Robert Wright: Overdoing the Russia Thing

I hate to obsess over the Resistance’s obsession with this whole Russia thing, but: This week brought (1) a fresh reminder that Russia is far from the only country whose influence on American politics bears watching; and (2) a reminder of the (as economists say) “opportunity cost” of spending so much time watching Russia.

On Wednesday the New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates had steered $200 million to a Republican National Committee official, apparently in an attempt to influence Trump’s foreign policy. As the Times reported, UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, which was part of the same lobbying effort, wanted Trump “to remove Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson” and to adopt more “confrontational approaches to Iran and Qatar.” As the New York Times noted, all of this came to pass after the RNC official personally lobbied Trump.

Could be a coincidence; we have no way of knowing how influential, if at all, this lobbying was. But the evidence of influence is at least as strong as the evidence that Trump is being influenced by some sort of leverage over him that Russia is hypothesized to have.

And the consequences of the possible UAE and Saudi Arabia influence are at least as dark as the consequences that any current Russian influence on Trump is likely to be. Trump’s “confrontational approaches” toward Iran and Qatar, as the Times put it, amount to this: (1) continued American support—in the form of weapons and logistical help—for Saudi Arabia’s massive and, at best, pointless bombardment of Yemen, which has killed lots of civilians; (2) the probable death of the Iran nuclear deal, which exerts a stabilizing influence on the region by ensuring that Iran isn’t building nuclear weapons; (3) quite possibly, eventual war between the US and Iran.

Certainly Tillerson’s appointed replacement, Mike Pompeo, seems conducive to all of these things—and no doubt his appointment pleased the powers that be in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And God knows that John Bolton, just appointed to replace H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor, won’t exactly be playing dove’s advocate.

Both of these appointments are also evidence, by the way, that, contrary to a common Resistance narrative, Putin does not, in fact, have some kind of stranglehold over Trump. Rachel Maddow made a big deal of the fact that “the last public remarks” from Tillerson and McMaster before the announcement of their departures were “comments that were very critical of Russia.” But if this is really a deeply significant fact, how does she explain the fact that their successors, Pompeo and Bolton, are intensely anti-Russia hawks?

Can’t blame a cable TV star for trying to keep ratings high, I guess. But the obsession with Russia comes at a price—the aforementioned “opportunity cost.” Russia is absorbing so much attention that we don’t have time for other important things.

For example: Were you aware that last week the Senate voted to kill a bipartisan attempt to end America’s involvement in the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen? The vote was reasonably close—55-44. So maybe, with a bit more progressive grassroots organizing, we could have won this one. But who’s got time for grassroots organizing that might help thwart the manifestly and specifically malign designs of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates when you’re busy sifting through the last words of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster for implausible evidence of vague and nefarious Russian influence? Life’s too short.
—Robert Wright

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