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The Russia Issues We Don't Talk About

Talk this week is all about the Russian hacking and its effect, or lack thereof, on the election. Democrats and hawkish Republicans condemn the Russian actions and demand strong sanctions. Trump, alone as usual, attempts to discredit the intelligence and move past the controversy. The primary motives for these positions are not hard to discern. Democrats wish to undermine Trump’s legitimacy, and hawkish Republicans want to maintain their hardline stance against Russia. And nobody—save Trump—wants to appear to side with Vladimir Putin or Julian Assange. Trump clearly wants to dispute Russian involvement to undermine the narrative that he was elected with help from a nasty foreign adversary. And he is typically resistant to backing off his campaign stance regarding his desire to work with Russia. But there are two underlying issues that help to fuel the Russia debate and are never spoken about: Trump’s strategy for dealing with the civil war in Syria and his approach vis-a-vis China. Both are important to his foreign and domestic goals.

Trump has made the destruction of ISIS his first and most important foreign policy objective—and he must achieve this goal without the commitment of any material number of American ground forces. His presidency is premised in large part  on success in these areas: He must defend the homeland through the defeat of “radical Islamic extremism” and he must end American intervention in foreign—especially Middle Eastern—wars that bleed us (especially the sons and daughters of his supporters who do the fighting) and achieve no discernable benefit. For anyone who can read a map, there is a simple way to achieve these goals but one that is politically unpalatable for anyone other than Trump. Once the US begins to work with the Russians in Syria and drops support of the Syrian moderate rebels (as Turkey seems to be doing now), ISIS will be crushed in a pincer attack directed by the Syrians from the west and the Kurds from the east. Russia and Turkey are now working together in Syria, and Russia has said it will invite the US to take part as soon as Trump assumes office. This is a simple, low-cost and effective solution, but one that Democrats and hawkish Republicans strenuously resist because it means abandoning our allies and cooperating with parties we have deemed evil and antagonistic to our interests: Putin and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Perhaps in the medium-to-long-term, the Democrats and hawkish Republicans are right; this is debatable. But in the near term, the Trump strategy has a good chance of succeeding and what’s more, it is a genuine strategy—something we haven’t had for a while. Part of the argument over Russia is really a hidden debate about Syria. This is reason one why Trump won’t drop the Russians.

Reason two is domestic, with crucial economic components. Trump doesn’t want to fight with the Russians for the next four years because he wants to fight with the Chinese. The Russians don’t take our jobs, the Chinese do. When his supporters walk down the aisles in Wal-Mart they don’t see goods made in Russia, they see merchandise from China. Trump wants to move production back to our shores, especially to the old industrial heartland. Doing so is going to mean a tough fight with China. For the last 20 years, industrial production has shifted from the US to China, making possible a vast improvement in the lives of many Chinese people (and the American financial and business elites that service the related capital) and has had a devastating impact on the American working class. The latter are the people who put Trump into office. Reversing this process will be extremely difficult—impossible if you ask our best and brightest—but Trump was elected to try. If he’s going to be in a trade and economic war with the Chinese, he’s going to need all the help he can get. Support from the Russians in international forums will be of some help. Opposition by the Russians would make this difficult task even more farfetched. Again, the Democratic and Republican elites oppose the Trump Chinese strategy and believe it is seriously misguided, if not delusional, which helps explain their preference for keeping the Russians as our enemy and bonding with the Chinese. After all, aren’t the Chinese working with us to combat climate change? 

The Russian debate, like all political debates at the moment, is really an argument between globalists and nationalists. Globalists, including the Democratic and Republican establishments, are determined to oppose Russia, support democratic movements in developing countries and work with China. Nationalists, including Trump and the rising European nationalist parties, are interested in working with Russia, have a Westphalian approach to movements in other countries (in other words, don’t meddle) and are determined to take jobs back from China. In the US, the political elites of both parties, the media and academia are all on the side of the globalists and are determined to take down Trump. Trump has everyone against him—except a large number of the American people. 

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Guest Tuesday, November 21, 2017