Not So Innocent

David S. Foglesong

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.


  • 10 February 2017 at 7:18pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Agreed. But I suspect that when Trump does meet Putin, such pressing issues as international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking and other threats will not be high on the agenda. It will be all about the deal, the carve-up. Or, as we say in London, the stitch-up.

  • 10 February 2017 at 9:12pm
    Joshua K says:
    "exceptionalist faith in American moral superiority has lost credibility with anyone who isn’t a ranting ideologue"

    Nope. It remains a firm article of faith for Obama, the Clintons, the Bushes, McCain, Pelosi, NYT, Wash Post, CNN, SNL, likely most of the contributors to this blog. Too many have invested too much of themselves in this idea for too long to ever let go.

  • 11 February 2017 at 7:18am
    Joe Morison says:
    It is not a matter of the US being a uniquely moral paragon (although virtually all US politicians pay lip-service, I doubt the saner ones actually believe it), or of Putin’s wickedness; and it is easy to compile a list of US atrocities. What still makes the US’s a vastly better system than Russia’s is the separation of powers and the freedom of individuals and the press to speak their mind. We have already seen Trump lash out at the press and the judiciary, on Twitter. In Russia journalists would be dead and judges are not stupid enough to make waves. We know about the US’s atrocities because US citizens got the information out and others publicized it; those citizens are alive and prospering in the US, in Russia they would be dead, in prison, or in exile fearing for their life (yes, Chelsea Manning is only now about to be released and Snowdon is in exile; two too many, but still only two and at least they are alive).

    Daesh and its ilk may be such a heinous enemy that we need some cooperation with Putin, but he and Trump are cut from the same cloth. For both everything is about power; truth and knowledge as ends in themselves, compassion, decency and democracy - these ideas are entirely alien to them. They are creatures of a pre-Enlightenment time wielding the power of a post-Enlightenment world, they are the enemy we face not some absurd throwback to a medieval religion. Unless we all, of the left and right, everyone who believes in those basic Enlightenment values, gather together to stand against this new-reactionism we are in for some sort of hideous post-truth dark age.

    • 11 February 2017 at 7:46am
      Delaide says: @ Joe Morison
      Nailed it.

    • 11 February 2017 at 9:31am
      Dominic Rice says: @ Joe Morison
      The key point about Trump is that his election *was* a reaction (albeit no solution) to an 'Enlightenment' that had culminated in a wholly corporate-owned polity. When even Jimmy Carter publicly acknowledges that the US is no longer a democracy but a corporate-owned oligarchy, it's obvious that a return to the Clinton / Bush status quo ante will not suffice for most Americans.

    • 11 February 2017 at 10:41am
      Joe Morison says: @ Dominic Rice
      That is the one good thing about Trump’s victory. If Clinton had won, the Trump supporters would be incandescent and unaccepting, and we would be trying to comfort ourselves with the thought that we knew she would be awful but at least she is not him.
      The enemy is a way of thinking which is so obviously not just morally but also logically wrong that we did not realize it could still inspire, but suddenly these people who before only criticized from the margins are running the show. Its supporters like to say that now the grown-ups are in control; they will soon find out that there is nothing more adolescent than thinking that the adult world is one of easy choices, and that there are few things more absurdly childish than stamping one’s foot and refusing to admit it simply because one does not like what has been shown to be true.

      There is no going back to what we had before. There has to be a new consensus.

    • 11 February 2017 at 12:26pm
      deuchars48 says: @ Joe Morison
      I don't disagree with the proposition that US citizens are much freer than Russian citizens (though discussion of this issue tends to ignore the number of US dissidents, principally black panthers, murdered and jailed under COINTELPRO). However the fact remains that, when acting abroad, the US has killed, or assisted in the killing of, vast numbers of civilians, and continues to kill significant numbers of civilians and no one responsible is ever held to account. The fact that information about these killings is freely available in the US and circulates amongst a plainly politically ineffectual subsection of the population is interesting but I'm not sure that it justifies quite such a positive conclusion about the US as Joe Morrison suggests. Another way of looking at this state of affairs would be to say that the willingness of the mainstream media and the bulk of the population to pay no attention to all this killing is strong evidence of a deep-rooted belief in a US exceptionalism that justifies these horrors. When Chelsea Manning disclosed evidence of widespread atrocities the principal reaction was that Chelsea should be jailed for revealing the information, not that the perpetrators should be brought to justice. We in Western Europe have probably benefited from US hegemony but I'm not sure the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, to take one example, would recognise an obvious distinction between the medieval brutality of ISIS and the enlightenment values expressed by US foreign policy in their neck of the woods

    • 12 February 2017 at 6:56am
      Joe Morison says: @ deuchars48
      Until recently I was very critical of politics in the West (especially the US) and our atrocious record abroad, and I blame it for having got us where we are today. But for all their manifold faults, the people involved did on the whole believe in the idea of truth - at its heart was thinking one felt could be reasoned with. At the heart of the Trump administration, I see only raging ego and contempt. Rational people need to form a common front.

    • 19 February 2017 at 4:43pm
      If I were Putin, I'd take comfort in the fact that Trump, although a gangster of sorts, is in most respects not good at it. Successful gangsters avoid lawsuits, and certainly avoid lawsuits in their thousands.

  • 11 February 2017 at 11:55am
    deuchars48 says:
    " exceptionalist faith in American moral superiority has lost credibility with anyone who isn’t a ranting ideologue."

    Isn't this claim falsified by the response to Trump's statement of equivalence reported a couple of paragraphs earlier?

    "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.’"

    • 12 February 2017 at 6:12pm
      Edward Weldon says: @ deuchars48
      Truth? Iraq, Libya, Afgahnistan, Syria, Egypt, Yemen...... Irresponsiblr madness is what I would call it. I'm not sure how the world would look without Putin to keep the west in check. I imagine something resembling complete

    • 15 February 2017 at 11:59pm
      Graucho says: @ Edward Weldon
      Afgahnistan ? Didn't Russia invade the place in 1980 or did I dream that or was it another act of altruism driven by the need for stability ?

  • 11 February 2017 at 12:51pm
    streetsj says:
    Having Trump, a businessman, in power should change the way the MSM look at things and about time. In the UK the media is obsessed with parliament - and the drama of it. It has no interest in the real workings of the legislature. programmes are populated with people who are guaranteed (and obliged by the rules of the game) to spend their time trying to score points rather than illuminate. Meanwhile the coverage of business is trite if it's covered at all. The mainstream media report business news only if it is scandalous - bribery/pay/pensions - there is no discussion or light shone on how business controls much of the way the country is ruled. Which is of course how they want it.
    Take just one issue: pensions. The City shuts most of its final salary pension schemes before 2000 - it was already clear that they were simply too expensive (especially once Gordon Brown had removed the dividend tax break, after the Tories had forced the regurgitation of surpluses/contribution holidays). Most corporates kept them going for much longer and the Govt of course still has them.
    The media only gets interested when there's a tabloid villain in the form of Philip Green to lynch. Now Green is an unsympathetic character but, as far as I can tell, has done nothing much of the rest of business hasn't done: whether it's gearing up the business to avoid paying corporation tax (that IS what private equity does) or making too small contributions to a pension scheme and failing to match the assets with the liabilities.

    • 17 February 2017 at 1:51pm
      D G Williams says: @ streetsj
      Here, Here!

  • 11 February 2017 at 3:44pm
    whisperit says:
    I am at a loss to understand why David S Fogelsong suggests that Trump and Putin "have the opportunity to work together to international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking and other threats" as if combating these evils is what they aspire to do.

    He's right to that this is an interesting moment. In recent times, the US government has obfuscated and denied its dark side. It kills through proxies, or drones, and when it bombs under its own flag, it proclaims its use of "smart bombs" that only kill baddies. Its torture is done at arms length; its rapacious economic system is cloaked with talk about trickledown and opportunity at home and "bringing democracy" abroad.

    But Trump has discarded the mask. People read him - even when he covers his mouth - as saying, "I don't care about other people. I don't care about legality or moral integrity. I am sexist, homophobic, and racist and I am out to make as much money as I can."

    People voted for him because they could no longer sustain the cognitive dissonance that subscribing to the prior settlement seemed to involve.

    Putin has a similar appeal, and the weakness of Russian civil society allows him to suppress dissent without scruple. Trump isn't yet as bold or as battle-hardened, but there is no doubt that he sees Putin as a mentor.

    What he wants is not the grand international coalition against the evils that Fogelsong enumerates. Rather, he sees the Russian model of gangster capitalism safeguarded by a brutal, authoritarian nationalism as some sort of ideal. At present, how far he can go depends in part on how far the opposition grants him a loose leash - "He isn't really a fascist", "Don't rile him, he'll only lash out", "Don't worry, the system has checks and balances" etc etc. With a passive opposition, though, the future is clear.

  • 11 February 2017 at 5:50pm
    Graucho says:
    This is simply a two wrongs not making a right issue. Mr. T's response to why is he supporting a killer is that the U.S. are killers too. So what ? Complete non sequitur. Vlad is a murdering thug, whatever the U.S. does, and any man with a scintilla of decency and humanity would not support or admire him.

  • 12 February 2017 at 4:46pm
    Peanut Gallery says:
    David S. Foglesong writes, “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…exceptionalist faith in American moral superiority has lost credibility with anyone who isn’t a ranting ideologue.” I believe this exemplifies the ill-judged combination of critical harshness and idealistic naïveté that too often backfires on the left.

    Yes, it is a fact that America has committed atrocities throughout its history—Foglesong does not even mention the Native American genocide—and that this makes it impossible to assert American moral exceptionalism with a straight face. Even so, the “idealistic American self-image” Foglesong lambasts could just as easily be described as American moral aspirationalism, the belief that America ought to be a nation that defends human rights, equality, and justice. American aspirationalism remains credible in mainstream circles across the political spectrum, as the response to Trump’s comments by The Wall Street Journal et. al. demonstrates. American aspirationalism is behind virtually all of the current righteous opposition to Trump, from the war veterans who have volunteered to defend Standing Rock protesters to the thousands who have swarmed airports and border checkpoints to defend the rights of immigrants. Any time the United States has done something good or refrained from doing something worse—say, welcomed refugees, or taken steps to minimize civilian casualties—you can bet aspirationalism was a key part of the deliberations. The grotesquerie of the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, etc. does not alter the fact that aspirationalism remains the only mainstream discourse through which better policies in America become thinkable.

    Although it could be debated whether the United States has perpetrated more or less evil than Russia, there are vices common in Russian society that are still unacceptable in America, such as the murder of journalists and widespread corruption of the courts. The authoritarianism and mafia tactics that enable these vices are precisely what Trump admires in Putin. It is utterly naïve to think that Trump will forge a healthy collaboration with Russia to combat international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and drug trafficking: this is, after all, the man who wondered out loud why the US doesn’t use its nukes, whose first anti-terrorism initiative has been to discriminate illegally against Muslims, and whose anti-drug initiatives include deporting random innocent Mexican-Americans. It is far more likely that Trump and Putin will bond over their shared contempt for democracy and work together to enrich themselves and their cronies. Journalists and politicians have a solemn duty right now to fight the cultivation of Putinesque authoritarianism in America and to investigate Trump’s suspicious ties to the Russian regime.

  • 12 February 2017 at 7:51pm
    Edward Weldon says:
    Putin wants stabilty. The guy is rational and predictable. - Complete opposite of Trump.

    • 12 February 2017 at 11:30pm
      Graucho says: @ Edward Weldon
      Is he really after stability in the Ukraine, Syria and the Baltic states ? Well only in so far as it coincides with Russian hegemony.

    • 14 February 2017 at 10:36am
      stockwelljonny says: @ Edward Weldon
      Its fairly obvious that this is not the case. Putin has promoted instability across the west and this self evidently strengthens his position at home and internationally.

  • 13 February 2017 at 8:35am
    Edward Weldon says:
    Of course stability is in Russia's interest. But also in our interest. Imagine Syria without Assad & Putin;- absolute chaos, worse than Libya because it involves the whole region.

    • 14 February 2017 at 1:11pm
      Edward Weldon says: @ Edward Weldon
      Its not obvious to me at all.. pr am i missing something? The west succeeds in destabilisng itself and then puts the blame on Putin. Which is Ridiculous .

    • 16 February 2017 at 12:03am
      Graucho says: @ Edward Weldon
      Ah so the Russians bombed schools, hospitals and aid convoys in Syria out of the goodness of their hearts to promote stability. What a sweetie Mr. Putin is. Medecin Sans Frontiers should really give him a vote of thanks for all of their aid workers he has killed.

  • 13 February 2017 at 8:45am
    Edward Weldon says:
    One could also argue that by intervening in the Ukraine and the Crimea, Russia has prevented a much bloodier civil conflict. And the Baltic States are just about a defunct & lost NATO trying to justify its own existence by provoking an unneccesary situation.

    • 14 February 2017 at 7:03am
      Joe Morison says: @ Edward Weldon
      Who are you ‘Edward Weldon’? It’s a wonderfully English name (I imagine a provincial solicitor in an Agatha Christie novel), and you say that although stability is in Putin’s interest, it is also in ‘our’ interest - but who are we? Because your English, although formally correct, doesn’t feel like that of a native born speaker. And as for your world view, well, in the last 40 years there have been few days when I have not listened to native Westerners discussing politics and I have never heard anything like it. Perhaps when I was a teenager, and the Cold War had not obviously been won, there were a few deluded souls who still sincerely bleated ‘East good, West bad’ - but not since then. Someone who imagines the whole world would resemble ‘complete anarchy’ if Putin wasn’t there to keep us ‘in check’ - wow!

      It could be argued, you say, that by illegally invading the Crimea and Ukraine, Putin has prevented a much bloodier civil conflict (one, no doubt, that he would have funded and armed) - it’s more usual on this blog to actually argue something rather than point out that it’s arguable. It could be argued that you are most likely a junior member of an English faculty at a Russian university looking to earn Brownie points by posting this drivel.

  • 14 February 2017 at 7:54am
    frmurphy98 says:
    "As for your world view, well, in the last 40 years there have been few days when I have not listened to native Westerners discussing politics and I have never heard anything like it"

    Maybe you should try independent thought, with a clear mind, rather than parroting the narrative of a warmongering political and media class. (And attempting to slur and delegitimize anybody willing to look past the propaganda).

  • 14 February 2017 at 10:45am
    Edward Weldon says:
    Joe Morrison? Its a pleasure ! Are you telapathic? Yes I am an evil russian spy, doing a media Darlington Tech......
    Shocking isnt it? First I rig the US election & now The LRB is within my evil grasp.

  • 14 February 2017 at 11:10am
    Edward Weldon says:
    But seriously is it so crazy what i say? I am interested in objectivity and its almost impossible to find. The present situation is
    beneficial to both sides; Putin can appear resolute and unphased by western pressure & sanctions- Western politicians can feel good about themselves by getting tough with Putin. People continue to suffer. In Iraq, Syria, Yemen , Libya, & also in the Ukraine. But did Russia start any of these conflicts? Putin is a bastard, but a careful bastard who knows what he's doing. Trump is a crazy bastard. A big daft kid. More similar to Erdogan than to Putin

  • 14 February 2017 at 7:39pm
    John Cowan says:
    "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose."

    —Harry Frankfurt, "On Bullshit" (1986)

  • 15 February 2017 at 12:13am
    kevingan says:
    "If you sup with the Devil, bring a long spoon!"

    The wisdom of the ancients, and one of Chaucer's favorite proverbs--but with these two, whose spoon's the longest? A question they often ask as they inspect themselves each morning, I'm quite certain.

  • 15 February 2017 at 9:38pm
    trishjw says:
    No, USA is not totally innocent and the assassinations you mentioned are true--with a few others in So. America and Iran over a longer period of time. But up to now anyway, we haven't killed numerous opposition politicians, activists or journalists in less than 10 years as Putin has in Russia let alone those that USSR killed in or out of the country over the 75 years they existed. All countries get even messier and bloodier before 20th Century started. No one is perfect by any means but quantities do start to count if you keep with 21C and limit them to ordered assassinations by the ruling leader.

  • 17 February 2017 at 6:25am
    Konstanzhoglo says:
    Russians call the americans/the USA the murders too. but there is a big difference. There is an authoritarian regime in Russia. And as every authoritarian regime it's personalized unlike the regime of the U.S

    So adversaries of Russian regime know it and use its excellent opportunity to punch personally mr. Putin.

    Russians don't have such opportunity because power in the US is not personalized. The name of the US presidents doesn't mean the same as the name of the Russian leaders. They don't embody the regime of the U.S. and naming the U.S. president or the U.S. or americans the murdering thug(s) is not so effective indignity as an indignity of Russians leader.

    This is the point.

  • 19 February 2017 at 1:28am
    wse9999 says:
    The American academic scene harbours some odd characters, from different ends of the spectrum, and Mr F is one, new to me. You wonder what drives their opinions, because, like here, it’s not just the facts. Maybe it’s just being different for the sake of it, to be noticed.
    Thus for Mr F the US and Russia are “morally equivalent”! He can’t be serious.
    Yes the US has problems, particularly the whole issue of slavery and its ongoing ramifications, and yes the impact of religion on politics. But talk of “moral equivalence” is preposterous.
    The tragedy for Russia today is the lingering baleful hand of the Soviet nightmare. Alas for the long suffering populace in Russia the end of the Cold War was not the end of the malignant Soviet mentality and practice. It’s alive and well.
    So it’s simple really. End of the day, for all its flaws the US is basically committed to the Liberal democratic model, based on rule of law, a free press (hear that Donald!?), and open democratic government. Russia’s current system is not only the converse of this, but the country remains actively antagonistic to the “West”.
    Mind you Putin’s faux-Soviet system probably faces the same fate as the USSR. Can they really afford to fund their recent ongoing aggression and increased military commitment?

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