By Andrew Levine / Conterpunch
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If Vladimir Putin is half as clever as his demonizers make him out to be, he must have figured out a long time ago that, to get inside Donald Trump’s head, clinical psychologists with expertise treating male adolescents would be more useful than the Russian hackers, real or imaginary, that Western media obsess over.
Why even bother with hackers? The little that goes on between Trump’s ears is all there in his tweets.
But, of course, if the idea is to develop capabilities for waging wars in the cyber sphere, good hackers are worth their weight in gold. If Putin isn’t working on that, he is not doing his job.
These days, hackers are everywhere — including Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. The United States has more than its fair share too, as do the UK and other Western countries. Some work for intelligence services, directly or indirectly; many, probably most, do not.
When governments do the hacking themselves, or sponsor others who do it for them, it is usually because they want to hone their countries’ offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. In short, they are developing weapons and testing them.
Sometimes, though, they do more than that. The best known example occurred some ten years ago when the United States and Israel introduced the Stuxnet virus into Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, destroying roughly a fifth of that country’s nuclear centrifuges by causing them to spin out of control.
Needless to say, governments are not the only players; far from it. Many, probably most, hackers are not connected, even indirectly, with state intelligence services. Some of them may be “terrorists,” according to one or another understanding of that fraught and contested term. It is safe to assume that most of them are not. They hack for the fun of it or because they can.
There are legally binding, though sometimes ineffective, conventions that prohibit the use of a few especially heinous kinds of weapons — poison gas is a well-known example. Cyber weapons are not similarly proscribed. Hackers can be, and sometimes are, subject to domestic prosecution, but, between state actors, anything goes.
In much the same vein, international law does not prohibit states from interfering in the political affairs, or elections, of other states. Insofar as sovereignty still matters in our globalized neoliberal world, meddling of that kind plainly violates the spirit of the law, but it is not legally proscribed.
For the stewards of the American empire, inconvenient international laws apply to others, not the United States. It is therefore unclear what, if anything would change if cyber weapons too were forbidden.
What is clear, however, is that, for at least the past seven decades, the United States has interfered in one way or another in nearly every election that American government officials wanted to influence – either to prevent outcomes they opposed or to secure results they favored.
No corner of the world has been immune, but since the demise of the Soviet Union made meddling in the political affairs of Russia and other former Soviet republics easier, Washington has been especially intent on throwing its weight around in that part of the world – always in ways that put Russian national interests in jeopardy.
The “digital revolution” has greatly exacerbated the problem, making meddling a lot easier than it used to be.
How proficient America’s cyber warriors are at defending “the homeland,” the post-9/11 term for the former “Land of the Free,” is an open question. There is no doubt, however, that, at the very least, the United States leads the way in developing cyber surveillance capabilities.
It is no slouch either when it comes to hacking into well-protected industrial and government servers around the world – to spy or to meddle or, as with those centrifuges in Iran, to sabotage.
Russia can do those things too – perhaps just as well, more likely not, but certainly well enough.
It may therefore be time, now that the Cold War is back, to revive a version of the old Mutual Assured Destruction doctrine, updated for the digital age.
* * *
Thanks to digitalization and the many ways in which computers nowadays are able to communicate with each other, state and non-state actors can meddle – or worse – more effectively than in the past.
Inasmuch as quality emerges out of quantity, as dialecticians inspired by Hegel would say, meddling has therefore become qualitatively more problematic than it used to be.
Thus, with Cold War insanity coming back into vogue — promoted by the entire political class, no longer just by Clinton retainers, and by the media flacks who serve them — meddling is taking new forms.
Some things don’t change, however. As long as it keeps spending more money on “defense” than the Russians do, the United States will retain the dominant position. Despite the best efforts of Cold Warriors to scare Americans into acquiescence, everyone now concedes that this was how it was with nuclear weapons and missiles and much else during the original Cold War. It is how it is today too, now that cyber weapons are added into the mix.
Nevertheless, as in the past, the War Party’s spokespersons will insist that we are not spending nearly enough. Lying through their teeth, JFK and his people concocted a “missile gap” some six decades ago. No one should be surprised, with the 2018 midterm elections looming, when a “cyber weapons gap” opens up.
The death merchants and mad dog generals must be salivating at the prospect. Silicon Valley plus the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower’s euphemism for death merchants and military brass, now dominate the real economy. Over them all, there is Wall Street; a far greater menace now than in Eisenhower’s time. The too-big-to-fail-or-jail miscreants there must be salivating most of all.
It was public opinion that made the original Cold War possible, and so it is again. This is why the “liberal press” has been pulling out all the stops – vilifying Russia and demonizing its President.
But there are at least two reasons why they will have a harder time getting the result they want now than their counterparts had long ago.
For one, they don’t have a President on board this time, except occasionally when all the stars are lined up right. Unlike his post-War predecessors, from Truman on, Trump has no geopolitical goals. Instead, he wants to make “deals” that he thinks will make him look good, but that will only make him richer.
Trump is no more anti-imperialist than Cecil Rhodes, and he doesn’t have an internationalist bone in his body. But, during the campaign, he did find it expedient to strike a kind of pre-War isolationist pose.
Since that could in principle lead him sometimes to do the right thing — albeit for bad, even noxious reasons – there were a few observers who were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Inasmuch as the alternative was a continuation of the liberal imperialism of the Obama era, who could blame them?
What they actually did, however, was give Trump way too much credit. The man has no ideological convictions to speak of. For all practical purposes, his mind is a blank slate, susceptible to being swayed by whomever he talked to last or by the last pundit he watched on TV.
However, where Russia is concerned, he did, and still does, seem to have sounder instincts than his rivals. For Trump, instincts are all; and his instincts are dangerously off on almost everything. But not on this.
No doubt, his business involvements have a lot to do with it. So, very likely, does the fact that he could care less what others think. It probably also helps that he has no ties to the foreign policy establishment or to the so-called deep state.
Whatever the reasons, Trump does seem less in thrall to the delusions that shape this latest outbreak of Russophobia in political and media circles than other politicians at the national level. Indeed, even at this late date, he actually does seem to want to diminish, not exacerbate, tensions between the world’s two major nuclear powers.
Bravo to him for that.
The other reason why Cold Warriors today have their work cut out for them, in ways that their counterparts after the Second World War did not, is that the justifications they are obliged to offer for treating Russia as an enemy are preposterous on their face.
Half a century ago, the Soviet Union was, in Churchill’s words, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Churchill went on to suggest that much of the mystery would dissipate if observers would think more carefully about Russia’s national interests. That insight was among the first casualties of the rush to (cold) war that Churchill himself did so much to promote.
And so, an Iron Curtain descended over the Soviet Union and its “satellites,” just as he said it would — making it possible for the “free world’s” propagandists to spin all kinds of yarns about Communist “subversion” and ill intent.
Cyber curtains are harder to construct. What could previously be kept opaque is therefore now ineluctably clear to anyone who cares to look.
This is why all the brouhaha over Russian meddling in the 2016 election would hardly even merit discussion, but for the fact that the stakes are so high, and because so many gullible people take it seriously.
Never mind that nothing actually came from the alleged meddling, except further confirmation of what everybody already knew: that the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, was working hard to assure that the Sanders insurgency would be defeated, and that Hillary Clinton would be the party’s nominee.
Leave aside too the glaring hypocrisy of the United States, of all countries, objecting to election meddling. Evidently, the consensus view among mainstream politicians and in mainstream media circles too is that, in the United States, “what’s sauce for the goose” is emphatically not also “sauce for the gander.”
Forget genuinely “fake news” reports as well; for example, the claim that the Russians hacked into electoral grids in Vermont and elsewhere. There is no solid evidence for them; and, as one would expect, they disappear down the memory hole just as soon as they serve their purpose.
Reports of Russian hacking that bear on infrastructure security, financial transactions, trade, industrial processes, and other vital economic and military concerns would, if true, be genuinely worrisome were the recently revived Cold War to heat up.
With so many of the leading lights of the American political and media establishments working so diligently to make that happen, this is a cause for concern. But not even the most determined warmongers have been able to come up with a plausible story about how Russian hacking affected the election that put Donald Trump in the White House.
War Party propaganda notwithstanding, the claim that the Russians interfered with the 2016 election is hardly gospel truth. Nevertheless, it merits investigation.
The story used to be that seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies agreed that reports of Russian meddling are correct. The official line now is that only four have weighed in decisively, the four actually in the know.
Meanwhile, Putin says the Russians did not meddle; and Julian Assange has said many times that the source of the DNC documents that Wikileaks published was not the Russian state.
It has become fashionable in mainstream circles to vilify Assange, but the fact remains that his integrity, and Wikileaks’, is well established.
Though portrayed as the devil incarnate, Putin is a skilled and worldly statesman, intent on advancing Russia’s interests, as he understands them. He is therefore a liar by vocation, just as all serious politicians are.
For profound historical reasons, slightly different, slightly less liberal and more authoritarian, norms obtain in Russia’s political sphere than in most Western countries; and, needless to say, like everyone else everywhere, Putin and his constituents are creatures of their time and place.
On the whole, though, the demon of the hour seems no less governed by moral, customary or legal constraints than others in similar positions. Even in responding to events in Ukraine and Syria, he has been more scrupulously observant of international law than Barack Obama or Donald Trump.
His word may not be as good as gold, but it is a lot better than the CIA’s. Indeed, when it comes to lying, the CIA is second to none. It has been known too to politicize intelligence when it suits its purposes or the purposes of the American government, insofar as the two diverge. The Bush-Cheney administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” is only the best-known recent example.
I would therefore venture that of all the relevant parties weighing in, the American intelligence community is the least credible. But we are so bombarded with the party line on Russian meddling that it is hard not to succumb to the belief that there surely must be some there there. That (ultimately irrational) consideration apart, there is every reason to remain skeptical of everybody’s assessments. For the time being and perhaps for some time to come, agnosticism is the only reasonable position to take.
The news that people close to Trump — his son, his son-in-law, his campaign manager — met with a lawyer whom they believed to be acting on behalf of the Russian government, and who probably was, changes nothing.
According to Donald Junior’s emails, they did it to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Needless to say, “opposition research” is part of electoral politics nowadays; they all do it.
The problem in this case is the involvement of someone with ties to the Kremlin. Had the story been that Trump or someone close to him hired homegrown detectives to dig up dirt on Clinton, the news probably wouldn’t even have gotten Rachel Maddow’s hackles up.
Or had the famiglia arranged a meeting for the same purpose with persons connected to some other country – Israel is an obvious example, but not the only imaginable one – that would be fine too.
Apparently, it is the Russian connection that is toxic.
For the anti-Trump political class and their mainstream media friends, Junior’s emails are the Holy Grail, the “smoking gun.”
But all they show is that there was contact between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. Except on the dubious theory that the provision of information is an emolument of the kind that the Constitution proscribes, there was nothing even remotely criminal about that meeting in Trump Tower. There was not even anything unusual; campaigns look for dirt where they can find it, and they talk to foreign sources all the time.
Trump’s flacks say that the purported smoking gun is actually no big deal.
It grieves me to say it, but they are right.
What those emails provide is evidence of the stupidity of the Trump family (no surprise there!) and close Trump associates (ditto). To make anything more of it is, to say the least, a stretch.
Narratives that center on Russian meddling in the 2016 election are one thing; well-researched investigations of connections between Trump, the Trump family, and the Trump campaign, on the one hand, and Russian oligarchs, mobsters, spies, and assorted sleaze balls, on the other, are something else altogether.
Inasmuch as birds of a feather generally do flock together, there probably are quite a few contacts of that sort to uncover.
Unfortunately, though, in the fog of neoconservative, Russophobic propaganda that has settled in over our shores, these issues have become confounded.
On the meddling in the last election question, the jury is still out on which liars to believe. Does it really matter, though?
It does to proponents and opponents of the War Party. The former are desperate for reasons to find Putin culpable of something, anything; the latter understand the importance of not letting them have their way.
It matters too to feckless Democrats (is there any other kind?) hoping to ride anti-Trump loathing back to power in 2018. It is all they have going for them.
But it hardly matters at all for the integrity of American democracy — notwithstanding the self-righteous blather that currently surrounds the issue.
The danger to democracy – what little of it we have — is not coming from hackers, Russian or otherwise, government sponsored or freelance. At this historical moment, it is coming mainly from the voter suppression efforts of Republican state officials and the Trump White House.
Republican donors are culpable too. They are the ones who bankroll the governors and state legislators who are leading the charge against (small-d) democracy.
How ironic that one of the things the Russians are supposed to have hacked into are state voting rolls. It is fatally unclear why they would care about that, just as it is brutally obvious why Republicans would. But this doesn’t phase the War Party’s propagandists one bit.
The story they are going with for now is that Putin wants Americans to lose faith in the democratic process. Why would he even care?
During the original Cold War, when the Soviet Union was supposedly intent on world domination, there were ways of answering that question. The answers were disingenuous, to say the least, but they could at least be made to seem plausible. Good luck with that now!
In any case, if Putin really did want to undermine faith in American democracy, he would be a little late to the gate; and he would be redundant. Who needs a foreign autocrat to do what Democrats and Republicans are already doing better?
Meanwhile, even with Junior’s emails, Trump is still there; and unless Republicans turn on him, which, for now, seems unlikely – or unless, more unlikely still, he decides he has had enough — there is where he will remain.
Meanwhile too, the Democratic Party, having made itself irrelevant, is still scapegoating Russians. What a dangerous, albeit bipartisan, spectacle – unreconstructed Clintonites working side by side with the likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham.
All this does, though, is increase the likelihood that, in the process, the world will stumble into a war that, this time around, really will be a war to end all wars.
Is there a silver lining in any of this? If there is, it is well hidden.
ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).