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This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced December 18, 2019, with the late Stephen Cohen. Trump’s stated aim is to reduce tensions with Russia, but is it motivated by peaceful objectives or is it preparations for aggression towards Iran and China – Stephen Cohen joins host Paul Jay for a spirited discussion.
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
And we’re continuing our series of discussions with Stephen Cohen. And his biography is down below the video player, and you really should watch the first few segments anyway and you’ll get where we are. Thanks for joining us again.
STEPHEN COHEN: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: So I’ve watched several of your interviews. You’ve done Larry King and others, and you’ve been positive about Trump’s attitude towards sort of a detente, lowering tensions with Russia. And in terms of my personal view, I think you’re right. I think anything that lowers tensions between two nuclear powers is a good thing, and I think this self-righteous American attitude towards Putin and Russia– when you look at the scale of crimes committed by countries internationally, there is nothing that Russia has done that compares to the Iraq war, and go on and on with the United States has done, and to have some self-righteous attitude… Two, it’s clear it’s so hypocritical to worry about political rights in Russia, because it’s clear in terms of U.S. foreign policy if you can ally with Saudi Arabia, the Israeli occupation, and you name it how many dictators the United States has supported over the years, it’s not about democracy.
So whatever Trump’s intent is, I think I agree that this is a good thing. I actually think Trump framed it quite well himself, where he said, “Russia is not our adversary, they’re our competitor, the way other big capitalist countries are our competitors.” I think all that makes sense. Where I push back is I think you need to add that one of the prime reasons Trump wants to diminish tensions with Russia–assuming he really does, because some of the people that work for him, Nikki Haley in the UN and others, have said as outrageous stuff about Russia as any Democrat has said.
All that being said, I think the Trump presidency is one of the most dangerous presidencies ever, and he is planning and his whole foreign policy agenda has been regime change in Iran. And I think that if they don’t accomplish that through economic warfare against Iran, with John Bolton there, the possibility of some kind of at least bombing attack on Iran before 2020 is very possible. One of the reasons I think he wants to lower tensions with Russia is so he can go after China. His acting defense secretary justified this new military expenditure, the new budget, the 765 billion dollar budget, with three words, “China, China, China.” Their strategic vision–and you can see this in Steve Bannon’s interviews and language–is diminish the tensions with Russia, go after Iran and go after China. And I think one needs to say this, otherwise it kind of looks like Trump is some kind of peacenik. And far from it, I think they’re militarists.
STEPHEN COHEN: Not sure what the question is, though. Is it about–
PAUL JAY: Well, my question is, I think when you are saying positive things about Trump diminishing tensions with Russia, which I think is correct, but I think you need to add this guy does not have peaceful intentions, he’s very dangerous.
STEPHEN COHEN: I live in a social realm–to the extent that I have any social life at all anymore– where people get very angry if I say, or anybody says, anything positive about Donald Trump. When Trump was campaigning in 2016, he said, “I think it would be great to cooperate with Russia.” All of my adult life, my advocacy in American foreign policy–I’ve known presidents, the first George Bush invited me to Camp David to consult with him before he went to the Malta Summit. I’ve known presidential candidates, Senators and the rest, and I’ve always said the same thing. American national security runs through Moscow, period. Nothing’s changed.
In the era of weapons of mass destruction, not only nuclear, but primarily nuclear, ever more sophisticated, the Russians now have a new generation of nuclear weapons–Putin announced them on March 1, they were dismissed here, but they’re real–that can elude any missile defense. We spent trillions on missile defense to acquire a first strike capability against Russia. We said it was against or Iran, but nobody believed it. Russia has now thwarted us; they now have missile defense-evading nuclear weapons from submarines, to aircraft, to missiles. And Putin has said, “It’s time to negotiate an end to this new arms race,” and he’s 100 percent right. So when I heard Trump say, in 2016, we have to cooperate with Russia, I had already become convinced–and I spell this out in my new book, War with Russia?–that we were in a new cold war, but a new cold war more dangerous than the preceding one for reasons I gave in the book, one of them being these new nuclear weapons.
So I began to speak positively about Trump at that moment–that would have been probably around the summer of 2016–just on this one point, because none of the other candidates were advocating cooperation with Russia. And as I told you before, Paul, all my life I’ve been a detente guy. Detente means cooperate with Russia. I saw in Trump the one candidate who said this is necessary, in his own funny language. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, was very much a hawk. When she said publicly that Vladimir Putin has no soul, you could not commit or utter a more supreme statement of anti-diplomacy, and particularly addressing the Russians, who put a lot of stock in soul. To say somebody has no soul and then go on to equate him with Hitler, I found that so irresponsible. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I did begin to write and broadcast that this was of vital importance that we have this discussion, that we needed a new detente because of the new and more dangerous Cold War.
Since he’s been president, I think he’s been ineffective in regard to pursuing detente with Russia for a couple of reasons. I think that the people who invented Russiagate were the enemies of detente, and they piled on. So they’ve now demonized Russia, they’ve crippled Trump. Anything he does diplomatically with Putin is called collusion. No matter what Mueller says, it’s collusion. This is anti-democracy, and detente is pursued through democracy. So whatever he really wants to do–it’s hard to say–he’s been thwarted. I think it’s also one of the reasons why he put anti-detente people around him.
PAUL JAY: Why didn’t he pull out of the arms treaty?
STEPHEN COHEN: So this is a separate issue now, and a complicated one. We have been in violation–let’s be clear for folks which treaty we’re talking about. We’re talking about the so-called Intermediate-Range Treaty. This band of deployment of missiles that could fly roughly from 500, I think, to 3000 miles, they were exceedingly dangerous. The American ones have been based in Europe. They were very dangerous because they tested high-alert systems. They flew low, fast, they could elude radar. They were dangerous. Reagan and Gorbachev abolished them in 1987, correct? Now, stop and think for a minute, Paul. What Reagan and Gorbachev did in 1987 was the first ever, ever in history, act of nuclear abolitionism. They abolished an entire category of nuclear weapons. That was a sacred act. It needed to be cherished and preserved forever, no matter what difficulties emerged.
But then comes the history, and we need to remember the history. In 2002, the second President Bush withdrew the United States unilaterally from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, correct? Now, this treaty was related, because it forbid the deployment of so-called missile defense in a way that either side, American or Russian, could think that it had such great missile defense, it had a first strike capability. And everybody agreed nobody should think that. Mutually assured destruction had kept us safe in the nuclear age. But if Russia or the United States gets a first strike capability, then you don’t have assured mutual destruction, and some crazy person might be tempted to risk it. So how did the Russians react to that? They began to develop–as I said before, when we began to deploy missile defense–a new generation of weapons. In other words, you’re getting this classic action, reaction, action, reaction that drove the previous nuclear arms race, and now it’s happening again.
So that brings us to Trump’s decision. We don’t know yet where it’s going to lead, because Trump has said we’re withdrawing. He said the Russians have been in violation. But in fact, we’ve been in violation since we deployed the missile defense systems. Just for the record, by the way–and professor Theodore Postol at MIT has been very good about this–these missile defense installations that we’ve installed around Russia, land, air, and sea, can actually fire cruise missiles. They are in violation of that Intermediate-Range Treaty, so we’ve been in systematic violation. Pushes come to shove, we withdrew, the Russians have now withdrawn. But Trump has said two things that are interesting and maybe correct, that technically the treaty was out of date because of the new weaponry. And secondly, who has the most cruise missiles? China. 30 years ago in 1987, it was only the United States and Russia, the Soviet Union. But now China, because of its vast regional presence, has all these intermediate range missiles.
So Trump says offhandedly, maybe in a Tweet, “Have you ever looked at the military budget of Russia, China, and the United States? It’s obscene. We should cut it.” What does that mean? What does that mean? It’s a good idea, right? Then he said, “We can’t have such a treaty without China.” The Russians know this too, so let us hope that what they’re stumbling toward is a new, modernized intermediate-range ban that would include China. China, however, will never sign it. But if they begin the negotiations and China doesn’t deploy any more during the negotiations, and the negotiations go on indefinitely, we are safer than we now are. Now, do I think that Trump is cunning and thought this up? I’m not sure, but he’s got China on the mind, and I don’t quite agree with you that–he’s got a kind of dualistic attitude toward China. It’s a threat, but every time he makes a new trade deal with China, he brags on it that it’s great for us.
You would agree with that, right? He’s always talking about, “We’re going to have this wonderful trade agreement with China, it’s going to be so good for us.” So in his mind, Trump’s mind, China is kind of potentially–in his businessman mind–this big economic plus that he alone is going to get right. Let him try.
PAUL JAY: I don’t know how much of this policy at all is Trump or not Trump. I think the brains behind a lot of this policy now is Bolton and some of the other neocon crazies around him.
STEPHEN COHEN: But Trump has been saying the same thing about cooperating with Russia long before he took on Bolton. There’s two ways to look at this.
PAUL JAY: But his attitude towards China–
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, just stay for one minute on Russia, because the China thing is worth talking about too. But he says, almost alone, for the first time–how long has it been since we had a president really pursue detente? It’s been a very long time. Obama called it a reset, but it was fraudulent. It was basically saying to the Russians, “Give us everything, and we aren’t going to give you anything.” It was doomed from the beginning. Plus, they wagered that Putin wouldn’t return to the presidency. Do you know, by the way, speaking of meddling, that Biden went to Moscow and told Putin not to return to the presidency in 2012?
PAUL JAY: No.
STEPHEN COHEN: Wrap your head around that a minute. The vice president of the United States goes to Moscow and tells Putin, who’s now prime minister because he termed out, but he could return, “We don’t think you should return to the presidency.” So you know what I’m wondering, I’m wondering whether Biden’s calling up Putin today and asking Putin whether Biden should get into the presidential race here. I mean, what the hell? What the hell? And we talk about meddling? So the point about Trump, to finish this, is for the first time in many, many years, a presidential candidate, one that I didn’t vote for and didn’t care for, had said it’s necessary to cooperate with Russia.
PAUL JAY: OK, but I’ve got to contextualize it. Because it’s not enough–because first of all, Trump’s a big liar, and everyone, from beginning to end, for real.
STEPHEN COHEN: Politicians lie, Paul. Welcome to the world,
PAUL JAY: No, but I think he lied on Russia.
STEPHEN COHEN: About what?
PAUL JAY: Well, on two things. I think number one–I think two things drove his Russia–
STEPHEN COHEN: Let me get my word in. Then I’ll give it to you, I promise I’ll pass it right to you, because this is going to set you up beautifully. When he said, Trump, 2016, “It’s necessary to cooperate with Russia,” there are two ways to interpret that. He was wise and smart, or the Kremlin had something on him.
PAUL JAY: No, I don’t think either of those are true.
STEPHEN COHEN: And then we go straight to Russia.
PAUL JAY: Neither of those are true.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I’m not saying you say that, but that’s the way it was taken.
PAUL JAY: No, I think there’s two things drove the Russia thing. Number one, they wanted sanctions lifted because Tillerson and the American oil companies, especially Exxon, wanted a big energy play in Russia, and they needed to lift the sanctions to do it, and Tillerson was all positioned for it. And if it hadn’t been for this whole Russiagate stuff, they would have sailed along, had a detente, lifted the sanctions, and had a whole realm of new energy.
STEPHEN COHEN: You mean under Trump.
PAUL JAY: Under Trump. And I think that would have been a good thing. I’m not critiquing that in the sense that anything that reduces tensions between the United States and Russia is a good, thing normalizing, even if it’s exploitive and ripping off the Russian people in their oil, I don’t care. The nuclear threat is so paramount, anything that reduces those tensions are good. But these are not peacenik intentions.
STEPHEN COHEN: Where do we disagree? You’ve lost me.
PAUL JAY: I’m not saying we necessarily disagree on this. The second part of it is–and this is where I think is the dangerous part. Because I think sometimes when Trump and Putin get together and talk quietly, part of that conversation could well be about Iran. Because when they had the first big round of sanctions on Iran, Russia supported them, Russia came in on it. And if your foreign policy objective–and clearly it is, between whether it was Flynn, or whether it was Mattis, or whether it was Bolton, all of them are “regime change in Iran is the prime objective.” And if you want to do that, wouldn’t you want Russia to at the very least step back a little bit?
STEPHEN COHEN: I got you now, I see where you’re going.
PAUL JAY: Number one. And number two, the big strategic guns are focused on China. So if you want to focus on China, wouldn’t it be nice to have a strategic normalization with Russia, try to split Russia from China? Because in their minds, the real enemy is not Russia, the real enemy is a superpower economy–
STEPHEN COHEN: In whose mind?
PAUL JAY: Much of the American foreign policy establishment, both Democrat and Republican.
STEPHEN COHEN: The real enemy is…?
PAUL JAY: China. Because that’s the global economy, that’s going to be the competing superpower.
STEPHEN COHEN: Let’s say you’re right.
PAUL JAY: And that doesn’t in any way say it’s still, in the final analysis, a good thing if Trump can diminish these tensions. But let’s give it the whole context.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, but it doesn’t–I’m not sure what the whole context is. It seems to me you just said to me that Trump or these people were playing for Russia’s support against Iran in China.
PAUL JAY: As one piece of this, yeah.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, if so, it’s a fool’s folly. Russia is leaving the West. I mean, it can’t leave the West geopolitically, because Russia is so big, it’s half in the West and a half in the un-West geographically. But American foreign policy, NATO expansion, the unwise policies made in Brussels and Washington, are driving Russia from the West.
PAUL JAY: No doubt.
STEPHEN COHEN: And when you leave the West, where do you end up, Paul?
PAUL JAY: They are pushing exactly the kind of a line–
STEPHEN COHEN: Where do you go?
PAUL JAY: Well, with China, of course.
STEPHEN COHEN: And not only China, where else? All major powers that are not members of NATO, including Iran. So when Putin came to power, he was very much in the tradition of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. He wanted a strategic alliance with the United States. Who was the first person to call up Bush after 9/11? Putin. And he said, “George, anything.” And if you go back and look at what the Russians did to help the American ground war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, whether you think it was a good idea or not, that ground war, Russia did more to save American lives–Russian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan–than any NATO country did.
PAUL JAY: No, Iran did more than any NATO country to help America.
STEPHEN COHEN: But Russia had assets, unbelievable assets, and corridors for transportation, and even an army, the Northern Alliance, that it kept in Afghanistan. It gave it all to the United States. Putin wanted a strategic alliance with the United States, and what did he get in return? He got from Bush, the second Bush, more NATO expansion right to Russia’s borders, and as I mentioned before, American withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which had been the bedrock of Russian nuclear security for 30 or 40 years. He got betrayed, and they use that word, “We were betrayed by Washington.” This is serious stuff.
The pivot away from the West begins there and continues with these crazy policies that Washington has pursued toward Russia. It doesn’t mean that Russia is gone forever from the West, but if you look at the billions of dollars of investment, you look at which way the pipelines flow, you look at Russia–Putin meets like six times a year, maybe more, with the leader of China. They’ve each called each other their best friend in politics. Trump meets with Putin and we think, “Oh my god, how can he meet with him.” I mean, it’s normal.
PAUL JAY: Netanyahu just met with Putin; nobody said a word.
STEPHEN COHEN: But the point here is that Russia has been torn between East and the West forever. Its best policy, in its own best interest, is to straddle East and West, not to be of the East or the West, but it’s impossible in this world today. And U.S.-led Western policy since the end of the Soviet Union, and particularly since Putin came to power in 2000, has persuaded the Russian ruling elite that Russia can not count any longer, economically, politically, militarily, on being part of the West. It has to go elsewhere. So all this talk about wanting to win Russia to an American position that’s anti-Iranian and anti-Chinese is conceived in disaster and will end in disaster. They should think of some other foreign policy.
PAUL JAY: I agree, but I think that’s what Trump’s–the people around Trump that wanted the detente–
STEPHEN COHEN: We should get new people.
PAUL JAY: Well…
STEPHEN COHEN: I’ll tell you truthfully, if Trump really wants to cooperate with Russia for the sake of American national security, if we forget all this Russiagate stuff and we say, “The guy is a little dim, but his ideas are right, you’ve got to cooperate with Russia,” he has to get some new advisors. Because the people around him don’t have a clue how to do it.
PAUL JAY: I don’t think that is the intent, the intent is make money. I don’t think there’s any other intent. Make money for arms manufacturers, fossil fuel–
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, hope dies with us. I just don’t see that constant bashing of Trump demeaning him, though it’s so easy to do, helps us think clearly about American national interests.
PAUL JAY: I don’t think bashing Trump by dredging up the demons of the Cold War is anything but war mongering. On the other hand, I don’t think we should create any illusions about who Trump is.
STEPHEN COHEN: So let me give you the part with a paradox. We shouldn’t have any illusions about who Trump is, that seems like–
PAUL JAY: Or who the system is, really.
STEPHEN COHEN: OK. So let’s say–I mean, that seems a sensible point of view. But let me ask you a question. Why was it that American presidents since Eisenhower could do detente with Soviet communist leaders, and they weren’t demonized after Stalin, but we’re not permitted–and certainly Trump is not permitted–to do detente with a Russian Kremlin anti-communist leader, which Putin is? Did we like the communists better than the anti-communists in the Kremlin?
PAUL JAY: No. I’ll give you what I think, it’s just a layman’s opinion. I think the foreign policy establishment, the elite, they were absolutely furious that after all these decades of trying to overthrow the Soviet Union, and they finally accomplish–although I think it was mostly an internal phenomenon, but still–and then they get Yeltsin and they have open Wild West, grabbing all these resources. I think they were really pissed that a state emerged, led by Putin, that said, “Hold on, it may be oligarchs, but they’re going to be Russian, and you Americans aren’t going to have a free-for–all, taking up the resources and owning the finance. We’re not going to be a third world country to your empire.”
STEPHEN COHEN: That’s correct.
PAUL JAY: And they’re pissed off at that.
STEPHEN COHEN: They, meaning…?
PAUL JAY: The Americans.
STEPHEN COHEN: Our people.
PAUL JAY: Our people. Well, I don’t want to even take ownership for it.
STEPHEN COHEN: Don’t run away. I don’t know your age–
PAUL JAY: I’m 67.
STEPHEN COHEN: So we’ve established that I’m older than you.
PAUL JAY: No doubt. But you look younger, and I’m pissed at that.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, that’s a separate subject.
PAUL JAY: You’ve got more hair.
STEPHEN COHEN: I’ve got more hair. You’ve distracted me. What we share, despite the age difference, is that we grew up at a time when we were told–whether you or I believed it or not, but our generations, two generations, were told we are against Russia because it’s communist. We were told that for decade after decade after decade. Now, Russia, the Kremlin, is not communist, it’s anti-communist, and we’re still against Russia. How do Russian intellectuals and policy-makers interpret that turnabout, that it was never about communism, it was about Russia? There’s a saying in Russia formulated by a philosopher, his name was Zinoviev, he passed on but he was very influential, they were shooting–meaning the West–they were shooting at communism, but they were aiming at Russia.
And the view, very widespread among the Russian policy intellectual class today, is that Washington, in particular, will never accept Russia as an equal great power in world affairs, regardless of whether Russia is communist or anti-communist. And if that is so, Russia has to entirely reconceive its place in the world and its thinking about the West. And that point of view is ascending in Russia today due to Western policy. But just remember the view that all during the previous Cold War, they claim they were shooting at communism, but it was really Russia. And they still are today.
PAUL JAY: Yeah, I agree with that. I just–
STEPHEN COHEN: But we don’t–you and I may agree, but we don’t want Russians to think that way.
PAUL JAY: But I think the view coming out of World War II about being the global hegemon, the superpower, what that also means is you can’t have any adversarial regional powers. And whether it’s Russia or Iran, if you’re not in the smaller American sphere of influence, the umbrella, you can’t be there.
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s funny you say that. I mean, I’m not a Putin apologist or a Trump apologist, but I do like intellectual puzzles. If you’re saying that we have to give up our thinking about a multipolar world, so to speak, that there’ll be other regional superpowers or great powers, then isn’t Trump the first American president who seems to be OK with that? I don’t see in Trump much a demand that we be number one.
PAUL JAY: Oh, I think… Make America Great Again?
STEPHEN COHEN: But he didn’t say Make American Number One Again. Maybe that’s what he means, but you don’t have Trump–
PAUL JAY: I don’t think it kind of matters what the hell Trump thinks or says. And I think–
STEPHEN COHEN: Have you heard Trump say this thing that Obama and Madeleine Albright ran around saying for years, that American is “the indispensable nation?” Do you know how aggravated that made other states in the world? I mean, stop and think about it. Who runs around saying “we’re indispensable?” I haven’t heard Trump say that, maybe he has.
PAUL JAY: I just don’t think we should put too much weight into whatever Trump says. I think he’s a vehicle, he’s a vessel.
STEPHEN COHEN: You take what you can get these days.
PAUL JAY: He’s a vessel, first and foremost, for the arms manufacturers, for the fossil fuel industry. He’s a vessel for right-wing evangelical politics. He’s not a philosopher king. He’s not a peacenik.
STEPHEN COHEN: You have to have priorities.
PAUL JAY: I think he’s rather banal.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, probably, but you have to have priorities. My priority in international affairs is to avoid a military conflict with Russia. In my book, my new book, War with Russia?, when I start writing that book in 2013, I never intended to give it that title. But as I worked and watched events unfold since 2013 to 2019, for the first time in my long career, I thought war with Russia was possible. I didn’t even think there was going to be a war–as I remember it, I don’t remember it vividly–during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, I assure you, the new Cold War is fraught with multiple Cuban Missile Crises. Take your pick; in the Baltic area where NATO is building up, in Ukraine where we’ve got ourselves involved in a proxy war, in Georgia where NATO is trespassing again as we talk, in Syria where American and Russian forces are flying and fighting on the ground in close proximity. By the way, Trump was absolutely right in withdrawing those–what were they–3000 Americans in Syria because whatever, Russia had killed just one of them.
With Trump in the White House, the trip wires, a war between nuclear Russia and nuclear America, are far greater and more multiple than they have ever been. That’s the danger. Therefore, at this moment, if Trump says it’s necessary to cooperate with Russia, on that one issue we must support him. It’s existential at this moment. And believe me, and believe me, people love to hate on Putin in this country; “Putin’s evil, Putin’s bad.” It’s nonsense. Putin is a recognizable leader in Russia’s tradition. Putin, as you said I think before, came to power wanting an alliance with the United States. He’s spoken of his own illusions publicly. Leaders very rarely admit they ever had an illusion, rights, it’s not something they do. He is reproached in Russia, reproached in Russia, for still having illusions about the West. You know what they say about him in high places in Russia? “He’s not proactive, he just reacts, he waits for the West to do something abysmal to Russia, and then he acts. Why doesn’t he first see what’s coming?” What do they cite? They cite Ukraine.
PAUL JAY: Well, that’s the next segment, because my question to you is going to be, “Did Putin make a mistake in Crimea?” So please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Stephen Cohen on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.