The Corner

National Security & Defense

Against Moral Equivalence

President Trump speaks during a news conference following his summit with Russian President Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)

Remember when apology tours and comparing American exceptionalism to Greek exceptionalism and British exceptionalism (and tan suits) drew our ire? Those days feel quaint, an idyllic reminder of a world since forgotten.

During this morning’s summit in Helsinki, a journalist asked the president about a tweet that blamed American “foolishness and stupidity” for tensions in the U.S.–Russia relationship (his message was endorsed and retweeted by the Russian foreign ministry). His response: “I hold both countries responsible. I think the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish . . . I think we’ve both made mistakes.” Then he segued into a condemnation of the Mueller probe.

In the lead up to the summit, Axios journalist Jonathan Swan reported on the president’s approach to pressuring Putin on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Per Swan’s reporting, Trump no longer doubts intelligence assessments that Russia interfered, but he “tells staff that is simply what nations do.”

The president voices this view in private, perhaps with an understanding of the blowback if he said it in public. But Rand Paul has articulated this point — that the United States interferes in elections — in public, most recently on CNN this Sunday:

We all do it. What we need to do is make sure our electoral process is protected. They’re not going to admit it in the same way we’re not going to admit we were involved in the Ukrainian elections or the Russian elections.

And he’s right, at least to an extent. The New York Times ran an explainer about the history of U.S. interference in foreign elections following the indictment of several Russian operatives in February, making a similar point. The article runs through the post-WWII history of American activities to sway foreign political events in a way to meet U.S. foreign-policy goals. The CIA helped non-Communist politicians in Italy for over a decade; American operatives in the 1990s planted newspaper stories to unseat Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government; in Serbia, the United States unseated Slobodan Milosevic, a murderous thug. There are also several far-from-sanguine examples of American election interference. Count the coups in Iran and Guatemala among these, as well as initiatives in Russia immediately following the Cold War.

But, quoting two experts with a knowledge of the intelligence community, the Times article also says this:

But in recent decades, both Mr. Hall and Mr. Johnson argued, Russian and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictators or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said.

The real story is not that the United States has intervened in foreign elections and influenced foreign political outcomes, but that it has done so to promote democracy and political liberty and human rights. The talking heads trafficking in examples of U.S. interference neglect to mention that the goal of American policy has always been to prop up anti-totalitarian, pro-market leaders, if operations to do so have oftentimes been messy. The Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Russia today, by contrast, sought and seek to install their allies to morally indifferent ends. (I make a similar point in a July 4 book review.)

Drawing moral equivalences where they do not exist is a dangerous game that enables the world’s tyrants. There was a time when conservatives would pan the previous president for making rhetorical concessions and pursuing policies that supposedly undermined American exceptionalism, but Barack Obama never called the concept “insulting.” In fact, he once said, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.”

If we are not vigilant, we’ll wake up one day, having forgotten the vocabulary of American moral leadership, and worse, we’ll have ceded a unique global role that makes the promotion of human freedom the ultimate goal of foreign policy. Dismissing Russian interference because we do it too is bad, but blaming America for a downturn in relations provoked by a journalist-assassinating, dissident-assassinating, civilian-airline-downing, chemical-weapons-dictatorship-supporting regime, is downright unconscionable.

Ben Sasse put it best today: “The United States is not to blame . . . When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.”

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