Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Blocking Detente

By Reginald Johnson


   There’s a possibility for making a better relationship between the United States and Russia, but the knives are out.

    U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met last week in Hamburg, Germany and had what appeared to be a very constructive meeting. The two discussed a range of issues including the war in Syria, the battle against terrorism, cyber security and the charges of Russian meddling in the US presidential election last year.

    The two leaders were able to strike an agreement for a cease-fire in a section of Syria and coordinate with each other in the battle against ISIS. They agreed to disagree on the claim of Russian hacking.

   According to Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, the Trump-Putin  meeting may augur a new day in Russia-US relations.

  Cohen said the meeting represented a “potentially historic new détente, anti-Cold War partnership begun by Trump and Putin.”  He noted that the relations between the two nuclear-armed superpowers are at their lowest point in decades.

  “What we saw today was potentially the most fateful meeting between an American and Russian president since the wartime (World War II),"  said Cohen, who witnessed the Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings in the 1980s.  “The reason is the relationship between the US and Russia is so dangerous.”

   But Cohen, speaking on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox television on Friday,  hours after the meeting, cautioned that the proposed new partnership will likely come under “vicious attack.”

   How right he was. Over the next few days there was a fierce pushback. On Sunday,  three longtime critics of Trump and Russia took to the airwaves to criticize Trump’s performance in Hamburg and blast the idea of a partnership.

  Neo-con senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said it made no sense to forge a new agreement with Russia without punishing Russia first for the alleged cyber attacks in the US election last fall.

  They and others keep insisting that Russian responsibility for the hacking is flat fact, despite serious doubts raised by a number of cyber experts, the fact that the report on the hacking was done not by the FBI but by a company hired by the Democratic National Committee,  the fact that the company’s  chief technical officer is an anti-Putin Russian émigré and the fact that a full National Intelligence Estimate on the hacking,  involving all 17 intelligence agencies, was never done (contrary to assertions by many politicians and the media).

  Speaking on the NBC show “Meet the Press,” Graham said Trump gave a “terrific speech” in Poland earlier in the week on his European trip, but then had what he called a  “disastrous meeting” with Putin in Germany.   The senator said the president has a “blind spot” on Russia and his attitude that we should  “forgive and forget when it comes to Putin regarding cyber attacks is to empower Putin and that is exactly what he is doing.”

  McCain criticized Trump’s tweet over the weekend that he “looked forward to working constructively with the Russians” --- actually, a thoroughly laudable goal, in my view.

  But McCain demanded that Putin must pay a stiff price for the claimed hacking. “Otherwise he’ll be encouraged to do it again,” he said.

  John Brennan, former director of the CIA, also appeared on “Meet the Press” and made similar criticisms about the alleged hacking and Trump’s seeming soft attitude towards it.

   ( I have to digress a bit here. It’s amazing how discredited figures like Brennan can be trotted out by NBC to weigh in as esteemed authorities on issues of law and proper behavior. Under Brennan , the CIA conducted drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that killed many civilians --- a breach of international law. The agency also used unlawful interrogation techniques, including torture, in dealing with prisoners in the years following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. When a Senate committee began investigating the torture claims, the CIA was reluctant to cooperate and in fact spied on the Senate staff investigators by hacking  (yes, hacking!)  into their computers. But now those days are over and Brennan is suddenly an expert analyst on TV, inveighing against hacking by Russia.)

 As typified by the “Meet the Press” show hosted by Chuck Todd --- who did not bring in a guest who offered a more favorable view of Trump’s Hamburg meeting – the media coverage of the Hamburg meeting, Putin and Russia in general has been decidedly negative.

   On Friday evening, NBC reporter Richard Engel hosted a show called “On Assignment” which presented a scathing, and very one-sided report on Putin and Russia. Basically, he and the guests on the show portrayed Russia as a criminal state where Putin operated as a Mafia boss working with wealthy oligarchs. The show described numerous mysterious killings that have taken place in Russia and outside, in which dissidents and government critics have been murdered. Some of the stories were chilling and had the ring of truth.

However, Engel presented little in the way of countervailing theories in his piece on  the various murders as well as the bombing of an apartment building which killed hundreds of people, and which critics say was ordered by Putin. Government officials were not given any chance to rebut the claims of illegality. Putin was painted from beginning to end as a brutal killer who can’t be trusted.

While some of the claims of Russian government criminality may be true, I have to be skeptical when a reporter is portraying a person or officials as having committed acts of gross illegality or murder but does not bother to give the accused a chance to respond.

 Given the one-sided presentation and the timing of the show --- aired on the evening of the day of the Trump-Putin meeting – the show came across as a hit piece designed to undermine any notion that working with Russia or Putin was a worthwhile goal.

  The avalanche of criticism of Trump and Putin from both Republicans and Democrats continued on Monday on shows like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”  hosted by bitter Trump critics Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezinski.

So the demonization of Russia, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump goes on, undermining the prospects of a more positive and less dangerous relationship between the superpowers. Given the size of the two nations’ nuclear arsenals and the areas of the world that could be flashpoints for conflict between the U.S. and Russia, like Syria and Ukraine, that is a shame.


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