On November 8, Americans will end a historic presidential race between the two least popular candidates ever when they will either select Hillary Clinton, the first woman to lead the United States, or Donald Trump, a political novice not elected to any previous office, thus ending the longest, ugliest and strangest campaign in the life of the Republic. The 2016 campaign will also go down in history as the first to be subjected to foreign manipulation in the form of cyber-aggression by an increasingly belligerent Russia in a perceived bid to help elect Trump, the Republican candidate friendly to the Russian leadership (an allegation Trump has denied) but more importantly to undermine the legitimacy of the American system of government and its elected institutions and to deepen the polarization in society. The frightening conclusion that one has to draw, a few days before the election, is that Russia’s flagrant interference in the US election process, which was confirmed and denounced by the Intelligence Community, has been deleterious to American politics and institutions, with the aggressor suffering no discernable negative consequences.
Russia’s dirty hands
It is reported that the US Intelligence Community has evidence that the Russian government either directly or through entities working on its behalf has been hacking American institutions, official and non-official, like the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the accounts of public figures like former Secretary of State Colin Powell and John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, and passing emails and documents to organizations like WikiLeaks. Last July, WikiLeaks released 20000 DNC emails that exposed what seemed to be collusion between the Clinton campaign and the DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to undermine Clinton’s former Democratic challenger Senator Bernie Sanders. The embarrassing leaks forced Wasserman Schultz to resign on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
In recent weeks, WikiLeaks dumped thousands of emails hacked from the Gmail account of John Podesta, with the purpose of weakening the Clinton campaign by revealing excerpts of her private talks that showed obvious contradictions between her public pronouncements about imposing regulations from the outside to reform the practices of Wall Street financial institutions and her contradictory candid conversations in which she claimed that those best positioned to reform Wall Street are those in charge of said institutions. The emails were embarrassing to Clinton and some prominent Democrats, such as acting DNC chair Donna Brazile, who apparently in her previous role as a Democratic commentator on CNN had tipped the Clinton campaign about questions that would be posed during a debate with Senator Sanders. One could appreciate the news value in some of these emails and documents, while at the same time express alarm at the brazenness of Russia’s violations of American institution and the privacy of American citizens in order to manipulate the election process. In its dumping of unredacted documents, WikiLeaks, over the years, has violated and damaged the privacy of countless individuals who were not involved in any untoward activities, thus damaging their reputations, exposing them to intimidation and danger.
The not so odd couple: Putin and Assange
The Australian born Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006 but he and his organization gained international renown in 2010 when they released almost half a million documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan given to them by Chelsea Manning a US Army soldier turned whistle blower. The news value of the documents was immense, and they helped correct the incomplete or faulty narratives about America’s two longest wars. The documents uncovered official corruption, confirmed incidents of indiscriminate killings and abuse of human rights in the two theatres. And although the documents revealed that American diplomats in the field wrote excellent analysis of the prevailing political and economic conditions in the countries they were assigned to, the secret cables showed also a darker side of diplomatic machinations.
Putin has effectively exploited the Obama administration’s timidity in the world, he is challenging the US in Europe and imposing political and military facts on the groundHisham Melhem
In his initial “mission statement” in 2006, Assange claimed that he would be exposing illegal behavior by Western governments, but that the main villains he would be chasing are the Eastern powers, mainly Russia and China. But Assange’s threat never materialized. The Russians initially dismissed Assange as a “petty thief running around on the internet” in the memorable words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But following Assange’s legal travails in late 2010, including an international arrest warrant in connection with charges of alleged sexual assault in Sweden, President Putin began a lengthy public campaign defending Assange, claiming that he was “being persecuted for spreading the information he received from [the] US military regarding the actions of the USA in the Middle East, including Iraq.” Around the same time, the then Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton was pushing aggressively to hold to account those responsible for leaking the diplomatic cables which became known as “Cablegate.” In November 2010, Assange, who sees Clinton as corrupt and a hardliner, told Time Magazine that she should resign. Assange’s animus against Hillary Clinton grew over the years, just as his war on American “imperialism” grew in intensity. During his years of isolation at the embassy of Ecuador in London, Assange is said to have become friendlier toward President Putin and Russia. He justified Russia aggression against the Ukraine by accusing the US of fomenting unrest in the country and plucking it “out of Russia’s sphere of influence.” Last August, Assange took sides in the US presidential election, telling Fox television network that Clinton “has positioned herself now, as being the security candidate. She’s palled up with the neocons responsible for the Iraq War and she’s grabbed on to this sort of neo-McCarthyist hysteria about Russia and is using that to demonize the Trump campaign.”
President Putin shares Assange’s loathing of Hillary Clinton. Putin still holds a grudge against Clinton ever since she condemned publicly Russian parliamentary elections in 2011. Putin resented what he saw as Clinton’s meddling in internal Russian affairs by supporting popular protests against fraud and corruption. She recalled in her memoirs that Putin “lashed out” at her the first time he met her after the elections. This brief history tells us that Putin and Assange have a common foe in Hillary Clinton and that we should look at the recent WikiLeaks releases of hacked emails through the prism of Putin-Assange collaboration and their common enmity against the US system.
Russia’s ‘useful fool’
Enter Donald J. Trump. From the beginning of his campaign Trump was generous and unabashed about his praise of Putin as a “strong leader” superior to President Obama. Putin returned the favor by praising Trump as a “colorful and talented person.” In his debates with Clinton and in his public rallies, Trump never tires of saying “if the United States got along with Russia, [it] wouldn’t be so bad,” or wishing the US “actually got along with Russia” so they could collaborate militarily to defeat ISIS, which means implicitly collaborating also with Russia’s allies in Syria: the Assad regime and Iran. Trump does not know or care that Assad’s brutality against his own people was the magnet that drew ISIS and other extremists and that the tripartite alliance of Assad, Russia and Iran is not seriously fighting ISIS but the other Syrian opposition groups, including those that the US provides with limited support. Trump’s reckless denigration of America’s enduring system of alliances established and maintained by both Republican and Democratic administrations since the Second World War, particularly the NATO alliance, plays into Putin’s hands and his old schemes of undermining the Western alliance.
Both men have some similar instincts and tendencies. Putin is an autocrat with stellar credentials, Trump loves to flirt with autocrats and strongmen like Putin, and one can clearly see in Trump’s public behavior and his attacks on the media these autocratic impulses. Both men reject democratic checks and balances and swim in a sea of international and domestic conspiracies and find themselves in ceaseless quests for slaying mostly imagined lurking evil dragons. Putin is bent on reviving Mother Russia’s Slavic and Orthodox traditions and influence, hence his irredentist policies in Georgia and Ukraine. Trump is in part a nativist and isolationist, hence his hostility towards immigrants. Both men share deep distrust and loathing of Islam and Muslims. Both Putin and Trump can play the role of populists and both men adore their adoring fans.
Trump, who had the audacity to call publicly on Russia to hack the email server of Hillary Clinton to recover the thousands of deleted emails, continues his denial of Russian culpability in the hacking of the DNC emails and those of John Podesta and others. Even, after the Intelligence Community pointed the finger at Russia, Trump kept saying “our country has no idea” or that the hacker could be a 400 pound loner, or declaring Russia’s innocence explicitly, “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC… They always blame Russia.” It seems that Trump and Assange have been reading from the same music notes, written by their conductor in Moscow. Retired General Michael V. Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA, a man known for his sharp analytical mind and immense experience in national security issues, described Trump as a “useful fool” using the Soviet era terminology. It has been said that the term “useful idiot” was attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, which describes silly and naïve propagandists for a cause they are not fully aware of its full meaning, and who are held in contempt by their manipulators (General Hayden used the correct translation of a term that does not exist in any text written by Lenin). Hillary Clinton called Trump a puppet of Putin.
Digital asymmetric warfare
Russia has been using cyber-attacks and intimidation as a form of asymmetric warfare to undermine its adversaries and/ or foment destabilizing activities. Countries in the “near-abroad” like Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic states and beyond in Western Europe and the United States have been subjected to this new form of warfare and the Western democracies have yet to develop either a good immune system or adopt counter and punitive measures. During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda, seeking to present the Communist system as the future alternative to exploitative Capitalism, was crude in form and content, but today, Russia’s cyber-attacks and accompanying international disinformation campaigns and the proliferation of global Russian Media like RT Television and Sputnik “news” agency are both very sophisticated and potentially very destructive since their primary goal is to undermine the very idea of the West and its democratic institutions as weak, corrupt and decadent and portray Western societies as unjust towards immigrants, refugees and Muslims while depicting NATO as an aggressive alliance. It is ironic that Russian propaganda today has turned the tables on the US and its allies. During the Cold War, the West used information (along with art and music) conveyed to Communist societies via Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to counter Communist propaganda and to show those societies the political and cultural diversity and vibrancy of democratic societies. Today, Western media is under financial pressure and there are no major Western concerted efforts to counter Russia’s propaganda, its campaigns of disinformation and its cyber depredations, particularly in Europe. The weakening of traditional Western media and the proliferations of thousands of websites and portals that can be used or exploited by Russia is making it possible for Moscow to spoon-feed the left and the right in Europe, and the US anti-Western Russian propaganda. The Soviet Union never dreamed of achieving such political inroads in Western democracies.
Putin has effectively exploited the Obama administration’s timidity in the world (the White House is still dithering on whether to extract a price from Russia following its cyber-attacks in America), he is challenging the US in Europe and imposing political and military facts on the ground from the Ukraine to Syria. Putin has proven his willingness to use hard power as well as digital asymmetric warfare. Putin has nothing but malice toward the US and in Mr. Trump he has found his “useful fool.” One would hope that those millions of American voters on November 8, while fully aware of Hillary Clinton’s numerous flaws and warts, nonetheless will take a harder look at Trump and the calamity that he represents and choose wisely.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem