At least within the limits of its influence over public opinion, Russiagate has been very effective at propagating militaristic and authoritarian views.
It’s been so effective because it’s exploited a crisis-the crisis of the Trump presidency-and turned much of liberal America’s attention towards fearing a manufactured foreign threat. As Glenn Greenwald recently wrote about this manipulation: “A new generation of Democrats, politically engaged for the first time as a result of fears over Trump, [are] being inculcated with values of militarism and imperialism, trained to view once-discredited, war-loving neocons such as Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and David Frum, and former CIA and FBI leaders as noble experts and trusted voices of conscience.”
I’ve found that these beliefs make up the pro-imperialist worldview which Russiagate enforces.
The belief that U.S. intelligence agencies are trustworthy
America’s intelligence community hasn’t gotten any less corrupt since they lied us into war with Iraq in 2003. Robert Mueller, the now widely glorified FBI director who at one point promoted his agency’s WMD lies in a congressional testimony, was replaced in 2013 by the equally unethical James Comey. Like Mueller, Comey approved the Bush administration’s torture programs and warrantless wiretapping when he was Deputy Attorney General. Both Comey and Mueller were also complicit in the Bush White House’s effectively imposing martial law by sustaining the post-9/11 “state of emergency.” These and the FBI’s many other transgressions in the “War on Terror” have been more or less continued since Comey left office two years ago. For instance, last year Trump’s FBI unfairly jailed black activist Rakem Balogun under the agency’s new label of “Black Identity Extremist.”
The same is the case for the CIA and the other agencies. John Brennan, who has been complicit in America’s torture program, has publicly lied about his authorization of spying on Senate staffers, and has been instrumental in the Obama administration’s terroristic drone wars, was also CIA director at the time when the intelligence agencies put out their first reports about “Russian interference.” James Clapper, a known perjurer who’s lied to Congress about NSA surveillance and endorsed the appointment last year of CIA torturer Gina Haspel, was Director of National Intelligence during the same time. Yet we’re supposed to believe what these agencies and their associates have claimed about Russia.
The agencies’ Russia reports have been discredited not just by the source behind them, but by the content behind their central claims. From the outset in this Russia hysteria campaign, there’s been reason to think that we’re being lied to just like we were in 2003.
As The Intercept’s Sam Biddle pointed out in his December 2016 article Here’s the public evidence Russia hacked the DNC-it’s not good enough, the “evidence” that the agencies cite for Russia’s involvement was centered around a series of hints which didn’t give any conclusive proof that Russia is the culprit. Briddle observed about a key piece of this “evidence”: “the argument that ‘Guccifer 2.0’ is a Kremlin agent or that GRU breached John Podesta’s email only works if you presume that APT 28/Fancy Bear is a unit of the Russian government, a fact that has never been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Given that the data the agencies used for their claims came from Crowdstrike, an entity that’s heavily funded by the DNC, it’s no surprise that these authorities tried to present this series of vague and uncertain details as proof that Russia was behind the DNC leaks. And as we soon learned, the hints themselves had been fabricated in order to fit the agenda which Crowdstrike and the intelligence agencies wanted to promote.
In August 2017, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity published accounts of digital tests they’d run which showed that the DNC’s software wasn’t even compatible with an overseas hack. The VIPS, who’ve also helped debunk the Iraq WMD hoax, have yet to see their report seriously challenged. This means that Guccifer 2.0 is evidently a fictional character who was created to look like the person who carried out Russia’s nonexistent infiltration of the DNC.
The rest of what the intelligence agencies and their media associates have claimed about “Russian interference” is also either dubious, exaggerated, or provenly false. The January 2017 “assessment” of Russian interference was made by officials who’d been hand-picked by the Obama administration, while skeptical voices within the intelligence community were sidelined. The report itself consisted of disapproving observations about RT’s reporting, and other such flimsy attempts to prove the document’s thesis.
The claims about the Russian government having bought Facebook ads are founded on the assumption that the Russian nationals in question are associated with the Kremlin himself. The claims about Russia having hacked election systems have fallen apart. There’s also still no evidence that Russia is behind the Skripal poisonings, despite the Trump administration’s reckless imposition of sanctions on Russia last year in response to these charges.
A recent addition in the endless series of Russia “bombshells” is also suspicious. Last month’s reports detailing a supposed Russian social media influence campaign were both put out by figures with ties to the intelligence community or to the military, and they both lacked adequate substantiation for their claims. They also reflected a pattern in how these Russia stories have been propagated.
“Like countless other stories about alleged Russian ‘disinformation,’ Monday’s media blast followed a script,” the World Socialist Website’s Andre Damon observed about these documents. “Reports and testimony from nominally independent organizations, which are, in reality, mouthpieces for the intelligence agencies, are commissioned by Congress. They are ‘leaked’ to the New York Times, which publishes a front-page article promoting them as ‘independent,’ scientific and authoritative, without, however, presenting any serious analysis of the actual evidence or the social and political forces behind the studies. The reports in the Times (or the Washington Post) are then cited by countless media outlets and politicians as new and irrefutable ‘evidence’ of Russian ‘meddling’ and ‘fake news.’”
In short, the strongest evidence for Russian involvement in the 2016 election centers around Russia’s government troll farm operation, wherein only a small amount of Russian workers have been known to target english-language populations. But that doesn’t make a good enough story for America’s intelligence and media establishments.
What’s sad about this Russia hysteria is that it’s assimilated so many formerly truth-telling liberal figures into the agenda of the military/intelligence complex. Sixteen years ago, Michael Moore was debunking the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq in the face of bipartisan pressure to support the war. In the Trump era, Moore has gone along with the Democratic Party’s anti-Russia demagoguery. Rachel Maddow, who wrote a book about perpetual war in 2012 titled Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, has aggressively pushed Russophobic propaganda on her show and attackedTrump’s attempt at a partial Syria troop pullout. In their cynical attempt to leverage Russiagate as an attack against Trump, much of Trump’s opposition has abandoned any skeptical analysis about the claims from the intelligence community or the corporate media.
This act of political opportunism from the Democratic Party, the mainstream media, and anti-Trump neocons has had very dangerous consequences.
The belief that Russia is an enemy
The transition into our current era of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Russia started with aggressions from the U.S./NATO empire. The expansion of NATO throughout the 1990’s, which went against America’s post-Cold War promises, set off events that have in the last year lead to nuclear threat exchanges and direct military confrontations between the two countries.
As the journalist Ted Snider has assessed about Russia’s response to the NATO expansion: “Russian interventions, especially in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, have repeatedly been offered as evidence of the Western charge that Putin’s Russia is becoming increasingly aggressive and expansionist. But Russia’s interventions have never been expressions of policy. Instead, they have been isolated responses to a larger systemic Western policy of expansionism.”
But the West couldn’t respond to Russia’s actions in a rational or cautious way. Putin had threatened American hegemony in Syria and Ukraine, and Russia was showing itself to be an emerging rival against the weakening American empire. U.S. imperialists can’t accept a multipolar world, so they moved to revive the dynamic of anti-Russia demonization and military threats which preceded the first cold war.
Barack Obama famously mocked Mitt Romney in 2012 for claiming that Russia was an adversary. Yet not two years later, the position towards Russia of Obama and other leaders had reversed in Orwellian fashion. In February 2014, Ukraine’s democratically elected government was replaced by an aggressively anti-Russian, neo-fascist government, with the United States being proven to have carried out this violent and illegal coup.
The coup was characterized by the West as a “revolution,” and Russia’s intervention was demonized as an act of aggression despite its undeniably humanitarian motive. Since then, with U.S. support, Ukraine’s regime has engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Ukraine’s eastern regions, which is a stronghold of Russian language and culture. America’s arming of Ukraine in 2017 also escalated the U.S./Russia proxy war in the region, which is among the many facets in the recent U.S./NATO campaign of aggression against Russia.
In 2011, the U.S. and its allies sparked the conflict in Syria by sending their army of trained jihadists to wage a regime change war against Assad’s sovereign government. When Russia got involved in Syria to defend its ally, the U.S. made no attempt to de-escalate the situation. Almost a year ago, the U.S. bombed an army of pro-government forces in Syria which included Russian mercenaries, an incident that followed multiple confrontations between American and Russian planes over Syria. These types of clashes have continued since then, and Trump’s supposed Syria withdrawal isn’t helping the situation at all; as the Pentagon and its loyalists within the White House try to obstruct any movement towards de-escalation in Syria, not a single U.S. soldier has left Syria since Trump promised the pullout.
There’s also the NATO troop buildup along Russia’s borders, which has been carried out under the bogus pretext of “defending from Russia;” Russia’s war games and. rearmament efforts of recent years have been in response to NATO’s expansion, and to the provocative recent military exercises from Western powers.
As the Russia scholar Stephen Cohen has concluded, our current cold war with Russia is even more dangerous than the last, mainly because there are so many moving parts that could turn it into a nuclear confrontation. And leaders throughout the West are eager to exacerbate the tensions on all of these fronts. In November, Ukraine’s regime effectively carried out a false flag by sending ships into Russian waters without clarifying their intent, and then claiming “Russian aggression” when Russia attacked the ships; last month, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander wrote a paper for the Atlantic Council which claimed that NATO needs to defend against Russia, based on the paranoid claim of an imminent Russian invasion of Europe; and there’s no real sign that America will end its occupation of Syria any time soon.
The dominant political groupthink is demanding ever greater escalations with Russia, all while Russia itself is portrayed as the aggressor. The twenty years before the 2014 Ukraine coup showed that Russia wants to be America’s ally, and the West has thrown away this opportunity for a continued era of peace.
“As global politics go, some serious thought should be given to a reality we have created all by ourselves: It is now likely that America has built a new Cold War division with Russia that will prove permanent for the next 20 to 30 years,” the journalist Patrick Lawrence has written. “All this because of some Facebook ads and Twitter threads of unproven origin? Am I the only one who sees a weird and worrisome gap between what we are intent on believing — as against thinking or knowing — and the consequences of these beliefs?”
As Russiagate has shown, this question no longer matters in American politics.
The belief that acts of dissent make a person “treasonous” or a Russian agent
One of the most alarming examples of how McCarthyism has reasserted itself is the recent statement from Democratic representative Jackie Speier, who said that Trump’s pulling the U.S. out from NATO “would be a ground for some profound effort by our part, whether it is impeachment or the 25th Amendment.”
The anti-Russian aggressions from NATO that I listed above are just a small sample of the invasions, nuclear provocations, and support for terrorist organizations that NATO has engaged in. And NATO isn’t protecting America, as Speier claims, but is evidently bringing us closer to World War III. Opposing NATO is a legitimate and very sensible position. So how is Speier able to advocate for taking criminal action against a president should they step out of the pro-NATO orthodoxy?
This kind of language is acceptable in our discourse because in the last few years, the same kinds of attacks have been directed at every other public figure who hasn’t fully conformed to the agenda of the empire. At first it was relatively mild; in the first years of the new cold war, opposing viewpoints were met with predictable Russia-themed gaslighting, like when John McCain tweeted about the journalist Abby Martin in 2015: “Vladimir continues his attacks on me — I am honored.” Then during the 2016 election, the new norm of Russophobia became a potent tool for attacking political opponents. And Democrats have emerged as the main wielders of this tool.
During the primaries, Bernie Sanders was maligned as a Russian asset by many political figures, mainly by Republicans like Lindsey Graham. Then numerous pundits, mainly Democratic ones, moved in to promote bizarre speculations about Jill Stein being a Russian plant. And the accompanying attacks on Trump as “Putin’s puppet” were just a teaser for what’s since happened.
Trump’s actions throughout the last two years have shown Russiagate to be an absurd theory. He’s armed Ukraine’s regime, which even Obama thought would have been too reckless a move. He’s imposed sanctions on Russia based on unsubstantiated allegations about Russia poisoning the Skripals. He’s aggressed against Russia’s allies Syria, Venezuela, and Iran. None of the Russia “bombshells” that we’ve seen so far substantiate Russiagate’s central claim about Trump having colluded with Russia to win the election. And Trump’s aggressively anti-Russia policies show this claim to be highly counterintuitive. But the military/intelligence complex has an incentive to keep Russiagate afloat, because this is their strategy for pressuring Trump into carrying out their agenda of belligerence towards Russia.
As the journalist Paul Street has written about the motive behind Russiagate:
Forget the charges of Trump-Russia collusion. Trump’s main Russia problem is that he came into the White House from outside the elite Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) ruling class establishment. Unlike the plugged-in U.S. power and imperial elite, the orange-haired brute never got the Zbigniew Brzezinski-crafted, David Rockefeller-endorsed CFR memo on the grave peril Moscow still poses to “the international system sponsored by the United States.”
So this “collusion” narrative, which was started through an opportunistic effort by John Brennan to launch a Russia-themed intelligence and media campaign against Trump, continues to dominate our discourse. And it’s created the precedent for McCarthyist campaigns against many people other than Donald Trump.
A very mainstream writer, @page88 – now at @wired, @Slate & @latimesopinion – explicitly suggests Bernie 2016 was a Kremlin operation & ponders if he was "wittingly" helping Putin. This is Alex-Jones-level conspiracy derangement but these are the conspiracies the mainstream likes pic.twitter.com/JGmSWn11ZH
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) January 26, 2019
In these last two years or so, the only way to avoid being denounced as a Russian operative has been by making one’s public statements completely align with the CIA/CNN narratives. Online, I’ve been called a Russian troll countless times, mainly by orthodox Democrats who’ve been conditioned to see Russian influence behind every expression of dissent. People with political views similar to mine have told me they’ve had the same experience. And this culture of neo-McCarthyism has extended not just to everyday discourse, but to the highest levels of politics and media.
In November 2016, the Washington Post promoted a page from the shoddy site ProPorNot which blacklisted the top alternative media outlets as Russian propaganda. In March 2017, John McCain claimed on the Senate floor that Rand Paul is “now working for Vladimir Putin.” In October 2017, Democratic operative Peter Daou tweeted that anyone who criticizes Hillary Clinton is “a de facto Russian propagandist.” In April of last year, The Guardian promoted a completely false report from the UK government which claimed that the Twitter accounts Partisangirl and Ian56 are Russian bots. And among the many other ways Russiagate has been used to attack dissidents as Kremlin agents, Democratic Party loyalists have recently been smearing progressives as Russian assets in the first weeks of the 2020 election cycle.
In many cases, this type of gaslighting has escalated into persecution from the authorities. In 2017, the Senate Intelligence Committee sought documents from Jill Stein because of suspicions that Stein was a Russian asset. Also that year, the DOJ forced RT America to register as a foreign agency, despite this standard not applying to other foreign media outlets like Al Jazeera and the BBC. Maria Butina has been labeled a Russian spy by the DOJ despite there being no proof for this charge. And the vast censorship against alternative media in the last few years, which online companies have carried out with the approval of their partners in the intelligence agencies, has been done under the pretext of fighting “Russian propaganda.”
The most frightening part of this has been the character assassination and brutal punishment of Julian Assange that Russiagate has exacerbated. Predicated on the lie that WikiLeaks got the DNC emails from Russia, Assange has been blacklisted as a Russian agent and slandered as a criminal. This has lessened Assange’s hope for being freed from his arbitrary detention in the Ecuadorian embassy, wherein he’s being kept in solitary confinement and deprived of crucial medical treatment.
“We live within an institutionalized proscription of proven reality,” writes Patrick Lawrence about the paranoid and repressive atmosphere that Russiagate is creating. “Our discourse consists of a series of fence posts and taboos. By any detached measure, this lands us in deep, serious trouble. The sprawl of what we call ‘Russia-gate’ now brings our republic and its institutions to a moment of great peril — the gravest since the McCarthy years and possibly since the Civil War. No, I do not consider this hyperbole.”
Authoritarian propaganda campaigns like these always feature both villains and heroes. And in the case of Russiagate, the designated heroes are especially unworthy of the support they receive.
The belief that the American empire deserves our support
Russiagate serves as a rationale for having supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and for believing in the pro-corporate, pro-imperialist worldview that Clinton’s Democratic Party represents.
Firstly, it lets the ruling class give an explanation for Trump’s election that doesn’t involve social inequality or discontent with the system. According to them, Hillary lost not because voters in crucial areas didn’t like her pro-war record, or because the Democratic Party has failed to address the decline of the working class’ living standards, but because of “Russian interference.”
And secondly, the demonization of Russia as an aggressor that’s dismantling America’s global influence and “destroying our democracy” is a comforting story for an empire in decline. By blaming Russia for everything from Donald Trump’s election to recent American racial conflicts to the collapse of America’s global hegemony, elites can deflect the blame for the crises they themselves have created. Russia distracts attention from record U.S. income inequality, the destruction of American democracy at the hands of corporate power, and the catastrophic blowback from America’s endless wars. Click To Tweet
In other words, Russiagate works both as a tool to manufacture support for war escalations with Russia, and as a way to keep Americans comfortable with the fact that they live in an empire. So it’s predictable that the Democratic Party’s base has become largely militaristic, uncritical of the intelligence community, and trusting of the corporate media. This shift towards a fundamentally right-wing mindset within mainstream liberal culture was shown this month, when a Politico/Morning Consult poll came out which revealed that far more Democrats than Republicans support the continuation of America’s wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
This shift started long before Trump’s election. Throughout the eight years between 2008 and 2017, Obama bombed seven countries, carried out drone warfare against mostly innocent targets, instigated regime change wars in Libya and Syria, overthrew the governments of Ukraine and Honduras in illegal coups, and restarted the Cold War. This came after many House and Senate Democrats had voted for the Iraq War, and after President Clinton had bombed Kosovo while continuing the Persian Gulf war. All of this required Democratic Party loyalists to either ignore or rationalize the militarism of their leaders. And Hillary Clinton, being a major player in this change towards an aggressive pro-war Democratic Party, furthered the transition in 2016 by getting her supporters to rationalize the pro-war agenda that they were endorsing.
Since the anti-Russia agenda is promoted both by the old guard Democrats and by more progressive Democratic leaders like Bernie Sanders, the old anti-war Democratic Party has effectively vanished. America is locked into a bipartisan drive towards ever bigger military budgets, escalations of the bombing and drone campaigns, and belligerence towards its rival nuclear superpowers Russia and China. The most recent example of this dynamic involves the Trump administration’s preparations to carry out an illegal regime change coup in Venezuela, which are being overwhelmingly supportedby prominent Democrats.
Where do we go from here?
This dystopian reality is what it looks like when the largest empire in history is trying to claw its way back to dominance during the last years before its unraveling is complete.
As author Alfred McCoy has written in his book In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, the collapse of the American empire was greatly accelerated in 2003. That was the year when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and set off a period of destabilization that McCoy predicts will destroy the country’s global influence by 2030. “So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly wrong, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed,” observes McCoy. “Just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, eleven years for the Ottomans, seventeen for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, just twenty-seven years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003.”
Americans are participating in a vast, tragic play, wherein the preordained outcome of imperial collapse inches closer every time America tries to regain its strength through military aggression or patriotic propaganda campaigns. It’s a story of hubris and failure that’s applied to every past empire, and which will affect us in ways more catastrophic than anything that happened during those previous collapses. Our collapse is unprecedented both because of its potential for starting a third world war, and because of the climate destabilization that’s happening as a result of our imperialist and corporate capitalist paradigm.
We shouldn’t try to prop up the American empire in the hope that this will preserve stability, because the empire’s demise can’t be avoided. Our only option is to work to dismantle the empire before it does further harm, while building sustainable new systems in its place. And to do this, we’ll need to defeat toxic and distracting propaganda narratives like Russiagate.
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