Ignorance, arrogance, and hypocrisy: US and Russian/Soviet Relations

In a recent article in Washington Monthly magazine, James Bruno, a former diplomat, concluded that “(T)he United States has just endured a carefully planned and well-orchestrated assault against its democratic form of government in the form of a grand cyber-theft of information and targeted release of that information.” As evidence, he quotes from a report, backed by seventeen governmental intelligence agencies that, “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the United States’ presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the United States’ democratic process, to denigrate Secretary Clinton, and to harm her electability and potential presidency” (1).

Based on this information, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship have called for an immediate investigation into whether Russia “deliberately interfered with and corrupted our electoral process to favor the election of Donald Trump” (2). Before we support Moyer’s rush to judgement, we should first consider the sources of the charges against Presidents Putin and Trump. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA) are almost certainly at the forefront of this issue.

Since its inception in 1947, the CIA has shifted from being a source of news and information to practicing covert action and subversion. They quickly began funding front groups while undermining democratic regimes in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, Iran, Italy, Japan, Guyana, Ecuador, Columbia, Argentina, Greece, and others.

We live in a permanent-war society, and the scope of both real and cold wars that we have fought in remains enigmatic. United States (US) military and civilian intelligence bureaus have failed to understand the social, cultural, and political dynamics of countries like Korea, China, the Soviet Union (USSR), Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Central America, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The consequences of our ignorance have been disastrous and have led to millions of casualties, environmental degradation, and needless expenditures. Upon leaving the presidential office, Dwight Eisenhower passed on a report to his successor, John F. Kennedy, that called for a re-evaluation of CIA covert actions. The report concluded that, “the CIA’s concentration on political, psychological, and related covert action activities have tended to distract substantially from the execution of its primary intelligence-gathering mission” (3).

The CIA was also involved for years in mind control experiments (Project Artichoke). It lied and gave fake intelligence. It also penetrated domestic groups, e.g., the National Student Association, Radio Free Europe, Ford and Asia Foundations, and prominent universities like Harvard and the Covert Operations Study Group there. It was also involved in assassinations, secret wars, and spying on American citizens through tapping phones and opening first-class mail from overseas (3).

Such questionable activities merge into the National Security Agency’s illegal spying on American citizens. After 9/11 President George H.W. Bush authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans to look for possible terrorist threats. This eventually led to Operation Prism which followed Bush’s Terrorist Surveillance Program. Prism collects private electronic data from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, AT&T, Verizon, AOL, and Sprint. The Agency also uses upstream wiretaps to gather information from underwater telecommunication cables.

NSA spy programs collect metadata and content. Metadata consists of phone records which reveal who is communicating as well as the times and the lengths of conversations. Prism reviews the contents of emails, chats, tweets, and cloud-stored files.

The companies involved in Prism, President Obama, and NSA director James Clapper all lied about the domestic and international monitoring of electronic communication. The President told the American people that, “(T)he bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the US is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well” (4). When Edward Snowden released downloaded NSA files, we all learned that the agency was not only spying on Americans but also on leaders and key individuals in the Bahamas, Afghanistan, Israel, the United Kingdom, China, Brazil, and Germany. Turkey was also surveilled and Obama discovered that Recep Tayyip Erdogn’s regime had provided training, weapons, and supplies to ISIS and helped fund the CIA’s creation of the Islamic State.

In March of 2013, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that the government “was not ‘wittingly’ collecting information on millions of Americans.” A few senators on the Committee had been briefed earlier on NSA activities and knew the Director was lying.

For James Bamford, the chronicler of the NSA (5), this sweeping-up of countless bits of information prevents the spy agencies from seeing the complete picture. Thus, the NSA and other intelligence organizations have missed important developments and terrorist plans like the implosion of the Soviet Union, the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 and 2001, the Boston bombings, and so on.

The failings and crimes of the CIA and the NSA do not refute their charges that Vladimir Putin’s regime violated US cyberspace or, more seriously, colluded with Donald Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, the historical record of intelligence services should give us pause when considering their charges until we see the evidence.

Another question we should be asking is why Russian-American relations have deteriorated to the point that some are talking about the return of the Cold War. It is obvious that the President, Congress, the National Security Council, and the media blame Putin, his hypothetical policy of expansionism, and the resurrection of Soviet power for damaging relations between the two countries.

It may be more accurate to blame the US and the European Union (6). The Cold War ended in 1989 when US President George H. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev declared, after meeting in Malta, that their countries were no longer adversaries.

Soon after the Malta agreement, American leaders declared we had won the Cold War and therefore did not have to change our foreign and international policies, essentially saying, “Let others change.” Gorbachev responded saying, “this point of view is mistaken, and it undermined what we had envisaged for Europe—mutual collective security for everyone and a new world order. All of that was lost because of this muddled thinking in your country, and which has now made it so difficult to work together. World leadership is now understood to mean that America gives the orders” (7).

Quickly, the Clinton Administration and Europe expanded NATO to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. Then in 2004, President Bush extended NATO to Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The Kremlin was not overly concerned because, except for the small Baltic states, none of these countries bordered Russia (8).

This changed in 2008 when the West turned toward Georgia and Ukraine. Soon after the breakup of the USSR, two regions in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, declared their independence from the country. With the help of the US and others the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashuil, invaded South Ossetia hoping to unify Georgia before it joined NATO. This lead to a Russian invasion and a warning that the Medvedev and Putin administration would not tolerate such a move (9).

President Obama was critical of the Georgia incursion but the US and Russia still managed to work together to convince Iran to limit their nuclear program. Both presidents agreed to limit their nuclear stockpiles, and Obama withdrew the Eastern European Missile Defense System (10).

Ultimately the Republican and Democratic critics of Putin and the Russian State prevailed. They launched a two-point offensive against the Kremlin. First was the continued expansion of NATO. At a NATO summit in Romania in 2009, Albania and Croatia were admitted as members and the leaders of the Ukraine and Georgia were told they could eventual join as well. In 2004, NATO’s 5,000 troops were based in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria as a warning to the Russian government and its supposed imperialist ambitions (11).

For over three decades the US has followed a second strategy of changing domestic institutions to be more receptive to our views of democracy, corporate development, and free trade. Since the fall of the USSR, the following institutions have been created or modified: the National Education for Democracy (created by Congress in 1983 with the help of William Casey, Ronald Reagan’s Director of the CIA), the International Foundation for Election Systems (founded in 1987), the United States Agency for International Development, and private organizations like the Open Society Foundation organized by George Soros in 1993.

The activities of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) illustrate what these non-governmental organizations try to do. In a recent article, Carl Gershman, the Director of NED, outlined his plan for Ukraine as follows: “So the strategic goal for people who want to see a more peaceful and democratic world is a Russia that, like the Ukraine, wants to be democratic and a part of Europe. Right now, such a scenario seems very unlikely. But if Ukraine succeeds, there is the possibility for a better outcome. That is why Ukraine’s struggle for democracy, independence, and territorial integrity has consequences for the whole world. And it’s why the US has a profound stake in its success. By standing with Ukraine, we are not merely supporting their struggle. We are also defending our own national security and advancing the values of human freedom that America, with all its troubles, continues to represent”(12).

The National Education Foundation is backed by Victor Yanukovych who was elected President of Ukraine in 2010. His administration began to crumble after a European Union summit in November of 2013 when President Yanukovych rejected an invitation to join the Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement. He preferred that Ukraine become a member of Russia’s Common Union with other Commonwealth Independent States. Almost immediately, different organizations along with the Obama Administration began planning the overthrow of Yanukovych’s regime. NED turned against Yanukovych because he was not following Carl Gerschman’s plan to politically and economically transform Ukraine and eventually Russia. NED then turned to financing Yanukovych’s opponents.

Meanwhile Secretary Victoria Nuland was meeting with right-wing leaders of the Svoboda and Fatherland political parties. When it became clear that the Ukrainian President was not going to renegotiate with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, Nuland arranged a meeting with “government officials, opposition leaders, civil society, and business people to encourage agreement on a new government and plan of action” (13). A coup was in the making. On February 22, the Ukraine Parliament insisted that Yanukovych resign. Later the President, fearing for his life, fled to Russia.

The western media’s response to the coup was celebratory. Victor Yanukovych’s corrupt regime had finally ended and was replaced by a more democratic and western-oriented government. In truth, the new government was not the result of popular pressure but a carefully planned coup d’état. It was not democracy in action but a putsch led primarily by right-wing (some would say neo-fascist) activists.

In February President Putin sent troops to occupy Crimea, an area that is critical for the Russian Black Sea Naval Force’s access to the Mediterranean Sea. Later the people of Crimea, of which sixty percent are Russian, voted to join the mother country. Putin also increased his defensive forces along the Ukraine-Russia border.

Reactions from American leaders were vitriolic. Hillary Clinton compared Putin to Hitler. After Russian troops moved into Crimea, Secretary Kerry said, “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” Evidently Kerry forgot about why he had fought in Vietnam, and then, as a US Senator voted to invade Iraq. Then there was John McCain, arm-in-arm with the leader of the extreme right-wing Svoboda Party, swearing “America is with you.” President Obama warned Putin against Russian military activity inside Ukraine.

Only a few people in the media have bothered to understand Putin’s reasoning. Logically he was responding to the threatening actions from Europe and the US which further destabilized Ukraine, threw out an elected president, and supported a government the West was more comfortable with. Wouldn’t any sensible national leader respond to such actions particularly on the country’s border? Imagine if Russia were part of a collective alliance like the now defunct Warsaw Pact, which was formed by the Soviet Union to control military forces in Eastern and Central Europe. What would be the American response to this alliance if they covertly tried to convince Canada and Mexico to join their defensive pact?

After the Russian occupation of Crimea, the neoconservatives and liberal internationalists assume Putin was trying to resurrect the Soviet empire. Hence the stationing of NATO troops in the Baltic states and Poland. Further, if we don’t stop President Putin’s interference in Georgia and Ukraine, Russian dominance will only be strengthened.

It is doubtful that Russian leaders have imperial ambitions. One informed student of international relations explains it thus: “If Putin were committed to creating a greater Russia, signs of his intentions would almost certainly have arisen before February 22, 2014. But there is virtually no evidence that he was bent on taking Crimea, much less other territory in Ukraine, before that date. Even Western leaders who supported NATO expansion were not doing so out of fear that Russia was about to use military force. Putin’s actions in Crimea took them by complete surprise and appear to have been a spontaneous reaction to Yanukovych’s ouster. Right afterword, even Putin said he opposed Crimean succession, before quickly changing his mind” (14).

Conclusions

There is a constant and disturbing level of ignorance in carrying out American foreign and military policies. We seldom understand the internal, cultural and political dynamics of the countries we fight covertly, e.g., Ukraine, and overtly, e.g., Vietnam. Our misinformed forays invariably lead to social instability, environmental/physical destruction, and countless fatalities. The list of examples grows every year from Afghanistan to Zaire.

In another way, the American people are victimized by the permanent war economy. We spend trillions on war and armaments while severely underfunding education, healthcare, housing, transportation, social welfare, and environmental improvements.

Furthermore, the citizenry is deprived of the intelligence it requires to make informed decisions. The “prevailing climate is shaped in an ‘inside-outside’ dynamic, whereby the narrative that defines any given crisis is set on the ‘inside,’ by administration officials and sitting ambassadors, and reinforced on the ‘outside,’ by the establishment media. What it amounts to is a process of preemptive agenda-setting. In the case of policy regarding Syria, Libya, and Russia, the inside-outside dynamic has shaped a narrative that seeks to delegitimize the regimes in question thereby obviating the need for nuance and crowding out the moral, consequential, or realist implications of any given policy decision. It is therefore exceedingly difficult, even for a chief executive with Obama’s obvious talents, to depart from this orthodoxy because of the way it narrows the spectrum of ‘acceptable’ policy options” (15).

American foreign policy is built on two ideologies: neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism. Neo-conservatives aim to maintain US dominance of the world through military power, covert interventions, and, if necessary, war. It is imperative that we control Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, the expansion of China’s influence, and a resurgent Russia.

Modern neo-conservatism’s origins derive from the free market economies supported by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The emphasis was on individual freedom “within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (16). Conceivably individualism alone could lead to anarchy. Therefore, a free-wheeling economy requires an authoritative government. The American solution is neo-conservatism based on a strong military built on “cultural nationalism, moral righteousness, fundamentalism, and family/pro-life values” (17).

After the demise of the USSR, the US could have helped build new and perhaps realigned diplomatic relations. President George H. Bush and the NSC chose unilateralism instead. Our political and national security policies rest on five pillars: (1) guard against the re-emergence of a competing world power; (2) rely on preemptive military force which may include use of nuclear weapons; (3) preserve a strong nuclear arsenal while discouraging other countries from developing nuclear capability; (4) retain the pre-eminent responsibility for righting the wrongs that threaten our interests and our allies; and (5) defend “access to vital raw materials, e.g. oil in the Persian Gulf, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorist threats to American citizens” (18).

Neo-conservativism converges nicely with liberal, or humanitarian, interventionism. President Obama, US Ambassador Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, and many others argue that we should be concerned not only with foreign relations but also with the internal dynamics of countries that don’t adopt the universal rights that Americans believe in. “These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose our leaders” (19).

For liberals, the justification of war or subversion is based on what Ambassador Power calls our “responsibility to protect” or “R2P.” In her view, we had to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya because he intended to kill thousands of civilians, we should overthrow and punish Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and we should penalize Russia for interfering in its neighbor’s desire to align with the West.

Predictably, the judgements of many interventionists are often based on pretense, confusion, and poor intelligence. Thus, the bombing campaign in Libya turned the country into a failed state with violent clashes with ISIS and other radical factions. The removal of Assad would probably lead to mass killings of Alawites who are the basis of his support and protection. Both Clinton and Power thought the removal of Saddam Hussein would lead to a better life for Iraqis. Now we want to threaten Russia with the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia overlooking the danger of nuclear war.

Finally, there is the Russian hacking scandal and the supposed threat to the integrity of elections in the US. This is an example of the inside-outside dilemma confronting American citizens. The media only covers what the intelligence services say based on anonymous sources. It is reasonable to assume that, given Hillary Clinton’s hawkish nature and intransigence, Putin did not want her elected.

The tone and intensity of the charges against the Russians are perplexing. After all, the information that was uncovered is true and should have been available to the American public. For example, we learn from Ms. Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street executives about financial regulation that, “the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry.” She therefore endorses self-regulation which was a major factor that led to the 2007-2008 recession.

Ms. Clinton also gives us a few hints about her foreign policy ideas. She told executives at Goldman Sachs she “would ‘ring China’ with missile defense unless they cooperated in reining in North Korea’s missile program. We’re also going to put more of the American naval fleet in the China sea area.” She claimed that the US has as much right to the Pacific as China because we liberated the area in WWII.

The files from the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) confirmed that the organization was working only for the nomination of Hillary Clinton and disregarding the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The e-mails suggest the DNC was undermining the democratic process.

The passing of American political parties from representing their constituents to fundraising from organizer’s voters to candidate-centered campaigns leads to a second point: our leaders, who spend most of their time passionately denouncing threats from supposed adversaries, are disinterested in the demise of American democracy?

The core meaning of democracy is that ordinary people can be politically active and influential. Unfortunately, today, Americans are voting in smaller numbers and refusing to support either the Democratic or Republican Parties. The US ranks thirty-first among developed countries in the percentages of voters (average fifty-two percent) and registered voters (fifty-one percent).

Democracy depends on the involvement of citizens in making policy and ensuring they are well represented. Today however, people are more passive. They no longer belong to active groups like parent-teacher associations, labor unions, veterans’ organizations, and so on. Citizens do not have the information they need to make informed choices. Political candidates are only interested in electoral success not in educating their supporters. The media no longer strengthens our democracy. “News programs today don’t inform listeners. They make them more ignorant. News outlets today do not take the longer view, and consider what might be in the general interest of all” (20).

The result of these and other changes is that the national government is no longer responsive to the majority of people in the US. The most damaging evidence comes from the study of congressional decision-making and representation. In a large and significant study Martin Gilens reviewed survey responses to almost two thousand questions asking whether individuals support a proposed change in government policy in one of six issue areas: welfare, taxes, economic policies, foreign policy, national security, and social welfare (health, education). Gilens then compared the interviewee’s answers with what the government did.

Gilens discovered that most policy changes favored by the middle class did not become law which is not surprising given our conservative constitutional system. What is revealing though is the relation between income and congressional responsiveness. The poor, as well as Latinos and other minorities, have virtually no voice in national decision-making. This should surprise no one; what is startling is that Congress does not listen to the middle class either. Middle-class recommendations are only acted on when high-income earners have the same recommendations; thus “median-income Americans fare little better than the poor when their policy preferences diverge from those of the well-off.” Most middle-income Americans think that public officials do not care much about the preferences of ‘people like me.’ Sadly, the results presented above suggest they may be right” (21).

Gilen’s critique of American policy-making is inescapable: “There has never been a democratic society in which citizens’ influence over government policy was unrelated to their financial resources. In this sense, the difference between democracy and plutocracy is one of degree. But by this same token, a government that is democratic in form but is in practice only responsive to its most affluent citizens is a democracy in name only” (22). Where is the outrage?

Mass is a Professor Emeritus of Politics and Government who lives with his wife, a cat, and two Golden Retrievers in Bellingham, Washington.

End Notes

Bruno, James (January 13, 2017) “Tinker, Mogul, Spy?” Washington Monthly.

Moyers, B. & Winship, M. (January 18, 2017) “We Cannot Wait for History to Judge. We Need the Truth About Trump and Russia Now.” Common Dreams.

Weiner, Timothy (2007) The Legacy of Ashes. The History of the CIA. (New York.)

Obama, Barack “Speech on N.S.A. Phone Surveillance” Transcript.

Nazaryan, Alexander, (June 10, 2013) “The N.S.A.’s chief chronicler.” The New Yorker.

Mearsheimer, John (October, 2014) “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusion that Provoked Putin.” Foreign Affairs

Vanden Heuvel, Katrina & Cohen, Stephen (November 16, 2009) “Gorbachev on 1989” A Nation Interview.

Mearsheimer, John “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” page 2.

Schwirtz, M., Barnard, A., and Chiver, C.J (August 8, 2008) “Russia and Georgia Clash Over Separatist Region.” New York Times.

Warrick, Judy (November 3, 2016) “From ‘reset’ to ‘pause’: The Real Story Behind Hillary Clinton’s Feud with Vladimir Putin.” Washington Post.

Schmitt, Eric (January 1, 2017) “U.S. Lending Support to Baltic States Fearing Russia.” NY Times.

Gershman, Carl (January 22, 2015) “A Fight for Democracy: Why Ukraine Matters.” World Affairs Journal.

Parsons, Renee (March 5, 2014) “Chronology of the Ukrainian Coup.” Counterpunch.

Mearsheimer, J. (October, 2014) page 6.

Carden, James (November 14, 2016) “A Foreign Policy Held Hostage.” The Nation.

Harvey, David (2005) A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism. (Oxford University Press) page 82.

A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism page 84.

“Allianz Global Wealth Report” (2015).

Goldberg, Jeffrey (February 16, 2016) “The Obama Doctrine.” Atlantic Magazine.

Wolfe, Alan (2006) “Does American Democracy Still Work?” Yale University Press.

Griffin, J. & Newman, B (2007) “The Unequal Representation of Latinos and Whites” The Journal of Politics Volume 69, Number 4, pages 1032-1046.

Gilens, Martin (2005) “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness” Public Opinion Quarterly pages 788-789.

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