When Rex Wayne Tillerson presented himself before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one thing became perfectly clear: when it comes to America’s dealings with Russia, the Republican establishment is gearing up to fight Trump’s Russia "reset redux" tooth and nail.
At his hearing, Tillerson met a fiery response from senators who expressed disgust over his ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Tillerson came under particularly harsh scrutiny from Marco Rubio, who grilled the Secretary of State nominee over Russian involvement in the Democratic Party hacks and was "troubled" by Tillerson’s reluctance to support automatic sanctions against nations accused of launching cyberattacks against the U.S. Rubio also condemned Tillerson’s uncertainty over keeping the sanctions leveled against Russia in response to the hacks and refusal to call Putin a "war criminal." Sadly, for all his bluster and bravado, Rubio went ahead and endorsed the Committee’s nomination of Tillerson on January 23rd.
The irony of Rubio (and several of his colleagues) taking Tillerson through the ringer is that the former Exxon chief actually broke with Trump on Russia, calling the invasion of Crimea illegal and asserting that he would have armed Ukraine with defensive weapons. Tillerson expressed support for defending European allies in the face of Russian aggression and insisted that Moscow be held accountable for its actions. His tough stance on Russia was later echoed by Defense Secretary nominee General James Mattis and CIA pick Mike Pompeo.
None of these bellicose statements were enough for the Senate. Sadly, these hearings are just the latest showcase for how this country’s approach to Russia, Putin, and America’s actions in Europe have become a convoluted partisan mess that sees both parties swing from cynical criticism to bald-faced admiration with each electoral cycle. Four years ago, Democrats mercilessly ridiculed Mitt Romney for his suggestion that Russia was a geopolitical threat. Now it’s the Democrats (and Rubio) going after Trump’s nominees over how they feel about Russia. After the allegations that Moscow might have tipped the scales in favor of Trump failed to arouse even a hint of outrage among Trump’s blue-collar, swing state voters, other once-hawkish Republican senators decided to sidestep an election scandal no one in their constituency seems to care about.
While the narrative on how much (or how little) Moscow threatens the homeland changes in every election cycle, the deep state’s worldview has remained entirely unmoved since 1991. As Russia has risen from the ashes of the 1990s, Washington has reverted to its Cold War stance – the Russians must be resisted at every step, regardless of the consequences and the risks of what could be catastrophic escalation. That kind of reflexive approach is exactly why American foreign policy has made myopic, sometimes disastrous decisions for the better part of a century: organizing coups d’états to overthrow democratic governments, funding and arming murderous right-wing regimes, and arming the jihadists that would go on to perpetrate 9/11 – all because it would make the Soviets bleed.
One day after Tillerson’s grilling at the hands of Little Marco, the Foreign Relations Committee made what could well be another of those "let’s spite Russia" moves when it approved Montenegro’s bid to join NATO. The tiny, hopelessly corrupt country’s bid to join the alliance accomplishes two important establishment goals: angering Vladimir Putin and undermining Trump’s foreign policy vision.
With a GDP of only $4 billion and a mere 2,000 active service duty members in its military, Montenegro adds practically nothing to NATO defense capabilities. Like most current NATO members, Montenegro does not spend the required 2 percent of GDP on defense, which flies in the face of Trump’s promise to deal with "freeloading" allies. Montenegro’s leaders, especially former prime minister and current kingmaker Milo Dukanovic, also happen to be wildly corrupt and enjoy open links to organized crime. After a quarter century in power, Dukanovic finally stepped aside at least temporarily after a chaotic election in October. Even so, it is far from certain the strongman will stay gone (especially considering he has pulled the same trick before) and one of his closest allies has taken over for him.
For all their warts, the Montenegrins know how to play American lawmakers. Even though he used to be an ally of Slobodan Milosevic and happily bombed Dubrovnik in Croatia, Dukanovic and his allies deftly pulled a 180° over the past several years and recast themselves as pro-Westerners who wanted to lead their corrupt fiefdom out of the Yugoslav shadow and into the EU and NATO. We might not be in the Cold War anymore, but Dukanovic knew those magic words could still get Washington on his side. It also gives him the perfect cudgel to bash his beleaguered opposition over the head: anyone who stands up to Dukanovic is a Russian plant, and even his party’s disappointing election results were immediately overshadowed by an alleged Kremlin-sponsored coup attempt.
It’s no surprise then that the American foreign policy conclave embraced Dukanovic with arms open wide. One can only hope that the cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy manages to drain the swampy waters that keep on spawning such leaders. The US needs now, more than never, a "reset" that finally breaks Washington’s orthodoxy out of its Cold War mindset and walks back tensions that are at their worst since the dark days of mutually assured destruction. Congress is clearly not having it, and expanding NATO with yet another useless member seems like a great way to derail Trump’s ambitions.
David Kowalski is based in Brussels. He was previously a European civil servant before switching over to independent policy analysis.