Putin, Trump And The Isolationist Left

There is some sympathy for the idea that the U.S. should try some kind of entente with Vladimir Putin -- that’s he’s not such a bad fellow.

One of the oddities of the whole Trump/Putin/CIA affair is that some on the left are sounding not all that different from Donald Trump. That is, there is some sympathy for the idea that maybe the United States should try some kind of entente with Vladimir Putin ― that’s he’s not such a bad fellow.

This is more than a little strange, since it puts well known leftwing defenders of Putin’s Russia, such as emeritus Princeton Professor and Nation Magazine contributor Stephen Cohen, in roughly the same camp with Trump apologists. 

 My favorite recent example was an op-ed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, one of the most rightwing members of Congress. After insisting that Putin had nothing to deal with flipping the U.S. election, Rohrabacher added: 

“As far as dealing with the Russians, FDR, Churchill and Truman cooperated with Stalin to defeat Hitler. In this generation, we need that same sort of cooperation with Putin to eradicate the Islamic State. We may even work with him to deal with emerging challenges from Iran and China.”

Ah, yes, a former leader of the Young Americans for Freedom warmly invoking Stalin. You can imagine Rohrabacher’s reaction if, say, Barack Obama had been playing footsie with Putin.

But it’s worth asking whether a different view of Putin and the U.S. national interest is entirely crazy.

Some leftwing Americans seem to have a more indulgent view of Putin than the foreign policy mainstream on several grounds, which range from delusional to worth considering on the merits. In part, this may be a lefty habit of fondness for Russia that dates to the period before communism collapsed. But it also reflects a different view of geo-politics and the national interest.

Some of the more dubious arguments include these: 

It’s not definitively proven that it was Russia that hacked the DNC. (Come, on, people, of course it is.)

Yes, Russian intelligence has done some nasty stuff, but so has the CIA. Look at all the elections overseas that the US has flipped. Is the CIA now our friend? (Okay, fair point, but we still get to defend our own democracy from foreign mischief.) 

Russia is not all that different from the U.S. It has an opposition press, elections, free dissent, and so on, and the U.S. is far from a perfect democracy. (Sorry, but in the U.S., the government doesn’t poison you for disloyalty to the regime, and the opposition actually gets to win elections. Putin is a thug.)

Three other arguments at least require serious engagement:

Russia has nuclear weapons roughly equal to our own. Don’t we want a new détente rather than a new arms race? (Sure we do, but it’s Trump who is threatening a new nuclear buildup. Putin may soon have buyer’s remorse.)

We may not love Putin, but there are in fact areas of common interest where the US and Russia could be working together, such as defeating ISIS. Look at Syria, where US policy was floundering as hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. It took Russia to bring about a peace.

(Yes, U.S. policy was a failure, but Putin’s puppet, Assad, made a desert and called it peace. From a Kissingerian, “realist” viewpoint, a stable, brutal, Saddam-style dictatorship may have been the best outcome available, but Syria is now one of the best recruiting posters for ISIS)

The U.S. brought Putin’s meddling on itself, by squeezing post-Soviet Russia with the enlargement of NATO and intervening in Ukraine. Russia has always feared encirclement on its near borders. It’s only prudent to acknowledge that Russia as a great power has a legitimate sphere of influence. (I don’t buy this, but I don’t quite reject it out of hand.)

 Putin and his defenders have contended that as part of the deal to reunify Germany in 1990, a commitment was made to then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S. would not expand NATO. Under Clinton, and his Czech-born Secretary of State Madeline Albright, this commitment was reversed. But Gorbachev himself has challenged that interpretation, saying that the deal extended only to stationing of troops in the former East Germany. 

One can argue about how Russia might have squeezed Eastern Europe and the Baltics in the absence of NATO, but the evidence from Ukraine (not a NATO member) is not exactly reassuring.

On the other hand, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is in fact divided on how hard a line to take with Putin, and Putin’s particular aminus against Hillary Clinton reflects the fact that she has been one of the hardest liners.

Within the Obama Administration, there were well-documented disputes between the State Department and the Pentagon over how closely to cooperate with Putin in trying to broker a cease fire in Syria. 

David Warsh, whose blog, economic principals, usually deals more with economic topics, recently posted an extensive quote from New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler’s recent book, Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power (Random House 2016). The book was reported and written at a time when presumed Democratic nominee Clinton was seeking to establish herself more emphatically as a foreign policy hawk. 

Landler reports how Clinton and Obama tangled over whether and how to squeeze Putin. Consider this extract posted by Warsh, recounting a White House dinner where Obama and a dozen foreign policy experts are discussing whether to supply Ukrainian forces the fighting Russia with antitank missiles:

 As the second hour began, Obama… threw down a startling gauntlet.

“Will somebody tell me, What’s the American stake in Ukraine?” he asked he his guests.

Strobe Talbott [Deputy Secretary of State for seven years under President Clinton], who spent much of his professional life studying the Soviet threat during the Cold War, was slack-jawed. Preserving the territorial integrity of states liberated from the Soviet Union was an article in faith in Washington, at least for those of Clinton’s generation, who had watched the Soviets invade Hungary in 1956. Talbott argued that the West couldn’t simply stand by while Russia had its way with one of its neighbors. Stephen Hadley, who had been George W. Bush’s national adviser, echoed him. “Well, I see it somewhat differently than you do,” Obama replied. “My concern is it will be a provocation and it’ll trigger a Russian escalation that we’re not prepared to match.” That was a legitimate concern, Talbott granted, but not a reason to give Russia a free pass. “Having known Hillary for a long time,” he told me [Landler wrote],”I’m pretty sure she would have seen the invasion of Ukraine in a different way, mainly as a threat to the peace of Europe.”

Subsequently, Clinton made clear that she would take a tougher line against the Russians, and warmly praised Talbott.

Conclusion 1: You get why Putin was so determined to keep Clinton from the White House.

Conclusion 2: There is indeed more than one way to deal with the Russians. Yet given Trump’s bizarre temperament, his impatience with subtleties, and the fact that he plainly owes Putin one, he is about the last person in the world whom we can trust to devised a more nuanced policy towards Russia that still protects the U.S. national interest.

Conclusion 3: Roosevelt’s alliance with Stalin made sense at the time. Not so an alliance of American progressives with Trump.


Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. 

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