One of the most memorable moments of the 2012 presidential debates came when the candidates were asked what they believed to be the chief national security threat facing the United States. Mitt Romney said ‘Russia’. Barack Obama thought that was ridiculous. ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,’ Obama retorted, to the general hilarity of the panel and much of the audience.
But that was before Hillary Clinton, the candidate whom Obama had anointed to win in 2016, performed the impossible and lost to Donald Trump.
All of a sudden it was Russia, morning, noon, and night. Donald Trump must have ‘colluded’ with the Ruskies. It was the only answer to the otherwise imponderable question: how could Hillary Clinton lose? Every-one knew that she was a shoo-in, just as everyone knew that Donald Trump was a vulgar buffoon whose candidacy was a bad joke.
The only fly in this ointment was that no one could find any evidence that Trump had colluded with the Russians. This was not for lack of looking. The Democrats managed to saddle the Trump administration with a special counsel to investigate the charge.
For nearly a year now, former FBI director Robert Mueller and his team of 16 anti-Trump prosecutors have been moving heaven and earth to uncover evidence of actionable collusion between team Trump and the Russians. So far, they have turned up — nothing. ‘Hey,’ you say, ‘what about that baker’s dozen of indictments against various Russians that Mueller handed down just last week?’
What about it? As Trump observed in one of his seemingly endless Twitter storms, what Mueller uncovered was a Russian effort to meddle in the American election, not collusion between Donald Trump and the Russians. About collusion there was nary a syllable. Quite the opposite. The document explicitly said there was ‘no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge’ of Russian efforts to meddle in the election.
It is worth pointing out that the fact of Russian meddling is not news. The Russians (among other countries) have been endeavouring to meddle in American elections for decades. Just as, I hasten to add, the United States regularly endeavours to meddle in the politics of other countries, including Great Britain. Remember when Obama warned you not to vote for Brexit, on pain of being sent to the ‘back of the queue’? Remember when, in 2016, Obama sent $350,000 of American taxpayers’ money to an Israeli entity to help defeat Benjamin Netanyahu?
Meddling in other countries is something that sovereign nations, especially rich and powerful ones, do.
The Russians don’t seem very good at it. The activities outlined in Mueller’s indictments are partly pathetic, partly comical. Beginning in 2014, the Russians took out Facebook and Twitter ads under false names. Some supported Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. Some attacked Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Much of their effort was directed against Clinton. Someone, for example, built a cage to house an effigy of Mrs Clinton. But the Russians concentrated on Hillary because they, like everyone else, thought she was going to win. Late in the game, they sponsored some pro-Trump ads and events.
Altogether, Clinton and Trump spent $2.4 billion over the course of their campaigns. In the pivotal state of Wisconsin, the Russians spent $1,979. In Michigan, it was $832. In Pennsylvania it was $300. As Trump observed in one of his tweets, the Russians must be ‘laughing their asses off’ at the spectacle of American paranoia and discord.
For that was always the main aim of their meddling, to sow discord and dissension among the American people.
The people seem pretty much immune to the chaos. Not so our media elites. Responding to Mueller’s indictments, one commentator wrote that ‘Trump is ignoring the worst attack on America since 9/11’. Another scribe said that it was ‘as bad as Pearl Harbor’ (minus, he graciously added, the casualties).
These statements, I submit, are insane. As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York put it, the entire Russian operation ‘emerges as a small, poorly funded operation with a level of effectiveness that is impossible to measure but could be near zero’.
There are two ironies surrounding the Trump ‘Russian collusion’ story. The first is that the only collusion to have emerged so far implicates the Clinton campaign, not Trump’s. After all, it was the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee who secretly paid for the infamous Steele dossier, that tissue of salacious gossip assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele. Where did he get his lurid stories? Why, from a congeries of unnamed Russian ‘sources close to the Kremlin’. This piece of opposition research was fed to the FBI, which used it to obtain secret court warrants to spy on people inside the Trump camp. In other words, the Clinton campaign indirectly colluded with Russian sources, first to affect the election and then, when that didn’t work, to discredit her opponent.
The second irony is that even as the media are running around skirling about the Russians, China is methodically extending its web of influence and power. We have all read about its encroachments in the South China Sea. This vast and weaponised manmade archipelago is a brazen attempt to extend China’s territorial claims and secure its hegemony in that part of the world.
Hardly a day goes by without another news story about China’s military and technological advances. As I write, a prominent tech website warns that the US is no longer guaranteed military technology dominance. ‘China is rapidly growing its fighter plane and stealth fighter capabilities,’ it warns. ‘China has developed competitive air-to-air missile capabilities.’
China has also become expert at projecting soft power. Consider the Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-sponsored cultural centres, that have sprung up at universities across the US. Not only are they potential havens for spies, they are mouthpieces for the Chinese government to disseminate the party line. As Peter Mattis, a former US intelligence analyst, noted, the institutes ‘are an instrument of the party’s power, not a support for independent scholarship’. Senator Rubio made the same point. ‘It’s a long-term, patient approach,’ he said. But then the Chinese are known for patience. Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, was once asked whether the French Revolution was a success. ‘It is too soon to say,’ he replied.
Politically correct elites in America are screaming about Russian interference. Meanwhile, a grave, multifaceted threat is coalescing just beyond the horizon of their consciousness. When will they wake up?
Roger Kimball is editor of the New Criterion.