Donald Trump’s clumsy expressions of interest in getting along with Vladimir Putin continue to provoke widespread outrage. The desperate indignation of Trump’s critics, however, threatens to interfere with US co-operation with Russia on vital national security issues. The latest furor erupted after Bill O’Reilly of Fox News asked Trump why he respected Vladimir Putin despite his being ‘a killer’. ‘There are a lot of killers,’ Trump replied. ‘What, you think our country’s so innocent?’
According to the Washington Post, Trump’s ‘suggestion that the United States is morally equivalent to a ruthless regime’ was ‘pernicious’ and ‘shocking’. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal spluttered that Trump had slandered the US as being on a ‘moral par with Putin’s Russia’. Bill Press of The Hill hyperventilated: ‘No president has ever betrayed his own country so totally and so openly.’ (The New York Times was more restrained, merely calling Trump’s failure to endorse American exceptionalism ‘disturbing’.)
From a factual standpoint – not ‘alternative facts’ but historical facts – Trump is right: the United States is not so innocent and has sought to kill many enemies. President Eisenhower in 1960 approved the assassination of Patrice Lumumba (though the CIA failed to poison him and others murdered him). Under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, the CIA repeatedly tried to kill Fidel Castro. George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq that started with ‘decapitation’ strikes at Saddam Hussein and led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians – a point Trump awkwardly tried to make to O’Reilly. Barack Obama authorised the 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen. The list could be greatly extended: Operation Phoenix in Vietnam; Operation Condor in Latin America; Operation COINTELPRO in the United States – and on and on.
But the uproar is not about facts. It is about affirming an idealistic American self-image that has for more than a century been buttressed by contrasts to its dark counterpart, Russia. Long before Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire’ in 1983, and even before Lenin seized power in 1917, the brutal treatment of Jews and political dissenters in the tsarist empire led Americans to loathe Russia as a barbarous prison, the opposite of American civilisation and freedom. That had the benefit of deflecting attention from such American problems as the widespread lynching of African Americans. But it also led to actions that US leaders soon regretted, such as the abrogation of a commercial treaty with Russia in 1912, which damaged US trade but did nothing to improve Russian treatment of Jews.
More adamantly than any other American, Reagan insisted on America’s exceptional virtues and excoriated Soviet immorality. But denouncing Soviet leaders as liars, cheats and murderers, imposing economic sanctions and applying military pressure only strengthened the position of xenophobic Soviet hardliners and spurred them to tighten repression.
In 1984 Reagan changed course, softened his rhetoric and expressed stronger interest in meeting with Soviet leaders. Once Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Reagan had a potential partner. With strong encouragement from anti-nuclear activists and ‘citizen diplomats’, Reagan and Gorbachev overcame distrust and by 1988 largely ended the Cold War.
Putin is not Gorbachev and Trump is not Reagan. But tensions between the US and Russia aren’t what they were, either. When Reagan first met Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985, the dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov was in KGB-supervised internal exile, the USSR was waging war in Afghanistan, and US hardliners were bitterly opposed to any negotiation with Moscow.
Trump and Putin have an important opportunity to work together against international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking and other threats. That chance may be missed if journalists and politicians persist in vilifying Putin, harassing Trump with charges that he is Putin’s puppet, and throwing legislative roadblocks in the way of strategic and economic co-operation.
In the wake of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo – not to mention Hiroshima, Nagasaki, My Lai and much, much more – exceptionalist faith in American moral superiority has lost credibility with anyone who isn’t a ranting ideologue.