The Mythology of American Virtue

Impeachment supporters don’t need to act like we’re a perfect country to make the case against Trump.

After days of impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence Committee, the United States has emerged as a country riven by a clash between cynicism and perfectionism. Americans have grown so inured to wrongdoing that nefarious behavior won’t provoke outrage unless it violates some mythical norm of purity. And so Democrats and their witnesses have been forced to construct a backdrop of national righteousness against which President Trump can be cast in damning contrast.

That shouldn’t be necessary. Trump’s actions should be enough for impeachment and conviction. If society had a proper ethical reflex, it would be sufficient that he tried to get a “favor” for his reelection campaign from a foreign government, Ukraine, which desperately needs American support against Russia. End of discussion.

The United States shouldn’t have to be pictured as an unyielding advocate of global democracy and the rule of law, when we have a sordid history of doing the opposite when dictators suit us. Ukraine shouldn’t have to be given the exaggerated label “ally” when it has no such standing in any treaty. The rhetoric on foreign policy shouldn’t have to sound like a throwback to the Cold War, with Washington’s nobility poised against Moscow’s “aggression,” and a pretense that the U.S. bears no responsibility for the rising conflict with Russia.

Witnesses shouldn’t have to tout their and their families’ military service to be credible, and the military shouldn’t have to be burnished as flawlessly heroic. Those testifying shouldn’t have to chronicle their devotion to public service. Those born abroad shouldn’t need to sing moving hymns of praise to America as a haven of freedom to speak and to prosper, when prosperity and even freedom, as we are seeing, do not come to all who step onto American soil.

But national myths are often useful, because they set high standards to which the country should aspire. The gap between the myth and the reality is one that begs to be closed.

So, when committee chairman Adam Schiff rightly seeks to protect the identity of the C.I.A. whistleblower whose report triggered the impeachment inquiry, it should remind us that many whistleblowers—especially under President Obama—suffered catastrophically. Obama didn’t publicly threaten them as traitors, as Trump has done to the unnamed person in this case, but Obama’s Justice Department prosecuted more of them under the scurrilous Espionage Act, for leaking classified information, than in all previous administrations combined. Even those who avoided criminal charges often lost their careers, their pensions, and their financial well-being.

You would not have learned this by watching the impeachment hearings, where the myth of perfect whistleblower protection stood firmly against Republicans’ cynical stabs at penetrating the shield of anonymity.

Similarly, the United States was pictured as blameless in the fraught U.S.-Russia relationship. As meticulous and intelligent as those professionals were in documenting Trump’s malfeasance toward Ukraine, their uncompromising posture toward Russia gave no hint of insight into Moscow’s concerns about American behavior. This lacking is not the mark of sophisticated diplomacy, which relies on understanding the other side’s perceptions and motives, especially since finding common interests between the U.S. and Russia is critical to keeping the peace.

Russia has a historical fear of encirclement. In this age of long-range weaponry and high-tech warfare, it seems a geopolitical anachronism. But it’s real enough to have alarmed Moscow when the United States and other Western allies expanded NATO to Russia’s borders after the Soviet Union disintegrated into 15 separate countries nearly three decades ago. The expansion broke a pledge in 1990 by Secretary of State James Baker not to expand NATO if Moscow agreed to German reunification. Within months, however, the promise was fudged and then abandoned by Baker and the George H.W. Bush administration.

NATO is a military alliance, so discomfort would be a mild term for Moscow’s reaction to broadening that umbrella to cover East European territory once in the Russian sphere—including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—not to mention the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Moscow might have shrugged off the move as merely diluting NATO by fictionalizing its provision that regards an attack on one member as an attack on all. It seems fanciful to imagine that the U.S. would actually go to war against Russia to defend, say, Estonia, as nice a country as Estonia is. But that wasn’t the end of the possible expansion. Beginning in 2008, the U.S. and some West European allies began pressing to include the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to warn that if Ukraine joined NATO, it would be placed on the target list of Russia’s nuclear missiles.

Then, after an American-backed street revolution in 2014 ousted the elected president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, Putin had enough. He annexed Crimea; sent thinly disguised Russian forces to invade eastern Ukraine; and launched proxy warfare in Ukraine’s Donbass region, which continues today. The moves provoked Washington under Trump to provide Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles and other lethal weaponry, which Obama had refrained from sending. The arms are viewed as bolstering Ukraine’s military capacity, serving as a deterrent against Russia, and strengthening Kiev’s negotiating position in talks aimed at ending the fighting.

It is important to see the recent history as an explanation, not an excuse, for Russia’s actions. Putin, who has lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union, appears bent on reassembling much of the Soviet empire and, in the process, threatening the post-Soviet order in Europe. He is trying to put a wounded Russia back on the world stage. That has hardened anti-Russian reflexes in every part of official Washington except the Oval Office, where Trump’s affinity for Putin remains mysteriously unexplained. Ironically, U.S. relations with Russia are worse than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Reducing those tensions was not on the agenda in the impeachment hearings. Among the witnesses, only Fiona Hill, the expert on Russia who served in Trump’s National Security Council, mixed her warnings about Moscow’s propaganda and military intrusions with a few sentences on the need to stabilize and improve the relationship. Otherwise, the hearings displayed the revived Cold-War concept that the Russian-American competition is a zero-sum game, with every Russian gain an equivalent American loss. This was necessary to alarm the public about Trump’s suspension of military aid to Ukraine, which one official called the front line against a revanchist Russia.

But the zero-sum game is a highly questionable assumption, which Trump might parry were he interested enough in acquiring complex knowledge. Russia and the U.S. have overlapping interests in combating terrorism, sharing certain intelligence, calming the Middle East, and negotiating nuclear arms limitations. Those interests are not advanced by pretending that the United States is a pure as the driven snow.

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David K. Shipler

David K. Shipler is a Washington Monthly contributing writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of seven books, and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He blogs at The Shipler Report.