On paper, Rachel Maddow may be the brightest host on all of cable news. Educated first at Stanford and then earning a PhD as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, she’s an eloquent speaker and distinguished author. But these days Maddow and her fellow "mainstream" progressives at MSNBC and CNN sound like hysterical, bellicose neocons. It’s all Russia all the time.
To listen to the rhetoric, whether focused on the inconclusive case that the president colluded with Russia during the 2016 election, on the war in Syria, on the recent NATO summit, or the ongoing drama in Ukraine, the message from the center-left, establishment "adults in the room" is the same – President Trump is a stooge of Putin and the U.S. must brace itself for impending, inevitable conflict with the Russians. It makes for one heck of a story, and as a CBS executive admitted it’s no doubt "damn good” for media ratings – but is it sound policy? This author thinks not.
Whether one loves or hates Mr. Trump – he’s oh so polarizing after all – prudent strategy requires context and common sense. Here are just a few points too often omitted from the Russia-as-evil-empire narrative:
- Russia has an economy about the size of Spain.
- Russian military spending actually decreased last year, and remains about 1/8th as high as the United States (and a fraction of NATO spending).
- Whereas Russia dismantled its Warsaw Pact alliance in the early 1990s, NATO – despite American promises to the contrary – expanded right up to the borders of Russia over the past 20 years.
- Sure, Russia has troops (and probably the strongest hand) in backing Assad in Syria, but this isn’t any new or major gain – Russia has long maintained bases and influence in Syria.
- Speaking of foreign military bases, Russia has about 20; the US – somewhere between 600 and 900, depending on the report.
- Yes, Putin annexed Crimea and meddles in Eastern Ukraine; and yes, it’d be preferable for Russia to adhere to international norms. Then again, President Trump is right about one thing: the vast majority of Crimeans are ethnically Russian and supported annexation; and, well, the West meddled in Ukraine too.
These aren’t Russian apologetics, but factual and vital context. Nor does any of this mean the US military shouldn’t remain vigilant and prepared to defend the nation. What it does add up to is this: Russia is (except for its nukes) a "paper tiger" with a point. They’ve got legitimate grievances that need addressing – so why, then, is talking such a bad thing?
Make no mistake, if Barack Obama took a similar path towards détente, the establishment left would laud him as a hero and statesman. Conversely, today’s cheering right – chanting “Nobel! Nobel! during Trump’s speeches – would have labeled Obama a traitor for far less. There’s more than enough hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle.
There’s something else: we’ve seen this before, this over-hyping of the Russian (then Soviet) threat to the Western World. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, a group of neoconservative hawks calling themselves Team B made outrageous claims about Soviet capabilities and intent. Team B’s conclusions directly contradicted most intelligence and analyses from the establishment center-left and center-right of the day. Back then, we know, the "adults in the room" turned out to have been right all along: the feared Russian horde never seriously considered conquering Western Europe.
There is something else. Back then, in the mid-1980s, one of Team B’s original cheerleaders – a celebrity named President Ronald Reagan – changed tactics and began negotiating with the Russians. Politically at least, probably only someone as notoriously pugnacious as Reagan could have pulled off that stunt – but it was the right call. It’s an old saw, but true: only conservative, bellicose "tough guys" can expend the political capitol to make a surprise peace.
So, if only "Nixon could go to China,” and only Reagan could negotiate with the Soviets, is it so far-fetched that maybe Trump is just the guy to talk peace with North Korea, or, Russia? Sure, it could be a long shot. It might not work; heck, the president has basically said as much. Still, coming from a political wing that supposedly prizes diplomacy, isn’t Trump’s hope for negotiation with Russia worth a shot? Does the establishment left have a better idea (besides all out ground or nuclear war)?
For those of us in (or formerly in) uniform, this should all hit home in a deadly serious way.
As little more than a middling officer, I’ve spent a decade and a half in uniform. In that time I’ve gleaned a lot of wisdom about the nature of this profession. Here’s one important pearl: it is better to train and prepare than to actually fight. War is messy, addictive, and institutionally harmful. I for one entered an army at war, but remember well the laments of senior officers and sergeants pining for the "good old days" of the Cold War, of careers spent trained and postured for a fight with the Soviets that we now know was never likely in the first place. Unfortunately, such nostalgia omits the many accidents and misunderstandings that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Still, with hindsight I appreciate aspects of the old soldiers’ sentiments. Decades of wars-on-terror have depleted America’s military forces, over-stretched the army, and cost many trillions. And, though Russia and Mr. Putin are neither the exaggerated threat or super villains they’re made out to be, the US military could use some retrenchment and should refocus on balancing rather than actively fighting our competitors.
So, let us take the best of both worlds. Let Mr. Trump play Reagan and prudently engage Russia. That way the military establishment can get back to what its truly best at: training for a war it will (hopefully) never need to fight.
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen