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Why the Anti-War Left Should Attack Putin, Too

His leftist apologists in the U.S. media aren't just blind to Russia's election meddling, but to Putin's xenophobia and homophobia.

SAUL LOEB / Getty Images

The investigation into Russia’s interference in last year’s election is causing a slow-motion meltdown in President Donald Trump’s White House and making life increasingly uncomfortable for elected Republicans. But the issue is also causing problems, albeit less existential ones, on the political left.

As Peter Beinart notes in The Atlantic, some anti-war leftists fear that the Russia scandal will push the Democratic Party toward a more hawkish foreign policy, so they’re trying to “minimize Russia’s election meddling to oppose what they see as a new Cold War. It’s a genuinely principled position. The problem is that principles are blinding them to facts.” Beinart cites writers Max Blumenthal and Glenn Greenwald, but he also could have named linguist Noam Chomsky, filmmaker Oliver Stone, and scholar Stephen Cohen. In a recent interview, Chomsky derided the Democrats for attacking Trump’s attempts to improve ties with Russia, saying, “It’s one of the few decent things Trump has been doing. So maybe members of his transition team contacted the Russians. Is that a bad thing?”

As Beinart argues, the problem with the Russia skeptics, whom he describes as Jeffersonian anti-interventionists, is that they ignore the genuine harm done by Russian interference in the American election. “In recent years the United States has waged proxy battles against Russia in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan, which are far from American shores,” Beinart concedes. “Jeffersonians can legitimately argue that America’s struggle for influence in those countries does more harm than good.” But the election interference story is different since it involves America itself: “No matter how anti-interventionist you are, you need to protect your own country.”

It’s hard to argue with Beinart’s point—and I’d extend it further. While the left should be wary of American hawks eager to launch a new Cold War, there is no reason to entertain any illusions about Putin’s foreign policy, which the left should oppose based on its own principles.

The problem is not just the nature of Putin’s autocratic government, which uses social conservatism and nationalism to hold together a nation frayed by massive economic inequality. Bad governments are commonplace, and the U.S. works with more than its share of them, from Saudi Arabia to the People’s Republic of China. The problem is that Russia’s foreign policy threatens to export many of the Putin regime’s worst features, particularly xenophobia and homophobia.

Some Russia experts argue that Putin’s foreign policy agenda is purely defensive—that he’s angered by America’s broken promise not to expand NATO to the east, its interference in nations that border Russia, and its meddling in Russian politics. But if Putin’s motives are defensive, his response has been to take the offensive by intervening in the politics of many Western nations, not just the U.S. Russia has been forming active alliances with far-right anti-immigration parties all over Europe. “In December, Russia’s ruling party signed a five-year ‘cooperation agreement’ with Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party, led by Norbert Hofer,” NBC News reported in February. “Moscow’s entreaty to Austria comes only two years after a Russia-backed bank extended a nine million euro loan to Le Pen’s National Front.” There have been similar moves in Holland and Germany.

Rather like Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon, Putin seems to be pushing for an international alt-right, an informal alliance of right-wing parties held together by a shared xenophobia. Bannon is an ideologue, but Putin’s motives are likely to be more cynical: a desire to sow chaos in the governments that have clashed with Russia over its western border. Regardless, Trump and Bannon have found common cause in a policy that should be opposed by anyone who wants to defend the rights of immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, American social conservatives have been increasingly friendly toward Russia, with figures like the pundit Pat Buchanan, the evangelist Franklin Graham and even groups like the National Riffle Association finding much to admire about Putin’s regime. As The Washington Post noted in April, “On issues including gun rights, terrorism and same-sex marriage, many leading advocates on the right who grew frustrated with their country’s leftward tilt under President Barack Obama have forged ties with well-connected Russians and come to see that country’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally.” The article goes on to suggest that Putin’s government actively cultivated these ties.

All of which leads to the conclusion that Trump’s push for friendlier ties with Russia is about more than just a peaceful foreign policy. It’s about a shared, toxic ideology.

Leftists like Greenwald and Chomsky are right to fear that American hawks will use the Russia investigation to pursue a dangerous policy of military confrontation. But that possibility shouldn’t blind us to the many threats of Putin’s foreign policy, beyond electoral interference, and the dovish left should shouldn’t let Cold War nightmares prevent them for speaking out about it.

Beinart suggests some policies the left could adopt to oppose Putin’s regime. “Jeffersonians should offer their own vision for how the United States protects its elections,” he wrote. “If that involves treaties and international organizations rather than sanctions and arms sales, that’s fine. If it involves American pledges to restrain its overseas cyber attacks, that’s fine too.”

Additionally, the U.S. could also push for greater security in vote counting. Even though the consensus is that last year’s vote-hacking attempts were unsuccessful, those campaigns have created uncertainty about the election process (which indeed seems to have been part of their intent). The larger argument the left should make is that Russian interference was enabled by flaws in the American political system that allowed the collusion to take place. As the scandal unfolds, Trump’s murky financial ties to Russia are coming to the fore, showing the need for laws requiring presidential candidates to disclose their financial history. And Putin’s formation of an international alt-right surely calls for American political organizations, including the Democratic Party, to forge alliances with groups in Europe, Russia, and elsewhere that are fighting for progressive politics.

There are ways to oppose Putin without being a hawk, as his adopted policies are harmful to progressive values not just in his own country but around the globe. Fighting Trumpism in America is not enough. Leftists have to be ready to battle it in all its forms, at home and abroad.