What could be more predictable? The growing uproar over charges that Russia’s government waged a cyber-focused disinformation campaign to influence the last U.S. presidential election has let loose a flood of positively inane statements and arguments on both sides that show politics at its absolute worst.
Even worse, unless both Democrats and Republicans – and the various conflicting camps within the two major parties – get their act together quickly, the odds of further attacks and all the damage they can cause to American governance will only keep shooting up.
Let’s start with those who have expressed skepticism about these allegations, including regarding the substance of yesterday’s intelligence community report concluding that “President Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine confidence in the democratic process, denigrate [former] Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton [the Democratic nominee], and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
Can they really be serious in contending that the intelligence agencies’ publicly expressed judgments don’t pass the credibility test because no smoking gun or any other compelling evidence has been published? Do they really want the CIA etc to reveal whatever human and technical sources and methods they rely on? Do they really believe that any effective counter-hacking strategy can be developed or continued after disclosing that information?
The insistence on definitive proof, moreover, amounts to terrible advice for making foreign and national security policy generally. It seeks to apply to the jungle realm of international affairs the standards of the American legal system. President Obama’s years in office should have taught Americans how dangerously childish it is to believe that relations among sovereign countries are governed by commonly agreed on rules and norms, that the world is on the verge of this beatific state of affairs, or even that significant progress is being made. And Americans should hold shadowy world of spying and counter-spying to a simon-pure standard?
A more defensible rationale for doubting the intelligence community’s work emphasizes its past major blunders. And from what’s been made public, they have indeed been all too common and all too troubling. (Please keep in mind, though, that successes often cannot be made public.)
Nevertheless, if a president or president-elect has no faith in a high confidence judgment of this importance from his intelligence agencies, then it’s clearly time to clean house. If the next administration does indeed decisively reject the community’s work on this matter, it will have no legitimate choice but to replace it leaders.
Back to the genuinely ditzy positions: statements that the Russian hacking failed to influence the course of the election. I personally believe this, and shame on those partisans who keep insisting that this interference prevented former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from winning the White House or that it delegitimizes to any extent Donald Trump’s victory.
But should the United States count on Moscow – or any other actor – continuing to fail? Should it wait to respond forcefully until a U.S. adversary succeeds? Shouldn’t Washington capitalize on its adversaries’ current evident shortcomings in this regard and focus on punishment and deterrence? Simply posing these questions should make clear how obvious the answers are.
A final major objection to hammering the Russians represents another more reasonable judgment call, but it’s still fatally flawed. It’s the argument that Washington needs to softpedal the hack attack because the United States has a vital interest in improving relations with Moscow.
As I’ve written, opportunities for better ties with Russia abound, and they should be pursued. But that’s no reason to let Moscow off lightly for its cyber-aggression. In the first place, in any mutually beneficial relationship, boundaries need to be drawn. This is especially true given how much stronger and wealthier than Russia the United States is. If an effort to subvert America’s democratic processes doesn’t qualify, count on further, even worse provocations by Moscow.
Just as important, this approach overlooks a crucial reality: Clear indications that Russia has an incentive to cooperate with the United States in fighting Islamic extremism and terrorism haven’t appeared because Moscow is in a charitable, or even helpful, mood. They’ve appeared because these are vital interests as well for Russia, which both borders the dysfunctional Middle East and rules over its own Muslim populations.
In other words, Moscow has plenty of incentive to play ball with Washington on the Middle East whether the United States retaliates sharply for the hacking or not. And if the Russians don’t understand that, then there’s little hope of any form of meaningful cooperation.
Yet the actual and potential inconsistencies and hypocrisies of those urging tough retaliatory measures are equally troubling. Some are exclusive to Democrats. For example, the sanctions imposed on Moscow by the Obama administration for the hacking seem pretty modest for actions that it claims “demonstrated a significant escalation” of Russia’s “longstanding” efforts “to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.”
And at the same time, the outrage voiced at Moscow contrasts conspicuously with reactions to China’s successful attack on the federal Office of Personnel Management, in which the records of some 22 million U.S. government employees – including classified and confidential information – were compromised. Indeed, President Obama never publicly blamed China’s government nor announced any responses.
Most important, however, is the question of whether Russia hardliners in both major parties old and new will act on the logical implications of their views of Russian actions and intentions – including on Moscow’s efforts to expand its influence along its own European borders. If for instance the hacking, as per Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, is truly an “act of war,” then will the call go out to cut off economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow?
If Russia’s moves against Crimea or Ukraine or the Baltics mean, in the words of Minnesota liberal Democratic Senator Amy Klochubar, that “Our commitment to NATO is more important than ever,” will today’s hawks – especially the noveau liberal variety – call for more U.S. defense spending and bigger American military deployments in endangered countries? And will they demand that American treaty allies in Europe finally get serious collectively about contributing to the common defense – which is first and foremost their own defense?
The answers to these questions will speak volumes to the American people as to whether their government is truly determined to defend interests declared to be major against foreign threats. And you can be sure they’ll convey the same vital information to America’s foreign friends and foes, too.