By Dan Steinbock
The Trump administration is in turmoil over an investigation into alleged Russian influence in the Presidential election. First, the Department of Justice (DOJ) dismissed James Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), reportedly only days after his request for increased resources to investigate. Barely a week later, DOJ appointed Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI (2001-13), as special counsel overseeing the investigation. There is little doubt about the political outcome of the Mueller investigation. Just as when he loyally served under President George W. Bush, he is unlikely to treat any Russian initiative—whether planned, unintended, alleged, or misrepresented—with silk gloves. So from the White House’s perspective, the end result is known.
What remains to be seen is if the Mueller investigation will prevent the realisation of a goal which Trump’s recent predecessors were unable to reach: resetting relations with Russia. Trump has repeatedly stated this as one of his goals, both on the campaign trail and in office. If he succeeds, he will be the first of the postwar presidents to do so.
Four presidents, four failures
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Russia and the US remained generally warm through the Bush and Clinton administrations and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That was, until the US-inspired “shock therapy” caused Russia an economic nightmare that proved far worse than the Great Depression in the US That is when three former Soviet satellites—Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic—were invited to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). By the mid-90s, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states were also ushered into NATO—against the protests of presidents Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In 2001, President George W. Bush also wanted to reset US-Russia relations. But after the White House was rocked by 9/11 and neoconservatives’ increasingly unilateral foreign policy, it began incursions into Afghanistan, withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and invaded Iraq. As NATO began looking even further eastward toward Ukraine and Georgia, Russian protests turned angrier and more aggressive. Most Russians saw the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, as well as the US effort to build an anti-ballistic missile defence installation in Poland with a radar station in the Czech Republic, as intrusions into its sphere of interest.
Like Clinton and Bush initially, President Obama too wanted to reset US-Russia relations. By March 2010, both countries had agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Yet, the reset was not supported by Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, or US Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle. Subsequently, rising tensions in Crimea were seized upon to bury the effort.
A different approach from day one
On the campaign trail, Trump lauded President Putin as a strong leader, arguing in favour of friendlier relations. Meanwhile, the FBI began investigating alleged connections between Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and pro-Russian interests. In January 2017, Trump and President Putin began phone conferences as the White House still considered lifting economic sanctions. But in February, Trump’s security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign. As the Empire struck back, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said only two months later that US-Russia relations were at a new low point. By May, Mueller was appointed to head the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.
Who’s afraid of the big bad Wolf-owitz Doctrine
Historically, Washington has been involved in dozens of overt and covert actions aimed at regime change in other countries. The postwar list of covert involvement alone features some two dozen overseas attempts at regime changes. Now, Trump supporters say a regime change effort is targeting the White House. That effort relies on the Wolfowitz Doctrine— a highly controversial policy blueprint developed amid the end of the Cold War by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Paul Wolfowitz (the prophet of the Bush neoconservatives). He was aided by his deputy Scooter Libby, later an adviser to Vice President Cheney until his indictment for leaking the covert identity of a major CIA officer. The Doctrine announced the US’s status as the world’s only remaining superpower and proclaimed its main objective to be retaining that status. Its first objective thus was “to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.”
In December 1989, Soviet President Gorbachev and US President George H. W. Bush declared the Cold War over at the Malta Summit. In February 1990, Gorbachev acceded to Germany’s Western alignment on the condition that the US would limit NATO’s expansion. But behind the façade, top officials at the Pentagon and Wolfowitz began to push Eastern Europe into the US orbit. This inspired “a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept,” as Senator Edward M. Kennedy once put it.
It was this same Wolfowitz Doctrine that inspired the neoconservatives to initiate multiple wars in the Middle East following September 11, 2001. In each case, the “military-industrial complex” played a critical but low-profile role. President Clinton did not oppose the military interests as long as they supported US economic interests; Bush’s inner circle comprised Pentagon’s ultimate insiders; Obama talked against the military and security complex but became its cheerleader. In contrast, Trump fought efforts to kill the reset of Russia relations— until Mueller’s appointment.
The Mueller investigation does not indicate that the role of the US. as a major global risk has now faded away. These kinds of investigations can lead anywhere, as President Clinton discovered after his affair with Monica Lewinsky. In the process, they can create great collateral damage, both at home and abroad. The role of the US. as a global risk is only just beginning.
Dr Steinbock is the founder of DifferenceGroup. He has served as Research Director of International Business at India China and America Institute (USA) and Visiting Fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore).
This commentary was released by The World Financial Review on June 2, 2017. The online version will be followed by a print version (July-August 2017).
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This article is a continuation of: Trump’s stalled policy agenda
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