The other day I read in the paper that the President was expected to sign legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Russia. In the same paper I read a Michael Gerson column accusing the President of "subservience to Russia" and a "policy of preemptive concession." For those arriving late, Gerson is no Democratic spoilsport but a Republican neocon and onetime advisor to George W. Bush. He accuses Donald Trump of abandoning the Republican party's "heroic foreign policy tradition"of resistance to Russian aggression, and taking Republicans with him. He laments the finding of a recent poll that 49% of Republicans think of Russia as a friend or ally of the United States. Those people are forgetting the legacy of Ronald Reagan, Gerson believes, but he seems to forget that Russia and the Soviet Union can be seen reasonably as two very different things, apparently convinced that there's not a kopeck's worth of difference between Soviet totalitarianism and Putin-style authoritarianism and national assertiveness.
Gerson looks far into the past to equate Trump with Henry Wallace, the anti-Cold War Democrat who ran against Harry Truman as an independent presidential candidate in 1948. Back then, Wallace argued that Americans "have no more business in the political affairs of Eastern Europe than
Russia has in the political affairs of Latin America, Western Europe and
the United States.” For Gerson, that quote exemplifies an unprincipled indifference to the terror of Stalinism that he hears echoed in Trump's presumed indifference to the burdens of subservience to Russia today. Now as then, aggression emanating from the Russian landmass presumably makes Eastern European politics our business. If anything, Gerson makes more of an effort to argue that it's our business now, because Russia "has made the political affairs of the United States very much its business." This analysis almost certainly puts the cart before the horse. If Russia has meddled in American politics, it's because Americans have stuck their noses where Russian leaders think we don't belong. As a neocon, however, Gerson believes we belong everywhere. Solidarity with liberal democrats wherever they exist is a moral if not existential imperative for him. While Trump most likely thinks of Russia simply as Russia, a nation that's going to pursue it's interests regardless of what we think of them, Gerson can't help seeing the Eurasian giant as the vanguard of an "anti-democratic" movement inherently antithetical to American interests. In his mind, Russia and the U.S. are engaged in a zero-sum contest for global influence. Russian success anywhere, but particularly in Syria, where self-interest in the form of a Mediterranean naval base combines with a realist focus on suppressing terrorism, is unacceptably harmful or simply shameful to the U.S.
It's telling, though, that Gerson seems at a loss to explain why Trump should so appease Russia ("Does it come from Trump’s bad case of authoritarianism envy? A
fundamental sympathy with European right-wing, anti-democratic populism?
An exposure to pressure from his checkered financial history?") when there probably isn't as much appeasement going on as he thinks. It should hardly count as appeasement to put a brake on the destabilization of Syria, for instance, when instability only fuels terrorism. Even in Eastern Europe, those who paid attention when Trump went there know to expect continued conflict with Russia so long as the President hopes to open the regional energy market to American providers. A conflict that doesn't rise to the level of a crusade might well be beneath Gerson's notice. It clearly infuriates him that Trump fails or refuses to see (or name) "evil" where Gerson himself sees it. But who's to say which man's perceptions more closely match reality? It probably would stink for someone of a critical and liberal mindset to live in Russia or under Russian hegemony today, but a lot about life stinks without being evil, and treating those things as evil may not be the best way to deal with them. Unfortunately, Americans seem increasingly to treat anything that inconveniences them, as individuals or as a nation, as an evil to be abolished rather than a reality to be dealt with differently. If Trump doesn't see U.S.-Russia relations as an eternal struggle of good against evil, that only proves him evil in many eyes. That attitude is all too typical of our time.