Keeping Russia’s Electoral Misdeeds in Perspective

Concerns about Russia’s apparent interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election are becoming deeper and more widespread.  The latest episode was the indictment of 13 Russian nationals as a result of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.  The indictments allege that those individuals operated an internet “troll farm” producing propaganda to exacerbate America’s political and social divisions.  The alleged goal was to weaken Hillary Clinton’s electoral prospects (as well as those of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) and strengthen those of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

If such activities occurred with the approval of Vladimir Putin’s government (as is likely the case) Moscow has committed a serious breach of diplomatic norms.  However, angry Americans need to keep the offense in perspective.  The social media propaganda campaign was surprisingly crude and amateurish.  Even the Mueller indictment conceded that there is no evidence the efforts of the Russian trolls changed even a small number of votes, much less altered the outcome of the presidential contest.

However, as I point out in a recent National Interest Online article, the reaction in some American political and media circles to the “Russian meddling” scandal, even before the latest revelations, was shrill to the point of outright hysteria.  The most egregious manifestation is the determination of some critics of the Trump administration to compare Moscow’s behavior to an act of war akin to Pearl Harbor and 9-11.

There are numerous examples of such hyperbole.  At a March 2017 House Homeland Security Committee session, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) accused Russia of engaging in outright warfare against the United States. “I think this attack that we’ve experienced is a form of war, a form of war on our fundamental democratic principles.”  During House Intelligence Committee hearings that same month, several of Coleman’s Democratic colleagues made similar alarmist statements.  Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) insisted that Russia’s activities were “an act of war.”  Washington Democratic congressman Denny Heck explicitly compared Russia’s actions to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Such threat inflation was not confined to House members. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, similarly described the election meddling as an “attack” and likened it to a “political Pearl Harbor.”  More recently, Bernie Sanders asserted that “Russia’s attack on our democracy is of enormous consequence.”

Since the Mueller indictments, the comparisons to the Pearl Harbor and 9-11 attacks have become even more numerous and explicit.  Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, asserted flatly that the troll farm’s activities were “the equivalent of Pearl Harbor.”  New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described the incident as “a 9/11 scale event. They attacked the core of our democracy. That was a Pearl Harbor scale event.”

There are several problems with such strident rhetoric.  First, the hypocrisy is a bit thick, since the Russian election meddling was merely an amateurish version of what the United States has done in dozens of countries, including democratic countries, for decades.  Indeed, U.S. operatives, some of whom had ties with Bill Clinton’s administration, played major roles in Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign.

Second, using the terminology and imagery of warfare seems to reflect a desire to trigger a second cold war with Moscow.  Such an approach is irresponsible.  Indeed, fomenting increased tensions with Russia, the one country with the nuclear firepower to destroy American civilization, clearly is unwise, since a cold war could always turn hot.  And to raise the risk level merely in response to mundane, ineffectual election meddling is utterly reckless.

Finally, equating Moscow’s conduct with the Pearl Harbor and 9-11 attacks is illogical and calls into question either the sincerity or judgment of those making the comparison.  The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald highlights the obvious fallacy.

The only specific proposal one hears now when it comes to responding to Russian meddling is a call for “sanctions.” But if one really believes that Russia’s actions amount to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, then sanctions seem like a very lame — indeed, a woefully inadequate — response. To borrow their rhetoric, imagine if Roosevelt had confined his response to Pearl Harbor to sanctions on Japanese leaders, or if Bush had announced sanctions on Al Qaeda as his sole response to 9/11. If you really believe this rhetoric, then you must support retaliation beyond mere sanctions.

Such escalation, of course, would be tremendously dangerous.  Opponents of the Trump administration need to dial back their shrill accusations regarding the issue of Russia’s election meddling.  Even if all of the allegations made to date ultimately prove to be accurate (and that is far from certain), those misdeeds fall far short of constituting an act of war.  Introducing hysteria into the discussion serves no useful purpose.