From Russiagate to Gunboat Diplomacy

Russiagate hysteria is already being used to push Trump into an act of armed aggression against Venezuela. It's a disastrous result of a pointless delusion.

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton talks to reporters following a television interview outside the West Wing May 1, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

One of the things Russiagate skeptics found unsettling about the frenzy over supposed “collusion” was that it made war more likely. Not only did the now-debunked conspiracy theories and resulting political climate push officials into a more aggressive posture toward Russia, but once the Kremlin was returned to its status as the foreign policy elite’s Big Bad, it was easy to imagine a situation where the threat of a Russian bogeyman could be used to justify any number of unrelated foreign adventures. This appears to be exactly what’s happening with Venezuela right now.

First there was Fareed Zakaria, who two months ago tried to goad Trump into attacking Venezuela by pointing to Russia’s support for Maduro. “Putin’s efforts seem designed to taunt the United States,” he said (it might also have something to do with the billions of dollars Russia sank into the country), making reference to the Monroe Doctrine. He asked if Washington would “allow Moscow to make a mockery of another American red line,” warning that “if Washington does not back its words with deeds” the country could become another Syria. Zakaria concluded: “will Venezuela finally be the moment when Trump finally ends his appeasement?”

More recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo charged that Russia had “invaded” Venezuela before claiming the Kremlin had dissuaded Maduro from fleeing the country at the last moment, something Pompeo has provided no evidence for but much of the media has treated as fact since.

National Security Advisor John Bolton has said that “this is our hemisphere” and “not where the Russians ought to be interfering.” Democratic Sen. Doug Jones echoed this sentiment on CNN, praising the Trump administration for saying “all options are on the table” to deal with Venezuela, something he suggested may have to be acted on “if there is some more intervention [by] Russia.”

The national press, taking a break from warning about Trump being a dangerous authoritarian, has been demanding to know why he hasn’t been more aggressive toward the country over this.

Particularly shameless was Florida Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, who went on Tucker Carlson’s show to peddle half-baked innuendo as brazen as anything claimed in the lead up to the Iraq War. If Maduro’s government survived, he claimed, it would be “a green light, an open door for the Russians and for the Chinese and for others to increase their activity against our national security interest right here in our hemisphere.”

He went on to claim that Russia had already placed nuclear missiles in the country, and that it could lead to a Cuban missile crisis-like conflict. There is no evidence this is true, and Díaz-Balart didn’t provide any.

Of course, no coverage of the Trump administration’s relations with Russia would be complete without a trip into Rachel Maddow’s fractured psyche. After Trump repeated Putin’s personal assurances that he wasn’t interested in getting involved in Venezuela — contradicting Pompeo and Bolton — Maddow addressed the two officials:

Hey John Bolton, hey Mike Pompeo, are you guys enjoying your jobs right now? You each thought your job this week was to name and shame and threaten and counter Russian government involvement in Venezuela while saber-rattling about how everybody else better get out of the way because the US is really mad about it. Guys, turns out your actual job is figuring out how and why you work for a president who says whatever Vladimir Putin tells him.

Maddow went on to express her sympathy for one of the most unhinged warmongers in a city teeming with them (“I mean, John Bolton, God bless you”), and again seemed to suggest that Bolton’s “job” of “push[ing] Russia back because of what they’re doing in Venezuela” was the correct course of action.

It’s now clear there is nothing — not Trump’s years-long belligerence toward Russia’s Venezuelan ally, not his near-constant bellicosity toward Russia since taking office, not Robert Mueller’s failure to indict a single person for conspiring with Russia, not even his report’s explicit and implicit denial that any such conspiracy existed — that will make these people give up the talking point that Trump is secretly in bed with Putin. If Mueller himself denied it, they would claim he was a Russian in disguise. It’s simply too convenient an attack line, and too professionally embarrassing to admit otherwise.

There is also an Orwellian level of doublethink going on here. Russia, a Venezuelan ally, has sent personnel and equipment to the country with the consent of its government at a time when it’s being threatened by multiple hostile regional powers. Meanwhile the US, one of those hostile powers, has for years been laying siege to the country and killing its people, trying to destabilize and oust its leadership, and even threatening to invade it.

Yet according to the media and political class, it’s Russia’s actions that are an unacceptable intrusion into another country’s affairs — an “invasion,” even. They are holding up four fingers to your face and telling you you’re seeing five.

Meanwhile, these same quarters, after spending close to three years hyperventilating about Russia’s meddling in domestic US affairs — an “act of war,” in some minds — have now seamlessly pivoted to cheering Trump as he attempts to engineer a change of Venezuela’s government, even calling for him to possibly attack the country. This is glaringly hypocritical, but the Russiagate frenzy was never about principled outrage or any sort of moral consistency.

Lastly and most significantly, the rhetoric around Venezuela is now taking on an explicitly imperialistic character, in the most literal sense of that word. Zakaria invoked the Monroe Doctrine to urge Trump to intervene in Venezuela; National Security Advisor John Bolton “proudly proclaim[ed]” upon launching a fresh round of sanctions that “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” and one MSNBC guest insisted the Trump administration was “right in being completely flabbergasted” at Russia’s presence in the country because “this is our hemisphere,” echoing Bolton.

When these figures talk about “our hemisphere,” they don’t mean the hemisphere in which the US happens to be located; they mean this is literally their hemisphere. The US is the imperial power with dominion over this part of the world, and only it has the right to interfere in the countries that populate it.

Their objection is not that an outside power is involving itself in a Latin American country’s business, but that this outside power isn’t the one in Washington. The fact that the US has been doing this very thing for years in Russia’s part of the world — expanding NATO right up to its border, sending weapons to Ukraine — goes conveniently unmentioned.

Russiagate skeptics were criticized for being hyperbolic in comparing that scandal to the bogus WMD tale that led to the Iraq War; the latter, after all, killed hundreds of thousands and destabilized an entire region. But the full consequences of Russiagate will not be felt immediately; they will unfold over time. And while floating the specter of Russia might not work this time, expect it to be used over and over in the coming years to justify all manner of military aggression.