Paul R. Grenier: On Natasha Bertrand’s McCarthyite Hit Piece

Politico’s “Mueller report reveals Kushner’s contacts with a ‘pro-Kremlin’ campaign adviser” (Politico, April 29, 2019), is dishonest, destructive, and should never have appeared in print.

The author of the piece, Natasha Bertrand, initially refers to Dimitri Simes, CEO of the Center for the National Interest, not as an American citizen, although of course he is and has been for many years, nor as a leading representative of realist foreign policy thinking in the United States, which would have also been true.

Instead, she initially frames him (in every sense of the word ‘frame’) as “a Russian willing to assist” the Trump campaign. This word choice rings, and is intended to ring, the Pavlovian bells of the Russia-gate narrative. Aside from being dishonest, her word choice smacks of racism — a habit, to be sure, which is now widespread, as long as the object of that racism is Russia.

If Ms. Bertrand has regularly watched the program The Great Game (Bol’shaia igra), and understands it, and if she is familiar with Simes’ writings and conferences and the publications that appear in The National Interest, then she has no excuse for writing this piece in the first place. The genre to which this piece belongs is clear.

It is called a hit piece. 

Bertrand deploys, of course, a few fig leaves of pretend objectivity, which may have helped assuage her conscience, but that is all that these fig leaves can do. What we have here is a list of scurrilous attacks (“he [Simes] is completely pro-Kremlin and always has been”). These attacks are then countered by opinions to the contrary, but without any suggestion as to where the preponderance of evidence lies. There is insufficient detail.

And that is the whole point, isn’t it? ‘Maybe Simes is a traitor — although there are those who think he may not be.’ If you accuse some Mr. X of being a rapist, and then add another opinion saying, ‘Gosh, I don’t think he is a rapist,’ what is the impact on the reader? In the present context, the impact is this: if you take into consideration a Russian perspective in any way, shape, or form, even for the purposes of avoiding war — and this is precisely what Simes is constantly doing, and with considerable intelligence and courage — then you are going to get a nasty hit piece written about you by the likes of Politico and Ms. Bertrand.

I regularly watch The Great Game, which Mr. Simes co-hosts on Channel 1 with Vyacheslav Nikonov, and I have seen how he not just once, but in virtually every single program defends US interests, and disagrees when Russian colleagues try to make a one-sided case against the U.S. Simes regularly invites Atlantic Council spokespersons, or their policy equivalent, to the program, and there they have the freedom to make their case in great detail and without interruption, and inevitably they make statements that are sharply critical of the Russian government and its policies. It is Mr. Simes who sees to it that these voices from the Atlantic Council are heard by the Russian side.

As a result, Simes is carrying out vitally important work of diplomacy that allows for a two-way communication between policy elites on both sides, and he very adeptly is doing so in a way that allows both sides to actually listen and hear what is being said. If he simply screamed politically correct slogans, it would either shut this channel of communications down or turn it into another pointless circus where no one really listens.

I find it baffling that Politico wants to undermine this virtually unique remaining channel of diplomacy. For the sake of what? Would Politico prefer that there be no conversation whatsoever between the US and Russia? Why? Isn’t it obviously preferable that we make an effort to understand a potential adversary’s perspective, particularly when that potential adversary is the other nuclear superpower? It is astonishing — and foolish — that no program anything like The Great Game can be found anywhere in US media. In the US, we hear only variations on our own perspective on our big news programs. Where do we allow voices from the other side to make their case?

Simes should be thanked for his work. Instead what he gets is this hit piece. It is not only disgusting and disheartening, it is frightening.

Paul R. Grenier is a co-founder of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy. He worked for many years as a simultaneous interpreter for the U.S. Defense and State Departments, interpreting for Gen. Tommy Franks and serving as lead interpreter for US Central Command’s peacekeeping exercises with post-Soviet states. 

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