The Baneful Foe
At a briefing with the House Intelligence Committee on February 13th, intelligence officials told lawmakers that the Russians are continuing to meddle in US elections in the run up to the 2020 presidential elections later this year. During the confidential meeting, officials supposedly said the purpose of the meddling was to re-elect President Trump. The president was furious, primarily because California Representative Adam Schiff attended the meeting and was likely to leak any information that was damaging to the president’s reputation or that delegitimized his election.
He gave the acting National Security Director, Joseph Maguire, a tongue lashing for authorizing the briefing even though the House Intelligence Committee has the right and the responsibility to know if the Russians are interfering with the election. The president later fired Maguire and his deputy although White House sources said that this move had been planned for a while. Maguire was replaced as acting director by Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist who is currently the US Ambassador to Germany but who has very little intelligence experience.
Republicans belittle the likelihood of Russian election interference on the President’s behalf, noting that he has been tough on the Russians and has placed very severe economic sanctions on them. But the Mueller Report on the 2016 elections stated that the Russian interference occurred “in sweeping and systematic fashion.” I do not doubt that the Russians attempted to sow doubt and dissension in the 2016 election and are continuing to do so in the 2020 elections as well. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Russians purposefully allowed their meddling to be discovered because the discovery sows even more dissension than the meddling.
They are not interfering in our elections because they like Trump or that he is an asset of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), they are doing it because they hate America. Russian President Vladimir Putin still longs for the glory days of the Soviet Union, not because communism was so great, but because the Soviet Union was a vast empire that controlled many vassal countries in the Eastern bloc. The USSR was feared and respected by other countries and the United States was responsible for its collapse. Putin wants to recreate the aura of the USSR, not its economy.
It is quite possible that the Russians are trying to tilt the election in the favor of President Trump despite his tough economic sanctions. Enduring the brunt of economic sanctions is the 21st century equivalent of the Red Badge of Courage. Despite the sanctions, Putin remains popular in Russia. And even though President Trump is not a knowing asset of the FSB, he is reliably manipulable. Confronted by the insubordination of the insufficiently loyal Maguire, the president installed a Trumpist who could be relied upon to place his loyalty to President Trump above his loyalty to America. I am sure that Putin smiled at the thought of President Trump receiving consistently skewed intelligence from his intelligence services going forward.
President Trump’s obsession with money also skews his national priorities. He has berated NATO allies for their insufficient contributions to the NATO budget. And, further, he hesitated in confirming his support for the Article 5 pledge to come to the aid of any ally that is attacked. These actions have unnerved traditional allies who may now have to seek other alternatives to the US defense umbrella such as Japan’s recent move to change its pacifist constitution.
Money was also the root of his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that, in addition to creating a vast trade agreement, would have created a bloc of nations united against Chinese expansionism. The cost of maintaining US troops in support of the fight against ISIS led him to abandon the Kurds who had done the bulk of the fighting in Syria on our behalf.
So, Trump has weakened NATO, abandoned the Syrian opposition, alienated Turkey, unnerved Japan and sowed confusion throughout the Western nations. Why wouldn’t the Russians want him reelected?
The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders has also been advised that the Russians are meddling in favor of his efforts to gain the Democratic nomination to run for president. Sanders, who was also an admirer of the Soviet Union and who also admires the dictatorial leaders of Russian allies such as Venezuela and Cuba, wants to reduce defense spending to redirect the funds to his vast entitlement programs. He would clearly withdraw US troops from the Middle East and might also support withdrawing them from forward positions with our allies. He would also drop the sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and other countries that the Russians support.
So, Vladimir Putin is smiling at the prospect of a Trump/Sanders presidential election. Talk about a win/win scenario. The purpose of the Russian meddling is to undermine the confidence of Americans in our democratic institutions. A Trump/Sanders contest would merely be the proof of the effectiveness of Putin’s manipulations.
I recently watched the History channel’s three-part series on George Washington. It was generally very good, and I highly recommend it. The portrayal of Washington was less flattering than the one I originally learned as a child. We used to put our revolutionary heroes on a pedestal (literally). But Washington was vain, arrogant and had a bad temper; and the mini-series attempts to show some of that. Much of his dislike for the British Army arose from the fact that, being a colonial, he was not considered suitable for the British officer corps. His early military adventures as part of the Virginia militia were disastrous and the series showed that Washington’s hasty actions at Fort Duquesne precipitated the French and Indian War. He lost more battles than he won but his ability to retreat from the battlefield meant that the army remained intact for another day.
Despite his flaws, Washington was a great leader. You do not have to be perfect in order to be great man. So what made him such a great leader. He was not a great orator and he rarely smiled (because of his bad teeth). For me, it was his integrity and his faith in the principles of the republican form of government. When the Revolutionary War was over, he resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and, thereby, reaffirmed the civilian control of the military: prompting King George III to say that if, “he did (this) he would be the greatest man in the world.” He could have been a king, but when his second term as president was over, he retired and returned to Mount Vernon, thereby affirming that democratic elections can promote a peaceful change of government.
So how would have George Washington acted on reports of Russian interference. He addressed this issue in his Farewell Address.
“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence - I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens - the jealousy (here he means to be on guard or watchful) of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it.”
The principled response to foreign influence must be impartial and bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats are weaponizing Russian interference to try and gain advantage over each other, exactly what Washington feared. President Trump must subordinate his desire for personal loyalty to the loyalty to the American form of republican (little r) government and work with both Republicans and Democrats to expose Russia’s nefarious role and restore the public’s faith in our elections. In other words, be more Washingtonian.