Polonium, Bullets, and the Gulag. How the Cold War Got Hot – Fast.
an activity that is potentially very dangerous.
For those working in the Trump White House, each day must feel like a round of Russian roulette. “Will this be the day that the bullet fires? Or will we escape to live another 24 hours?” If it were me, after a year of this drama, I would hope for the metaphorical bullet. At least the story would move along to the next phase toward some kind of conclusion. Instead, they along with the rest of America (and really – the entire world), must suffer through tweets, lies, obfuscations, and the rambling notions of a man, at best, unfit for the presidency and at worst, a Russian asset.
In their book, Russian Roulette, The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, veteran journalists and investigative reporters David Corn and Michael Isikoff have produced an exceptional historical account of what the Russians did during the 2016 presidential election and the steps the Obama Administration took to respond to those actions. They address Trump’s long-standing interest in Russia and potential motives behind Russian interference. Perhaps most importantly, they make it clear that 2016 was not an anomaly and that the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between the Kremlin-backed and potential cut-out attorney and Trump campaign senior staffers was a mere needle in the proverbial haystack in this information war.
Spoiler Alert: The Russians Engaged in a Multi-Lateral Campaign to Meddle in the 2016 Presidential Election to Damage Hillary Clinton and Elect Donald Trump. The Trump Campaign Colluded with the Russians in this Effort Because it was Mutually Beneficial to Do So. It worked.
There are still several remaining questions. What laws were broken and by whom? When will the United States and her western allies impose crushing sanctions on Russia as punishment for Putin’s interference? What are we doing to protect ourselves, foreign and domestic, from cyber warfare and misinformation? What is Trump hiding?
Corn and Isikoff’s objective is not to answer these questions, but their narrative clearly spells out how our failure to respond to Putin’s attack in real time, or perhaps better stated, our “choice of response” led us to this point. It is that narrative that makes Russian Roulette an important historical account of what will be seen in the future as a significant turning point in American history.
Foreign Policy is Hard
Rather than regurgitate Corn and Isikoff’s narrative here, I thought it more worthwhile to point out a few personal observations and conclusions. First, if you or someone you love, needs a comprehensive understanding of the “Russia Thing,” this book is for you. This is a “catch me up” document that reads quickly and that under different circumstances could be mistaken for fiction. If you find yourself in this camp, download it today.
I do not fall into this group. Admittedly, there were details that I did not know. For example, the authors explain why the FBI investigation into the Clinton private email server was part of the public debate, but the counterintelligence probe into Trump – Russian collusion was not. The FBI received referrals from Inspector Generals from both the State Department and the Intelligence Community (IC) to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email server hosted in her home. Inspector Generals are independent bodies set up within each executive branch agency with the sole purpose of investigating their organization. They are the independent auditors. When the FBI receives investigative referrals from IGs, it must inform Congress (as part of Congress’s oversight responsibility). It should come as no surprise that the investigation would then become public.
Counter-intelligence investigations are by their very nature, secret. Corn and Isikoff discuss, in detail, the lengths taken by the IC and FBI to maintain the secrecy of Russian hacks and later, Trump campaign contacts.
James Comey’s July 2016 pronouncement that Clinton would not be prosecuted but that she and her team had acted recklessly is put in context, with additional details given surrounding the emails later found on a laptop shared by Huma Abedin and her husband Anthony Weiner (yeah, that guy). This does not mean that the reader will walk away in agreement with how Comey handled the probe or his role in it, but it will illustrate facts that are often overlooked in a cable news environment focused on sensationalism and emotion.
That brings me to my next point, and that is that foreign policy is hard. Moreover, foreign policy decisions are hard. You may be having a “well, duh” moment, but the banality of my statement is intentional. It is incredibly easy to look back on an event and conclude that the President made a good or bad decision based on what came next. If everything worked out, the decision was correct. If not, the President not only made a bad decision but should have known it was a bad decision when it was made. Simple logic dictates that would require the President and his advisors to read the future. I have commented in previous posts that D-Day could have gone one of two ways; had it been a colossal failure (and the odds were in favor of that result), our view of Eisenhower would be entirely different. Not only would he never have been president or Supreme Nato Commander but the arc of American history would have been fundamentally changed.
Corn and Isikoff detail the Obama Administration’s response to what they would gradually learn was a massive assault on the American electoral process by Russian intelligence services. They take the reader inside the debate within the administration; between the hawks (who advocated for a blistering attack on the Russian economy) and the doves (who wanted Russian assistance with Iran and Syria and thus favored a balanced response). They force you to think about events that happened at that time, and the information that policymakers had at their disposal when making recommendations to President Obama. No one knew how events would play out; they had to act based on what they knew and what they feared “could happen.” Basic risk analysis drove administrative decisions.
Readers may walk away with the conclusion that the Obama Administration blew it (as some former Obama officials now admit), or that the President himself was too cautious in responding to Putin’s aggression. Those are all fair criticisms and certainly, I have considered them myself in hindsight. But I think it important for Americans to understand, and not just in this instance, the many factors that drive foreign policy decisions. It is never black and white. Sometimes it is just luck.
Further, readers are reminded that much of what we know today about Trump’s ties to Russia and the Kremlin’s multi-faceted disinformation campaign was not yet known to policy-makers at the time the Obama Administration was faced with how to respond to the attack. And at the height of the Russian attack (October 2016), as Obama officials debated what to tell the public about Russian meddling on behalf of Trump and to the detriment of Clinton, Trump himself was howling about voter fraud and raising doubts about what was then viewed as a probable Clinton victory. Readers will come to understand the conflicting priorities within the Obama Administration and how the President’s primary objective – preserving American’s trust in our elections – was a major factor in what some would argue was a tepid response.
We pass judgment on Obama and his teams’ decisions based on what we know now, not on what they knew then. Isikoff and Corn provide the context not only of this scene but of other key moments in 2016 saga.
Finally, Russian Roulette provides some insight into Putin’s motives and perspective of global events. We cannot forget that Putin came of age during the height of the Cold War when the Soviet Union was a global superpower on par with the United States. He has stated that the break up of the U.S.S.R. was the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” although, at the time (2005), experts disagreed on the true intent behind the words. Thirteen years later, Putin’s goal is much clearer. He wants Russia to be a major player in global politics.
Russian Roulette provides background and context to Putin’s thought process. As a Russian nationalist, he views everything that NATO and the United States do through a paranoid lens; to Putin, all western action is directed toward Russia. When in 1999 NATO bombed Belgrade, Yugoslavia during that country’s civil war without the consent of the United Nations, Putin believed the United States was exercising its newly found unilateral global power against Moscow. Subsequent American acts including Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and U.N. bombing of Qaddafi’s troops (2011) signaled to the Russians that if we wanted to, we could topple the Kremlin. The Arab Spring (2010), and the rise of democratic elements throughout the Middle East (although they failed) scared the autocratic Putin as like-minded dictators came under pressure to reform.
We have repeatedly heard that Putin’s objective is to destabilize western democracies and break up the European Union. But that is a means to an end. The ultimate goal is a return to 19th-century style “Great Powers” politics, in which nation-states pursue policy ends based on their own best interests and not on regional or collective security. Putin knows that his economy has been looted by kleptocrats and that he does not have the true popular support of the Russian people. His military is a shell of what it was during the Cold War and he cannot subsidize satellite states as the Soviet Union did during the days of the Warsaw Pact. The only way Russia can emerge as a great power is to break up the collective security and economic alliances of the west, alliances that are built on mutual benefits to all member states.
Understanding that goal puts current events into a much larger perspective and raises the stakes for 2018 and beyond. What measures are we taking to counteract this assault? Let’s not kid ourselves, this war is every bit as destructive as one fought with bullets and bombs. Russian Roulette makes that perfectly clear.
I’ll close this review of Russian Roulette, by encouraging readers to consider how extreme partisanship hindered and even prevented our government from taking decisive action. You will learn how President Obama placed country over party when he did not publicly call out the Russians’ actions in support of Trump and against Clinton. He did not want to inject additional partisanship into an already polarized campaign, especially without the support of GOP Congressional leadership. Will history view Obama as weak in this moment of crisis? Or heroic because he prioritized the integrity of the election? (You have to read the book to understand the idiosyncrasies).
We are told that faith in our institutions is at an all-time low. To a significant degree, I hold the Republican Party accountable for that drop. For decades, GOP politicians have preached the denigration of government, decried liberals as the enemy and stripped the public good from our lexicon. Certainly, the Democrats have had their fair share of issues and other institutions have met with scandal. But as you read Russian Roulette, and consider “how we fix this mess,” I challenge you to find a solution that does not include building back the public sector and government institutions that support it. That means ousting politicians committed to this extreme version of conservatism in which all government is bad government unless it carries a weapon or drops a bomb on foreign soil.
2016 did not just happen. Trumpism did not just happen. Mueller will get the bad guys but we have to figure out how to eliminate the rest of the scourge from our political process and it starts with getting rid of those that favor polarization over the public good.