they’re political hacks. You have Brennan, you have Clapper and you have Comey. Comey’s proven now to be a liar and he’s proven to be a leaker, so you look at that. And you have President Putin very strongly, vehemently says he had nothing to do with that.

Accountability in this case depends on the choice of the verb, as in whatever the meaning of “is” is. Did Putin personally direct the campaign of hacking, leaks, and false-flag operations in social media?  Did he authorize it? Or, as he himself implied last May, did he idly stand by while various Russian “patriots” went to work?  Yesterday Trump himself invited attention to the significance of the personal pronoun:

[Putin] just – every time he sees me, he says, “I didn’t do that.” And I believe – I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it. But he says, “I didn’t do that.” … Don’t forget, all he said is he never did that, he didn’t do that. I think he’s very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.

There is no good reason to think the Russian efforts affected the outcome of the election, The New York Times to the contrary. That is a false trail, now employed by Trump as a convenient decoy to excite doubts about motives and distract from the real issue, which is the Russian cyber-assault on the US election. That campaign was an unprecedentedly bold and seemingly heedless act – a puzzle, you might even say.

Oddly enough, Trump has yet to mention the root cause of Putin’s pique, though the Russian president has often spoken plainly about it over the last ten years. His resentment stems from a series of similarly bold acts on the part of the United States, only some of them surreptitious, which have been offensive to Russia since 1993. They include various unilateral humanitarian interventions; regime changes, both successful and attempted; strategic arms races; and, especially, NATO expansion since 1997.

Nor has the mainstream press examined in any detail the history of the last twenty-five years. The newspapers turn out articles on the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, creating wrinkles in time, as the saying goes, folding events over upon themselves in such a way as to avoid the messy facts of the years since the Soviet Union dissolved itself in 1992, creating fifteen newly-independent states.

In fact, the Clinton administration started the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite what the Russians took to have been a promise made by the George H. W. Bush administration in exchange for Soviet acquiescence to the reunification of Germany – the Cold War alliance would not move further east.

Instead, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were admitted to NATO membership in 1997; two years later the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were enrolled in “membership action plans,” plus Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, and Macedonia. The George W. Bush administration voted to admit the first seven nations in 2004, and, in 2008, announced its intention to eventually enroll Georgia and Ukraine as well.  Albania and Macedonia joined in 2009, and Montenegro in 2017.

To the Russians – and many others around the world – it seemed, as historian Andrew Bacevich wrote last week in The American Conservative, that the Americans were “piling on.”

Taking cognizance of the Russian side of the story is, for the moment, a kind of forbidden speech in the US – perhaps because US decision-making over the years is, in retrospect, hard to defend. Perhaps Romney, as a former standard-bearer, will broach the issue, if only to defend the actions taken since 1993. Trump seems incapable of raising it himself. Perhaps the newspapers will put Team Bs of their own on the case.  Putin said yesterday that “Russia is ready to turn the page and move on.”  Trump, too, clearly wishes it were possible.  It only it were that simple!


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