By Carl Boggs
The steady deterioration of American political discourse seems to have reached its lowest ebb in historical memory, visible in the rightward shift of both Democrats and Republicans. One sign is the frenzied Democratic assault on Republicans from the right, especially in foreign policy. Another is the resounding silence on the most crucial problems facing humanity: threat of catastrophic war, nuclear arms race, ecological crisis, health-care debacle, the worsening miseries of global capitalism. Tabloid-style spectacles have increasingly filled media space. Still another sign is the intensifying anti-Russia hysteria promoted by unhinged liberals in Congress and the corporate media, reminiscent of the worst McCarthyism.
Another example of this descent into absurdity is the book Russian Roulette, by liberals Michael Isikoff and David Corn – Beltway writers whose shrill anti-Russian crusade has received highest accolades by the New York Times and such promoters of the permanent warfare state as Rachel Maddow (whose gushing endorsement is on the back cover). The subtitle – “The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump” – reveals the political obsession of Democrats (and plenty of Republicans) for the past eighteen months, to the exclusion of most everything else. More than anything, the volume illustrates the staggering level of ignorance in the U.S. about Russian history and politics, crude propaganda easily displacing coherent analysis. (A more general – and devastating – review of Russian Routlette by Paul Street appeared earlier in CP.)
Russian Roulette is filled with 300 pages of meticulous detail – Trump’s (actual, planned, or failed) business dealings in Russia, endless goings and comings of shady characters and “operatives”, electronic transactions across the great divide, a litany of speeches, conferences, dinners and other activities, computer hacking and trolling schemes, breathless tales of lurid behavior, Russians clandestinely entering the U.S., reports on secret files, and of course the menacing specter of Russian “oligarchs”. All this is believed to demonstrate Putin’s ruthless war against America, his supreme goal being to “destroy our democracy”, instill chaos, and neutralize U.S. as well as European geopolitical power. As we have been ritually informed by CNN and kindred venues, cyber warfare (for now) is the Russians’ preeminent mode of combat – and it has been so devastatingly effective as to paralyze normal American politics. It was cyber warfare, moreover, that delivered the 2016 presidential election to the Russia-loving Trump.
Trump, it turns out, was guilty of the most grievous sin: he went so far as to mention the possibility of cooperative relations with Russia, the idea being to help fight terrorism and better manage the nuclear threat. His other crime was to question the neocon/Democratic/Clintonite agenda of regime change in Syria – an agenda (still alive) that could bring military confrontation with a nuclear state. Trump’s fanciful hope meant that he had to be a willing “stooge” of Putin and his nefarious plots.
It turns out that the myriad claims, charges, and allegations set forth by Isikoff and Corn amount to little of substance – surely nothing to prove that Putin has been conducting warfare against the U.S., or that Russians had decisively influenced the 2016 presidential election. Evidence that Trump conspired in any way with Putin or his imagined assemblage of henchmen, former KGB agents, cyberwarriors, and oligarchs is similarly lacking. Yet, for the authors the only way Hillary Clinton could have lost the presidency that was rightfully hers was because the Russians intervened, with help from the treacherous Wikileaks, the authors writing: “Never before had a president’s election been so closely linked to the intervention of a foreign power.”
According to Isikoff and Corn, the scheming Russians managed to infiltrate party machinery, elections, and the Internet, deploying squads of cyberwarriors from the notorious Internet Research Agency and other sites. They also placed ads in Facebook and other social-media sites. How many American voters were even exposed to such fare, much less swayed by it, cannot be established, but vague popular awareness of this Russian skullduggery did not appear until the Mueller investigation called attention to it more than a year after the election. No one denies the actuality of Russian trolling and hacking enterprises. The problem for the authors here is that such operations are so universally practiced as to be rather commonplace, while it has yet to be shown they can alter election outcomes in the U.S.. Moreover, in this area of intelligence work (as in so many others) the U.S. has long been unchallenged world champion.
The authors describe Putin as an “autocratic, repressive, and dangerous Russian leader” who routinely kills his political enemies and crushes dissent. Such oversimplified descriptions of Putin and the Russian scene in general are set forth as established truths, no discussion or evidence needed. Why a duly-elected leader (with 76 percent of the vote earlier this year) can be so ritually dismissed as a ruthless tyrant Isikoff and Corn never get around to explaining. Were election irregularities or illegalities reported? Were voters threatened or coerced? Is Putin any more authoritarian than the vast majority of leaders around the world? Would Netanyahu in Israel, Macron in France, or Merkel in Germany (all elected by much slimmer margins) be described as simple despots?
As for Trump, Russian Roulette seeks to demonstrate that the candidate and then president somehow “aided and abetted Moscow’s attack on American democracy.” That’s right: the White House served as a willing, secret accomplice in Putin’s criminal schemes. So many Trump associates –Paul Manafort, General Michael Flynn, Carter Page, et. al. – had indeed previously traveled to Russia, talked and dined with Russians, and (gasp) seemed to want something of a cordial relationship with business and other interests there. (Why this should have been shocking is hard to fathom, since in 2016 and 2017 the Russian Federation was still an integral part of the global capitalist economy and the U.S. has been doing plenty of business there since the early 1990s.)
The authors’ unfounded generalizations are based mainly on three sources, most crucially the all-important (but phony) Christopher Steele “dossier” that was said to implicate Trump in a variety of offenses and scandals that even Isikoff and Corn admit is comprised of “sensational and uncorroborated claims” – that is, fake news. They argue, further, that Putin hacked DNC communications and passed along damning emails to Wikileaks, but investigation (by William Binney and others) suggests they were more likelyleaked than hacked; Julian Assange firmly denies that the files (never viewed by the FBI) came from any state actor. The establishment media paid little attention to the damning content of these emails, so their impact on the election in any case could not have amounted to much. Even the Mueller Committee report earlier this year, which indicted 13 Russian trolls and hackers, conceded they had no appreciable impact on the 2016 election results.
In Russian Roulette the authors seem infatuated with the American “intelligence community” – purported last word on the question of Russian interference — writing confidently but misleadingly: “The intelligence community has identified Moscow as the culprit in the hacks of Democrats in October .” One cannot help wondering what sort of “community” Isikoff and Corn have in mind.
By “intelligence community” do they include the NSA, an agency that has been spying on Americans and the world with impunity for years while a spokesperson (James Clapper) lied about it before Congress? Could they be referring to the CIA, active for decades in clandestine and illegal operations such as unwarranted surveillance, sabotage, torture, drone strikes on civilians, and regime change (by military force, not just computer meddling) in Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and too many other countries to list here, all aided and abetted by flagrant lies and cover-ups? Perhaps they have in mind the FBI, an agency long dedicated to destroying popular movements (Civil Rights, anti-war, etc.) through COINTELPRO and other illegal operations. Or the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), which for decades has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars on a futile but disastrous and racist War on Drugs, filling jails with people targeted, harassed, jailed, and ruined for the crime of using banned substances?
Can Isikoff and Corn actually take seriously the murky claims of the most Orwellian surveillance apparatus in history? Do they believe that this “community” is subject to any meaningful oversight and accountability? Their remarkably clueless account – basic to virtually every narrative in Russian Roulette – reveals an astonishing disconnect from postwar American (and world) history.
The central Isikoff/Corn thesis is not only devoid of factual support but is totally inverted: the present state of affairs is exactly the opposite of what they argue. There has been no “Putin’s war on America”, but rather sustained U.S. (and NATO) warfare against Russia – political, economic, ideological, military – since 2000, if not earlier. The Russians occupy the other, targetedend of the power spectrum, obvious to any serious observer. Who has invoked harsh and repeated economic sanctions on whom? Who has militarily encircled and targeted whom? Who has deployed nuclear weapons at whose border? Who has financed and orchestrated a hostile coup adjacent to whose territory? Who has carried out non-stop ideological hysteria against whom?
In the world as it now exists, it is worth asking whether Russia could plausibly assume the role of imperial aggressor in its dealings with the world’s leading superpower? Consider that in 2017 the total Russian GDP as barely 1.5 trillion dollars, roughly one-twelfth that of the U.S. ($19.5 trillion) and not even one-tenth that of the European Union ($14 trillion). Military spending breaks down accordingly: nearly one trillion for the U.S. and $250 billion for NATO compared to $61 billion for Russia. As for intelligence operations, the imbalance worsens – a budget of six billion dollars for the FSB and military GRU combined, compared to $75 billion for Washington not counting another $45 billion for the DEA and DHS (Department of Homeland Security) in tandem.
In fact Russia, despite its nuclear prowess, does not have the leverage and resources to threaten American (much less broader Western) geopolitical objectives – the real “threat” coming from the stubborn fact of Russian independence that was squelched during the Clintonite 1990s, when Washington used its power to reduce post-Soviet Russia to puppet status under Boris Yeltsin. During the Yeltsin period the U.S. was never content with simple “meddling” in Russian affairs: it propped up a weak president, dismantled the public infrastructure, coddled an emergent stratum of oligarchs, and then spent $2.5 billion to sway the 1996 election in favor of a weak and unpopular Yeltsin. Only with Putin’s emergence in 1999 did the nation regain a semblance of independence, restoring economic and political sovereignty, much to the disgust of Western ruling interests.
American intrusion into domestic Russian affairs is never explored by Isikoff and Corn, as it would undermine their one-sided tract. Nor do the authors have much to say about the post-Soviet eastward march of NATO, which allowed the U.S. and its allies to partially encircle Russia with both nuclear and conventional forces. The opening salvo of this strangulation gambit was President Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” war against Serbia ending with the 1999 U.S./NATO bombings. This was followed by President George W. Bush’s decision to scrap the crucial ABM Treaty with Russia in 2002 before invading Iraq in 2003. CIA and State Department efforts to orchestrate regime change in Ukraine, ultimately achieved in 2014, came soon thereafter.
The ongoing Western campaign of economic warfare, media propaganda, and military provocations directed at Russia has only served to bolster Putin’s legitimacy, as shown by his overwhelming support in the 2018 election. Yet Isikoff and Corn can write: “He [Putin] was a Russian nationalist to the core. He wanted to extend Russian power. . . [as] an autocrat in the long tradition of Russian strongmen and had little interest in joining the club of Western liberal democracies – or winning its approval.” Given the rampant imperial behavior of Washington and its European partners, Putin would have to be certifiably insane to respond in a manner that would permit further Western encroachments.
It is the expansionist U.S./NATO alliance that has maliciously targeted Russia, not the other way around. Putin is surely a nationalist, but why not? That just means he will fight for Russian national integrity against Western efforts to isolate and destabilize the country. Any cyberwarfare activities launched by the Russians will appear to the rational observer as quite intelligible, a proven method to gain information about the plans of a vastly superior adversary overflowing with anti-Russia venom.
Like other Russia-bashing ideologues, Isikoff and Corn see terrible “oligarchs” everywhere, all naturally cozy with Putin. We have references to “Putin and his oligarch friends,” as if large-scale business interests could somehow have nothing to do with government. They note that payments to IRA trolls “were being made through a holding company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch and restaurateur close to the Russian president and known as ‘Putin’s chef”.” Along with this disturbing revelation we are told that a “clique of [oligarchic] hardliners was able to outgun Russian moderates – a group including Yury Kovalchuk, billionaire owner of Rossiya bank and friend of the president “known as Putin’s banker”. It would be a mistake to overlook the infamous Aras Agalarov, a real-estate mogul identified as “Putin;s Builder”. Left out was any reference to “Putin’s Gardener”.
The authors deftly uncover a clique of diabolical oligarchs colluding with Putin to launch attacks on the West. It might be useful to clarify the meaning of “oligarch”. One generally held definition is that they are exceedingly wealthy and powerful business and financial elites – the same interests that Washington zealously supported in Russia during the 1990s. These would be aligned with the very corporate and banking interests that dominate the global capitalist system, everywhere seeming to enjoy close relations with their governments. American oligarchs (multibillionaires) in fact far outnumber their Russian counterparts – 565 to 96 – and possess many times the wealth and influence. Further, if Washington really despises oligarchs, why did it install billionaire Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine ruler after the 2014 coup?
For Isikoff and Corn, Hillary Clinton might have been a terribly flawed candidate, but her loss nonetheless would not have occurred in the absence of “Putin’s underhanded intervention”. No one questions whether Russian trolls and hackers were active in 2016 – or that Facebook ads were placed – but no evidence of their actual effectiveness has been presented, much less their capacity to determine an election outcome.
As they righteously celebrate the virtues of multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance, liberal Democrats – now more than ever a neocon party of war – have come to embrace just the opposite: fierce hostility against other nations and cultures, smug provincialism, a recycled McCarthyism that spews hatred at even the slightest dissent from super-patriotic orthodoxy. They pretend victim status when they are the ones targeting, attacking, smearing, and warmongering.
Worse yet, to satisfy their narrow political agendas they are perfectly ready to risk military confrontation with a nuclear power – a conflict that could lead to unprecedented global catastrophe. Nowhere in this parochial text do the authors express the slightest concern for the horrors that might result from years of U.S./European hostility toward Russia. Despite an unlevel economic and political playing-field, it is worth remembering that in nuclear matters Russia has rough parity with the West. This might deter the neocons of both parties or it might not, the sad reality being is that liberal Democrats exemplified by Isikoff and Corn have little to offer the world beyond continuous war shrouded in a flimsy, desperate identity politics.
Carl Boggs is the author of The Hollywood War Machine, with Tom Pollard (second edition, forthcoming), and Drugs, Power, and Politics, both published by Paradigm.