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)

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.

BY Sarah Lazare

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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 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.

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.

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