Every time I see “statesmen” foaming at the mouth about insufficient posturing against Russia, I go back to the basics. There are exactly two countries on this planet capable of reducing any country on the face of the earth to toxic, smoldering ruins in hours. These are the United States of America and the Russian Federation (the latest manifestation of the Russian empire).
President Trump has done an admirable job, like most presidents in the Atomic Age, of keeping the natural tensions between the two megadeath powers inside the safety limits. He has succeeded, so far, despite the worst efforts of his domestic enemies, who are more serious about destroying him than they are about national security.
I am not impressed by pseudo-moral preening, expressed in demands for bombastic rhetoric against the only country that can bomb us into a new Stone Age. President Reagan used confrontational rhetoric about the USSR version of the Russian empire, but he only called out their human rights record in face-to-face meetings after an earlier successful meeting to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Further, when Reagan did use confrontational rhetoric, the response from the left and from the foreign policy establishment varied from shrieks of horror to sophisticated disapproval – as Peter Robinson can attest.
Beyond the existential threat of international miscalculation, driven by the internal politics of the two nuclear superpowers, there is the constitutional threat to America, driven by the outrageous refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of a presidential election that did not go the left’s way. We got a taste of this in President George W. Bush’s first term, but the Republican establishment did not fracture into factions that passive-aggressively enabled and sustained the left’s fantasy. That changed in 2016.
President Trump absolutely could not say what his enemies wanted him to say in Helsinki. It is the fault of Neuter Trump Republicans, who willfully keep alive the lie that Trump voters were, and are, an ignorant pack of deplorable, bitter-clingers who might actually have been swayed by Russians. As Mark Davis wrote at Town Hall:
The slightest hint of a Trump denunciation of Russian meddling would have been instantly, virally blasted around the universe as a confession that his election was indeed illegitimate. The hounds baying for his demise gleefully conflate Russians hacking Democrat emails with the Trump campaign conspiring to deny Hillary Clinton her rightful victory. They know that an under-informed public will lap up that narrative if they can hammer it forcefully enough.
So it is that President Trump, back on American soil, was careful to encase his “correction” of his comments in rejection of the election deniers’ lies.
So I’ll begin by stating that I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies. Always have. And I have felt very strongly that, while Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election, let me be totally clear in saying that – and I’ve said this many times – I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also; there’s a lot of people out there. There was no collusion at all. And people have seen that, and they’ve seen that strongly. The House has already come out very strongly on that. A lot of people have come out strongly on that. [emphasis added]
President Trump’s actions relative to Russia conform to his National Security Strategy. The NSS signed by the President, put his stamp on the national security state, with the assistance of the military genius H.R. McMaster. Here is how the President assessed Russia in 2017:
China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. […] Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.
Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union (EU) as threats. Russia is investing in new military capabilities, including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States, and in destabilizing cyber capabilities. Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia interferes in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world. The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.
So how did President Trump instruct his administration to respond? Here is what his National Security Strategy says about checking Russia in Europe:
We will work with our allies and partners to diversify European energy sources to ensure the energy security of European countries.
The United States fulfills our defense responsibilities and expects others to do the same. We expect our European allies to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2024, with 20 percent of this spending devoted to increasing military capabilities.
President Trump’s actions, personally and through his appointees, have pushed forward on both the energy and military spending fronts. But what of threats to our domestic politics? President Trump was clear on the threats in December of 2017, name-checking Russia, but noting the adversaries go beyond Russia. In fact, China is a far more formidable threat to our economy, has stolen far more data, and is diligently working to shape public narratives about China.
Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data.
Unfortunately, this set of threats is entangled in our fractious domestic politics. As a result, President Trump’s National Security Strategy only offers a minimal outline response. The very thin action list, relative to the rest of the NSS, found on page 14, suggests that McMaster could not get sign-off on very substantive initiatives. Perhaps, if the 2018 midterm election turns out to be a blue riptide, rather than wave, some consensus will emerge to work on real election security.
The reactions to President Trump’s first meeting with President Putin fully justify Trump’s adamant refusal to cede the terms of debate to his domestic foes. His actions, across all instruments of national power, give the lie to accusations of collusion, softness, and betrayal of allies. He has, so far, done as well as an American president could do within the extraordinary constraints of domestic opposition turned up to 11. At the same time, the past 18 months have debunked the claim that Trump could not be trusted with the nuclear codes. The unhinged opposition, on the other hand, does not inspire confidence in what would happen if they had that big nuclear button.