Something weird is going on in American politics. (Yes, I know…) Julian Assange, who rose to fame by leaking the bloody and erratic day-to-day secrets of American foreign policy, is now reviled by the Left and enjoys a Strange New Respect on the Right. In both cases, the sentiment is fueled by partisan bias.
As Assange has shown himself to be a willing adversary of Hillary Clinton, and by extension an ally of Donald Trump, Clinton boosters and Trump defenders have taken their cues accordingly. But the larger question, raised both by Assange’s defenders and his adversaries, is how to deal with US-Russia relations.
As Assange has bothered Clinton and fit into the Trump narrative, Clinton has responded tersely, as she did when asked to confirm whether she had joked–or not–about droning Assange. But as Assange’s adversaries try to turn him into a nerdier, more ineffectual Lavrentiy Beria, it’s worth asking whether Russia should be as central a focus of U.S. foreign policy as it has been, and as Hillary Clinton would certainly have it be.
And befitting his professed admiration for Vladimir Putin, Trump has indicated that he’d like to destroy the free press in the United States and morph into our own Putin, unencumbered by law or public opinion. A less civilized Silvio Berlusconi with nuclear weapons.
The bigger problem, for everyone here, is that Putin and Russia are weak, and hardly warrant the attention Trump and Clinton heap on them.
Despite Russia’s standing during the Cold War or its nuclear arsenal today, it can do little to harm people who live in the United States. Russia makes a good bogeyman because of the living history of the Cold War, but Clinton and other Russia hawks should really knock it off.
It’s true that Russia is the only country to invade and occupy a foreign country since the United States did it in 2003. (We had to sail halfway around the world to do it.) It’s also true that Putin harbors grand aspirations about reassembling something like the Soviet empire across eastern Europe. But the thing to do with those aspirations is to make clear that they cannot be attained, with or without the United States.
Russia’s economy is roughly the size of Brazil’s and Belgium’s combined. Its population is under severe duress, and a Russian baby boy has a shorter life expectancy than he would have in the 1950s. And as I pointed out here,
Its military, though large and nuclear-armed, is hardly in better shape. While beating up on the poor Georgian army in 2008, the Russian side experienced serious operational difficulties. Without a sophisticated, nationwide air defense system, Georgian forces shot down five Russian planes, including a Tu-22 M3 strategic bomber. Russian ground forces suffered severe communications and targeting difficulties. The Russian military is weak and constrained, and the further it gets from home, the weaker and more constrained it gets.
With Hillary Clinton, it is tough to separate the personal from the political. Whether she’s turned into a clenched Russia hawk because she’s bitter about the campaign emails hack, or because she thinks it’s good politics, or because she believes in confronting Putin, it’s terrible policy. Gearing up for a big confrontation with Russia is unnecessary, dangerous, and likely to be costly. If this were being written in Estonian, the argument would be different, but from thousands of miles away, Russia looks a lot like what it is: a weak, defensive state with ambitions and reach that can only extend around its borders, not around the globe.
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