The start of House Intelligence Committee hearings on Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election revealed starkly different partisan agendas. Republicans want to know who criminally leaked classified information for political purposes, culminating in the political assassination of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. It is clear as a matter of established fact that such leaks took place.
Democrats, on the other hand, doubled down on “Russiagate,” their fevered accusations that the Trump team is in the pocket of the Kremlin. For the latter, there is still no evidence.
But that isn’t keeping the mainstream media and their left-wing and neoconservative allies from shrieking that Russia tops the list of America’s enemies. Critics of this hysteria have dubbed it a “new McCarthyism,” but that really is unfair — to Tail Gunner Joe. Whatever his excesses, in his day there really were Stalinist agents in America and covert communists at the State Department.
The hype around this red scare without reds has been matched only by the absence of evidence to back it up. As the #TheRussiansDidIt meme becomes an object of mockery, even some on the left are beginning to caution that they might have overdone it and stand to lose politically.
Even former CIA Acting Director and Hillary Clinton apparatchik Michael Morell, who infamously called for assassinating Russian personnel fighting radical Islamic terrorists in Syria — and who last year claimed that “in the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation” — is now admitting they’re coming up empty.”On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire at all,” Mr. Morell now says. “There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.”
The witch hunters may already have inflicted real damage on themselves. A lot of Americans who don’t necessarily know or care much about Russia do know a pack of lies when they see it (or smell it). And if they’re lying about President Trump and his ties to the Russians, maybe a lot of stuff being peddled about Russia and the “killer thug” Vladimir Putin isn’t all what is claimed, either. As the former Canadian diplomat Patrick Armstrong points out, as Trump Derangement Syndrome converges with Putin Derangement Syndrome into a single paranoid fantasy, folks may be concluding that if anti-Trumpers hate Russia so much, it can’t be all that bad.
That already seems to be happening on the American right. A December 2016 YouGov/Economist poll showed Republicans’ favorable opinion of Mr. Putin had shot up 56 points since July 2014. By February 2017, an NBC News poll showed Republicans evenly split 50-49 percent on whether a Russia was an “Ally/Friendly” versus “Unfriendly/Enemy.” Russia was Ally/Friendly for a whopping 73 percent of Republicans in the 18-29-year-old age group. By contrast, Democrats were anti-Russian, 76-23 percent.
In short, through the lens of American politics, not only has the Russian bogeyman failed as a weapon to bring down Mr. Trump, it may have actually improved the image of Russia and Mr. Putin. The icing on the cake is provided in inimitable style by Ann Coulter in her column “Let’s Make Russia Our Sister Country!”:
“Liberals are hopping mad with Putin. They could never forgive Russia for giving up communism.
“To add insult to injury, Putin embraced the Russian Orthodox Church! This was deeply offensive to fiercely Christophobic liberals.
“The left’s hysteria about Russia isn’t just an attempt to delegitimize Trump. It’s the usual Christophobic fifth column rooting for the Islamization of the West.”
Mr. Trump hasn’t moved yet toward any “grand bargain” with Moscow, but there are indications of small steps on the ground, in the less politicized military sphere. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford met this month in Antalya, Turkey, with his Russian and Turkish counterparts to set the stage for what is shaping up as a joint offensive against the Islamic State by American, Russian, Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish forces. In Syria’s Idlib province, both American and Russian air forces have been hitting al Qaeda and allied jihadists. It is significant that targeted groups in Idlib include supposedly “moderate” terrorists armed by the Obama administration; a bill introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat, and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, would finally stop U.S. weapons transfers to such groups.
When all is said and done, the real issue isn’t what we think of Russia, but whether America can implement a realist agenda of national self-interest. That means dropping the demonization of post-communist Russia as America’s main adversary, with its corollary that arming jihadists is a useful policy tool. Instead, the fight should be against radical Islamic terrorism, where we and Russia fundamentally are on the same side. It’s time to choose.
• Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow. Jim Jatras is a former U.S. diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership.