Paranoia About Trump and Russia is Dangerous for Our Foreign Policy
The consequences of the last McCarthy era were steep and lasted a generation; we can't afford a repeat.
The myth that Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin’s puppet just won’t die, even though ample evidence demonstrates that the president’s policy toward Russia has actually been surprisingly hardline and confrontational. Such pervasive paranoia has led to a rebirth of McCarthyism in the United States and is preventing a badly needed reassessment of U.S. foreign policy. In short, threat inflation with respect to Russia and an obsession with the phantom danger of presidential treason continues to poison our discourse.
The end of the exhaustive FBI and Mueller commission investigations into “Russia collusion” was never going to put the treason innuendoes to rest. Subsequent developments, such as unsupported charges that Moscow paid financial bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan, served to keep the narrative alive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi epitomized the ongoing efforts to make imputations of disloyalty stick. “With [Trump], all roads lead to Putin,” Pelosi said in late June 2020. “I don’t know what the Russians have on the president, politically, personally, or financially.”
In a September 21 Washington Post op-ed, former New York Times correspondent Tim Weiner echoed Pelosi’s perspective. He asserted that
despite the investigation by former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, despite the work of congressional intelligence committees and inspectors general — and despite impeachment — we still don’t know why the president kowtows to Vladimir Putin, broadcasts Russian disinformation, bends foreign policy to suit the Kremlin and brushes off reports of Russians bounty-hunting American soldiers. We still don’t know whether Putin has something on him. And we need to know the answers — urgently. Knowing could be devastating. Not knowing is far worse. Not knowing is a threat to a functioning democracy.
Only visceral hatred of Donald Trump combined with equally unreasoning suspicions about Russia, much of it inherited from the days of the Cold War, could account for the persistence of such an implausible argument. Yet an impressive array of media and political heavyweights have adopted that perspective.
As during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, challenging the dominant narrative entails the risk of severe damage to reputation and career. In September 2020, TheIntercept’s Glenn Greenwald disclosed in an interview with Megyn Kelly that he had been blacklisted at MSNBC, primarily because he’d disputed the network’s unbridled credulity about Russia’s alleged menace and President Trump’s collusion with it. When Kelly asked him how he knew he was banned, Greenwald responded: “I have tons of friends there. I used to go on all the time. I have producers who tried to book me and they get told, ‘No. He’s on the no-book list.'”
Although an MSNBC spokesperson denied that there was any official ban, the last time Greenwald had appeared on a network program regarding any issue was in December 2016, just as the Russia collusion scandal was gaining traction. The timing was a striking coincidence. Greenwald insisted that he was told about being on the no-book list by two different producers, and he charged that his situation was not unique: “[I]t’s not just me but several liberal-left journalists — including Matt Taibbi and Jeremy Scahill — who used to regularly appear there and stopped once they expressed criticism of MSNBC’s Russiagate coverage and skepticism generally about the narrative.”
It would be bad enough if blows to careers were the extent of the damage that paranoia about Russia and Trump had caused. But that mentality is inhibiting any effort to improve relations with a significant international geostrategic player that possesses several thousand nuclear weapons.
The opposition to any conciliatory moves toward Russia has reached absurd and toxic levels. Critics even condemned the Trump administration’s April 2020 decision to issue a joint declaration with the Kremlin to mark the date when Soviet and U.S. forces linked up at the Elbe River during World War II, thereby cutting Nazi Germany into two segments. The larger purpose of the declaration was to highlight “nations overcoming their differences in pursuit of a greater cause.” The U.S. and Russian governments stressed that a similar standard should apply to efforts to combat the coronavirus. It should have been noncontroversial, but some condemned it as “playing into Putin’s hands.”
That theme has been even more prominent since Trump’s decision to move some U.S. troops out of Germany. Even some members of the president’s own party seem susceptible to the argument. During recent House Armed Services Committee hearings, Congressman Bradley Byrne invoked Russia. “From a layperson’s point of view, it looks like we’ve reduced our troop presence in Europe at a time that Russia is actually becoming more of a threat,” Byrne said. “It looks like we’re pulling back, and I think that bothers a lot of us.” Such arguments have been surprisingly common since the administration announced its plans in late spring. Allegations that Trump is “doing Putin’s bidding” continue to flow, even though some of the troops withdrawn from Germany are going to be redeployed farther east in Poland—a step the Kremlin will hardly regard as friendly.
George Beebe, vice president and director of programs at the Center for the National Interest, aptly describes the potential negative consequences of fomenting public fear of and hatred toward Russia. He points out that
the safe space in our public discourse for dissenting from American orthodoxy on Russia has grown microscopically thin. When the U.S. government will open a counterintelligence investigation on the presidential nominee of a major American political party because he advocates a rethink of our approach to Russia, only to be cheered on by American media powerhouses that once valued civil liberties, who among us is safe from such a fate? What are the chances that ambitious early-or mid-career professionals inside or outside the U.S. government will critically examine the premises of our Russia policies, knowing that it might invite investigations and professional excommunication? The answer is obvious.
Indeed it is. America went through such stifling of debate during the original McCarthy era. The impact lasted a generation and was especially pernicious with respect to policy toward East Asia. Washington locked itself into a set of rigid positions, including trying to orchestrate an international effort to shun and isolate China’s communist government and see every adverse development in the region as the result of machinations by Beijing and Moscow. The result was an increasingly futile, counterproductive China policy until Richard Nixon had the wisdom to chart a new course in the early 1970s. This ossified thinking and lack of debate also produced the disastrous military crusade in Vietnam.
America cannot afford such folly again. Smearing those who favor a less confrontational policy toward Moscow as puppets, traitors, and (in the case of accusations against Tulsi Gabbard) “Russian assets” will not lead to prudent policies. Persisting in such an approach will exacerbate dangerous tensions abroad and undermine needed political debate at home.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.