How Pro-War Democrats Use Russiagate To Bloat the Military—And Why That’s Dangerous

Russia became the bipartisan justification for an $716 billion defense budget and nuclear build-up.

Sarah Lazare October 18, 2018

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., background, in the Capitol on October 4, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

There is no doubt this moment calls for a pow­er­ful mobi­liza­tion against the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and the rul­ing-class, white-suprema­cist inter­ests it rep­re­sents. But estab­lish­ment Democ­rats’ strat­e­gy of hitch­ing their resis­tance” cam­paign to Rus­si­a­gate is mis­guid­ed and dan­ger­ous. By demand­ing Trump prove he’s tough on Rus­sia, the same Democ­rats who warn that Trump is dan­ger­ous and unhinged are ask­ing him to over­see an even more bel­li­cose for­eign pol­i­cy. The net effect has been to push the U.S. gov­ern­ment to take a more con­fronta­tion­al stance toward Rus­sia and oth­er geopo­lit­i­cal foes and — ulti­mate­ly — expand its mil­i­tary empire.

The threat of our permanent national security state was, for decades, something the Left cared about. Now the FBI and CIA, we’re told by some ostensibly left media, are our allies.

What­ev­er one thinks about the aims and scope of Russ­ian inter­fer­ence, the evi­dence is unde­ni­able: Democ­rats’ over­whelm­ing focus on Rus­sia has led direct­ly to a sig­nif­i­cant — and mea­sur­able — mil­i­tary buildup. The $716 bil­lion Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA) for 2019 is mas­sive, mark­ing an $81 bil­lion increase over 2017 (adjust­ed for infla­tion). The bill explic­it­ly tar­gets Rus­sia and Chi­na. From the out­set, law­mak­ers on both sides of the aisle cit­ed the threat of Russ­ian inter­fer­ence to argue in favor of the NDAA. Rep. Adam Smith (D‑Wash.), the rank­ing Demo­c­rat on the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, gushed, This bill con­tin­ues the absolute­ly crit­i­cal work of push­ing back against Pres­i­dent Putin.” Smith, who ear­li­er that month called for an impeach­ment inves­ti­ga­tion of Trump, appeared eager and will­ing to hand the pres­i­dent a giant check for war.

Bipar­ti­san law­mak­ers hand­ed a major vic­to­ry to Trump by pass­ing the defense bill, which includes $6.5 bil­lion to ful­ly fund the Euro­pean Deter­rence Ini­tia­tive” to build the mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties of Euro­pean states near Rus­sia. The leg­is­la­tion also instructs Sec­re­tary of Defense James Mat­tis to con­duct a fea­si­bil­i­ty study on whether a per­ma­nent­ly sta­tioned Unit­ed States Army brigade com­bat team in Poland would enhance deter­rence against Russ­ian aggression.”

Most alarm­ing­ly, the NDAA ear­marks $21.9 bil­lion for nuclear weapons pro­grams and $65 mil­lion to devel­op a lowyield nuclear war­head for sub­ma­rine-launched bal­lis­tic mis­siles.” This is anoth­er win for the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, which has called for more flex­i­ble” and low­eryield” nuclear arms, large­ly to counter Rus­sia. (The Unit­ed States and Rus­sia own over 90 per­cent of the world’s nuclear weapons.)

This con­fronta­tion­al posi­tion­ing has ram­i­fi­ca­tions far beyond Rus­sia. In July 2017, for exam­ple, the House and Sen­ate over­whelm­ing­ly vot­ed in favor of bipar­ti­san leg­is­la­tion that bun­dled sanc­tions against Rus­sia with sanc­tions against Iran and North Korea — even at the risk of upend­ing the nuclear deal with Iran. To jus­ti­fy this move, Democ­rats cit­ed Russ­ian inter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tions. Sen. Dianne Fein­stein told The Inter­cept, I just looked at the sanc­tions, and it’s very hard, in view of what we know just hap­pened in this last elec­tion, not to move ahead with [sanc­tions].”

Mean­while, oth­er elec­tion scan­dals, from vot­er sup­pres­sion to the fact the elec­toral col­lege over­rode the pop­u­lar vote, gar­ner far less scruti­ny and out­rage. As for col­lu­sion with for­eign gov­ern­ments, lead­ers of the resis­tance” aren’t exact­ly lin­ing up to exam­ine evi­dence that Trump’s tran­si­tion team col­lud­ed with the Israeli gov­ern­ment to defend ille­gal set­tle­ments in Palestine.

The non­stop specter of Russ­ian active mea­sures” has all but end­ed any dis­cus­sion of post-Snow­den reforms to cur­tail drag­net gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance. The threat of our per­ma­nent nation­al secu­ri­ty state was, for decades, some­thing the Left cared about. Now the FBI and CIA, we’re told by some osten­si­bly left media, are our allies.

There may well be some­thing to the Russ­ian influ­ence sto­ry and the Trump admin­is­tra­tion should, of course, be held to stan­dards of utmost trans­paren­cy on this and every oth­er mat­ter. But Democ­rats and their loy­al pun­dits are peg­ging their anti-Trump strat­e­gy to Rus­si­a­gate, and not to the mul­ti­tude of oth­er scan­dals, pre­cise­ly because Rus­sia is a his­toric geopo­lit­i­cal foe — a con­ve­nient bad guy that can be invoked to demand the height­ened nation­al secu­ri­ty state many cen­trist Democ­rats were already call­ing for. Some of these resis­tance heroes, like Sens. Chuck Schumer and Fein­stein, brought us the war in Iraq, the occu­pa­tion of Afghanistan, the war on Yemen and the inter­ven­tion in Libya.

At times, Trump indeed express­es a strange affec­tion for Putin — an affec­tion ani­mat­ed, at least in part, by a Steve Ban­non-esque love of strong white men. But then he turns on a dime and threat­ens esca­la­tion against Rus­sia and its allies. It’s a bank­rupt pol­i­tics to reflex­ive­ly advo­cate the oppo­site of what­ev­er Trump says; we must look beyond the inflam­ma­to­ry rhetoric and exam­ine the mate­r­i­al poli­cies our gov­ern­ment is imple­ment­ing. A sober assess­ment reveals that height­ened ten­sions with Rus­sia are fuel­ing a mea­sur­able U.S. mil­i­tary buildup backed by Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats. With­in this tin­der­box, the Left should reject any expan­sion of U.S. empire, and chal­lenge any resis­tance” cam­paign that push­es Trump toward militarization.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH