If anything can be said to be entertaining about liberals’ reaction to Putin’s possible role in the DNC leaks, it’s what it inadvertently reveals about the unexamined foreign policy assumptions they share with conservatives. Coming as it does on top of a long Trump history of weird Putin adulations, the possibility that Russia hacked the DNC emails and released them to benefit Trump has the mainstream liberal press buzzing with the kind of Red Scare talk we haven’t seen since the Cold War. Liberal outlets ranging from Alternet to Slate to Talking Points Memo are breathlessly citing figures from the “realist” and neoconservative GOP foreign policy establishment like John McCain, Max Boot and National Review, accusing Trump of “dangerous naivete” about Russian expansionism, and citing the “communist infiltration” of Henry Wallace’s campaign as a precedent (Kali Holloway, “Donald Trump: Traitor, Liar, Danger to the World,” AlterNet, July 31; Franklin Foer, “Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West, and it looks a lot like Donald Trump,” Slate, July 21; Allegra Kirkland, “McCain Backs Up Romney; Trump’s Foreign Policy is ‘Dangerous’,” Talking Points Memo, March 3). Regarding the first title, it’s always nice to see a liberal (and, however incongruently, self-proclaimed “Left”) publication sounding like the American Legion.
A few disclaimers before I get into the meat of things. First, I am not a Trump apologist; I think a Trump presidency would be uniquely catastrophic compared even to the godawful Mrs. Clinton, or to any U.S. president in my memory. Second, I don’t contest that Putin’s regime is autocratic, or that he has made aggressive wars against his neighbors. And third, I consider it quite disturbing that Russian intelligence may have hacked into the servers of a major U.S. political party. If the latter is in fact the case, Putin’s use of the information to manipulate the internal U.S. political process, and Wikileaks’ promotion of the increasingly odious Julian Assange’s personal agenda, rather than operating as a transparent, P2P platform, is even more disturbing.
With all that out of the way, though, the liberal or center-left framing of all these issues — and what it leaves out — sheds enormous light on the unquestioned assumptions about American power shared by liberals, “realist” conservatives, Reaganites and neoconservatives in the national security establishment.
In every case, Russia and other official enemies like Iran are viewed as uniquely aggressive, whereas the nature of American imperialism — which actually doesn’t even exist in their conceptual framework — is entirely defensive. We’ve already seen this perspective, exemplified by Neera Tanden’s (of Center for American Progress) email to Clinton in which she argued that, despite her purported distaste for policing the world, the U.S. was nevertheless “the only adult left in the room” when it came to maintaining a stable world order (presumably based on common neutral principles agreeable to the “international community”).
Let’s take all the liberal criticisms one at a time, starting with Trump’s admittedly bizarre praise for Russian strongman Putin (picture George Costanza: “Step off? You told Saakashvili to step off? That’s too much!”). You’d have a hard time finding such fulsome praise for a violent and oppressive foreign leader from more moderate American politicians — or would you? How about Hillary Clinton’s consistent defenses of Benyamin Netanyahu’s repeated murderous rampages into Gaza, or her expressed desire to take America’s relationship — not just with Israel, but personally with Netanyahu — to “another level”?
Putin’s intervention in Western political processes — backing right-populists and racist xenophobes like LePen, Berluscone, the Golden Dawn and British National Party, going way back before his support for Trump — is another major liberal point in his indictment. It’s decidedly odd, though, that such intervention in the internal politics of foreign countries should figure so prominently in critiques by Clinton backers, when one of the most notable critics is a former Director of Central Intelligence. The CIA would never intervene in the internal political affairs of another country, right? Other than Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Indonesia, Congo, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Laos, Cambodia, Chile, the rest of South America, Namibia and Angola, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Iraq, Honduras, Libya…
As for Putin’s aggression, it takes a unique set of blinders to call his 2008 altercation with Georgia, or his recent intervention in eastern Ukraine and occupation of the Crimea as aggression, while portraying as purely “defensive” the eastward expansion of NATO and the installation of a right-populist (and arguably neo-Nazi) regime in the Ukraine that is every bit as authoritarian as Putin’s.
I remember in August 2008 when there was a united front of talking heads on all the major cable news channels — CNN, Fox and MSNBC — referring to Putin’s “aggression” against Georgia. But the simple and inescapable fact of the matter was that Georgia initated the dispute by invading a province whose autonomy had been guaranteed by treaty — with Russia as a guarantor. It’s hard to escape the conclusion — as stated by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their “Propaganda Model” of the American media — that cable news, the wire services and major newspapers of record are every bit as slavishly subservient to the foreign policies of the American state as are the official media organs of any totalitarian regime.
In every case, whenever the U.S. maintains hundreds of military bases around the world (including on the very borders of “aggressors”), overthrows foreign governments, installs dictators, or actually invades and occupies other countries, it’s either an isolated “mistake” (like Vietnam or Iraq) that deviates from the general tendency of America’s foreign policy of promoting peace, stability and democracy, or a genuinely “defensive” measure in support of those same benevolent policy goals. As I recall some Democratic Senator saying on C-SPAN, during the ’90s debates on Bill Clinton’s Balkan wars, “I was taught in school that America never fights wars to add a dollar to its treasure, or a square mile to its territory.”
And in the official American ideology, echoed in perfect harmony by the mainstream press, any country that challenges, disobeys or attempts to secede from this neoliberal world hegemony enforced by the United States is an “aggressor.” For example Allegra Kirkland, in the article linked above, cites — with apparent approval — McCain’s warnings of not only a “neo-imperialist Russia,” but “an assertive China,” an “expansionist Iran, an insane North Korean ruler, and terrorist movements that are metastasizing across the Middle East and Africa.” I have a hard time thinking of any recent example of “expansion” or “assertion” by Russia, China or Iran that isn’t far overshadowed by the American state’s consistent history of expansion from its founding to the present day.
Today Russia’s military budget is a tiny fraction of what the United States spends on what it quaintly refers to as “Defense.” And how many military bases does the U.S. have around the world, compared to what Russia has outside its own borders. It’s hard to take talk of “expansionism” seriously when both the forces of the “defending” superpower complaining of the “aggression,” and the territories threatened by the “aggressor,” are on the immediate border of the “aggressor” and on the other side of the world from the “defensive” power.
Iran is an odd case of “aggression,” considering its regional footprint and ambitions are arguably far smaller than when it was a U.S. regional proxy under the Shah — and considering the U.S. encouraged and aided Saddam in an all-out blitzkrieg attack on the Islamic Republic (one of those examples of “making aggressive war on his neighbors” the U.S. later used to justify invading Iraq). And when the U.S. was preparing to attack Saddam (hated and feared by Iran, understandably, far more than by the U.S.), Iran offered to reach an accommodation by which it would aid the establishment of a stable, moderate Shia majority regime in cooperation with the U.S.
Those terrorist movements spreading across the Middle East didn’t just start spreading on their own. They got a lot of help. They are the cumulative result of Western intervention in the region going back to the Sykes-Picot Treaty (which divided the former territories of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France) and the Balfour Doctrine (which officially invited the Zionist colonization of Palestine). Wahhabism, the ultra-fundamentalist doctrine promoted by Al Qaeda and ISIS, was originally the official religion of the House of Saud, whose unification of the Arabian peninsula was actively supported by the U.S. Al Qaeda owes its origins almost entirely to the American effort to destabilize the USSR’s secular left-wing satellite regime in Afghanistan, and then to back anti-Soviet Wahhabist guerrillas there (because it seemed such a good at the time to give the Soviet Union its own Vietnam). And ISIS has its origins in both Al Qaeda Iraq POWs of the post-invasion U.S. counter-insurgency, and some anti-Assad guerrilla groups backed by the U.S. in Syria. It is, in other words, the cumulative blowback from a century of Western and U.S. imperialism.
As for Russia and China, they are certainly attempting to expand as regional powers and to exert greater power over their neighbors, at the expense of American desire for a unipolar world under its own hegemony. But it’s hard to imagine a course of regional expansionism on their part that would remotely match the United States’s record of regional expansion in its own hemisphere. Specifically, the regional expansionism (genocide against the native population, in addition to conquest) by which the United States established itself as a continent-sized nation in the first place, claimed a unilateral sphere of influence under the Monroe Doctrine, and overthrew virtually every single government in Latin America at least once, are measures Putin would be hard-pressed to match.
Imagine the situation reversed, with Russia or China having a navy of ten or so capital ships, unmatched by any other country in the world, maintaining carrier groups in the Caribbean and labelling the U.S. as a threat because its military forces exceed its “legitimate defensive needs.” Imagine them guaranteeing the territories of every country in Central and South America against U.S. military invasion. That’s the position the U.S. is in now, in enforcing a global political and economic order against regional powers, and in which it considers itself on the “defensive” against “aggressors.”
In other words the United States claims a unique right to determine who is the “aggressor” and “defender” in every conflict around the world, to define what military forces are reasonable for every other country’s “legitimate defensive needs,” to define as “a threat” any country that defies its will, and to define as “an aggressor” any country that attempts to deter or resist military attack by the United States.
It’s time to flush this “American exceptionalism” down the toilet, along with the official legitimizing ideologies of every other state in the world. The United States is a government like all others, and its primary function — like that of all other states, including Russia, China and Iran — is to serve as executive committee of the ruling class coalition that controls it. The only real difference is that, because the U.S. is the most powerful state in the world, it does the same thing as other states on a much larger scale. In this case, it acts not simply as the enforcer of a domestic class system but as enforcer of an international political and economic order created after WWII to serve the interests of capital on a global scale.
There are no “good” states. “Treason” against all of them — including the United States — is loyalty to the working people of the world.