Americans Struggle With Nuance, Especially on Russia

For decades during the Cold War, Americans were fed a steady diet on the duality of good and evil when it came to this country and the Soviet Union. It led us to back questionable military adventurism in countries like Korea and Vietnam as well as more covert actions in Latin America. Tensions all over the globe were cast as proxy battles between the “evil empire” and “the city on a hill.”

There were those in this country on the left who flipped the script and viewed U.S. interventionism on behalf of corporate America as the evil, while giving the Soviet Union a pass.

In the early 1990’s all that changed with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For years after that, Russia’s economy faltered and Americans didn’t pay much attention to their former foe.

Flip forward to the present Trump era and all of the sudden Russia is back on our minds again. While some people like the “nostalgia voters” I described previously have flipped positions on Russia, the duality pattern of good and evil as a way to view the relationship between these two countries continues. For example, Christian conservatives see an alignment of their values with Putin’s leadership while they describe America in decline.

Some liberals like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald have been slow to acknowledge Russia’s interference in the 2016 election because they insist on seeing the tensions between these two countries through the eyes of the Cold War and emphasize the way this country (especially our intelligence services) wound up on the wrong side of so many conflicts in the past.

Recently Sen. Ted Cruz exhibited the same kind of duality in the opposite direction by suggesting it was Obama who was the Russian appeaser.

“I think that we have had eight years of Barack Obama showing nothing but appeasement towards Russia— ”

“President Trump is not appeasing Russia?” Hunt asked.

“Actually, if you look on substance, part of the irony of this media obsession with Russia, is that the Obama administration began with Hillary Clinton bringing a big red reset button to Russia, saying they were going to reset the relationship with Russia, so she and Obama were going to be friends with the Russians,” Cruz said. “That’s how they began.”

Cruz is counting on the idea that his audience won’t remember that the “big reset” was attempted when the Russian President was Dmitry Medvedev, prior to the re-emergence of Vladimir Putin—that’s absurd. It suggests that leadership doesn’t matter, as if the transition from Obama to Trump didn’t change anything.

I also saw this duality when I watched a clip of Tucker Carlson’s interview with Ret. Lt. Col. Ralph Peters. Carson plays the role of Trump defender by wondering why, when it comes to Russia, we can’t all just get along. Meanwhile, Peters compares that kind of thinking to Nazi appeasement and practically pounds the desk to emphasize how much Putin hates us. The truth is that both of their positions contain some truth and a whole lot of posturing based on lies/exaggerations.

I have to say that this is one of the ways we were blessed for eight years to have a president like Barack Obama. He was a master of nuance. One the one hand, he brought Russia (and China) on board with sanctions against Iran, a move that eventually led to the nuclear agreement. His administration also worked tirelessly with Russia on a ceasefire in Syria.

On the other hand, Obama didn’t hesitate to work with our global partners to impose sanctions on Russia for their incursion into Ukraine and add to those when it was determined that Putin attempted to interfere in the 2016 election. He never bought into the fear-mongering about Russia though, consistently defining Putin’s actions as a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Finally, Obama made some major moves in Latin America to help this hemisphere finally put the Cold War behind us. The most important of these was to open diplomatic ties with Cuba.

It is discouraging to watch this country once again descend into a kind of duality when it comes to our relationship with Russia. It’s true that Trump is dancing with the devil in the way that he does Putin’s bidding. Let’s make no mistake about that. But there is some truth to the fact that the civil war in Syria is not likely to end without the cooperation of Russia. In other words, sometimes you have to work with your adversaries to reach common goals. We should be mature enough as a country to be able to understand that. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we’re there yet.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.