In the summer of 1940, three British authors writing under the nom de screed of “Cato” issued a vicious polemic against Neville Chamberlain and the cadre of British appeasers who had provided Adolf Hitler the running room he needed to begin his conquest of Europe. When “Guilty Men” hit the scene, it was a scathing critique of the British leadership class in the inter- and pre-War years with the object lesson of their failure playing out as Hitler drove British forces from the continent at Dunkirk. His forces had by that moment occupied France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Poland.
The primus inter pares of the Guilty Men of World War II Britain was, of course, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s deep naivete over Hitler’s intentions and abilities left Britain grossly unprepared to face the Nazis, and by the time it was clear how badly Chamberlain had misread Hitler, most of the continent was under the German chancellor’s boot.
For all he has been (rightly) demonized, history is replete with examples of missed signals, normalcy bias, and wishcasting in the face of dangerous, ambitious authoritarians, which is why the next administration’s overtly pro-Putin tilt is so dangerous. Donald Trump and his enablers are sending all the wrong signals to the Putin kleptocracy at the very moment the Russian strongman appears ready to expand and secure more influence at home and abroad.
Like never in modern history, the incoming Trump team has made it clear they believe Putin’s Russia is an ally, not an adversary despite the obvious actions of a Russian government that has put American lives, values, and interests around the globe at risk. Putin’s U.S. allies, sympathizers, and fellow travelers may well be the Guilty Men in the new Cold War.
We can debate where we are in Cold War 2.0, but we shouldn’t mistake the fact that we are in fact in one. The twilight struggle is now lit by flickering computer screens where Russian hackers and their troll armies work to sell the Kremlin’s new conquests. The slow-motion land grabs in Ukraine, Georgia, and Crimea aren’t as dramatic as German Panzers sweeping into Paris, but they’re just as real for the millions who feel a chill new wind blowing from Moscow. The grandsons of the architects of the Iron Curtain are looking anew at Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Sweden with an old hunger for control.
For generations, men and women in our defense and intelligence services fought against the Soviet’s ambitions across a spectrum of conflict, from battlefields to boardrooms to back alleys. It was waged between what one old Cold War hand described to me as, “We weren’t always good guys, but we were always on the right side.” Swept aside in the contemporary hysteria over radical Islam, the victory over the Soviet Union’s oppression and tyranny ended without a nuclear exchange, which took more luck and more doing than most people realize. As we are wont to do as a nation, we said, “Well, the Wall is down and the East is open for business” and let the lessons of the past drop away.
In many ways, the speed and scope of the victory over Soviet Communism led us to the current gray area. American leadership—the Obama-Clinton State Department’s fatuous, naive “Russian Reset” as one bad, dumb example—seems unable to process how we should respond to modern Russian statecraft that plays to their asymmetric strengths; a commitment to intelligence warfare, a clinical, bloody-minded willingness to pursue their ends in places like Ukraine and Syria, and their disdain for international norms or sanction.
In the past week, Donald Trump has routinely attacked the assessment of the CIA and 16 other intelligence agencies that the Russian government sought to actively influence the outcome of the American election. It must warm to cockles of whatever Vladimir Putin calls a heart to hear the president-elect of the United States attacking America’s intelligence agencies, and defending the GRU, SVR, and FSB. He has reportedly begun to indulge in a theory that the intelligence community is “out to get him.” As noted by John Schindler, wars with the intelligence community only end one way; disaster.
More importantly, conservative elected leaders and Trump’s clickbait conservative media allies are either mocking or ignoring the abundant evidence of Russian involvement. Yes, the irony is striking, given the Trump demographic’s willingness to swallow even the most absurd “news” as long as it strokes their resentments and preconceptions.
The same people who believe that every single Muslim refugee is a fully-vested member of ISIS intent on waging jihad at the local mall can’t imagine that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s intentions toward us aren’t entirely benevolent. The same people who believe that 3 million illegal immigrants organized a massive, stealthy vote-stealing operation on behalf of Hillary Clinton hand-wave away the long, endlessly documented history of Russian intelligence services’ efforts to disrupt American interests, alliances, and institutions.
The same people who believe Hillary Clinton and John Podesta sit atop a global organization of child kidnapping, rape, cannibalism, and murder based on pizza joints scream their lungs out denying even the possibility of Russian interference in our elections. The same people who believe in a multi-generational conspiracy to cover up Barack Obama’s actual country of origin call a Russian effort to elect Trump too baroque and complex to contemplate.
I’m not the first to point out that if the shoe was on the other foot, Republicans would be living in quite a different political framework. As a thought experiment, imagine for even a moment the eternal, apoplectic, spittle-flecked rage you’d see from Fox news hosts, talk radio, and the fever-swamp media if Hillary Clinton had won, and there was even a whisper of a hint of a rumor that the Russians had helped her. Republicans wouldn’t simply be asking about the details of their involvement, but they’d be engaged in a constant examination of the Russian’s intent. (Hell, who am I kidding? The word “impeachment” would never leave our lips.)
Responsible American leaders will examine Russia’s behavior and the current climate in a cold-eyed and clear way. Congressional leadership has realized this isn’t a game. For the good of the nation, we should hope they’ll weigh the threats facing America more as Churchills than Chamberlains and pursue the truth with at least the vigor given to Benghazi affair and other congressional investigations. Simply because the incoming administration is filled with a Putin fanboys is no reason for members of Congress and the Senate to abdicate their oversight responsibilities.
As for Trump and his pro-Putin claque? They may well become this generation’s Guilty Men.