Congress needs an enemy, so Russia is painted as hobgoblin – former Reagan administration official

Donald Trump’s presidency has been marred by strong domestic resistance from all sides – with both Republicans and Democrats hampering White House efforts to restore ties with Russia. And it’s not just this – despite Trump’s promise of peace and a non-interventionist policy, Washington is increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan, and a conflict with North Korea is looming on the horizon. Is the Trump administration being left isolated and powerless, or does it still have a few cards up its sleeve? Is Trump still going to deliver on his promise of a new foreign policy, or will the hawks win again? We ask author, political publicist, and former Reagan administration official Ralph Benko.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Ralph Benko, former Reagan administration official, political columnist to Forbes and other media, welcome to the show, it's actually great to have you with us. So, Ralph, the new low in U.S.-Russia relations has seen both countries expelling each other's diplomats, and the US Congress forcing President Trump into a new round of sanctions on Moscow. Do you feel that Donald Trump’s campaign idea of ending the spat with Russia is now dead for good?

Ralph Benko: Absolutely not. It's in America's interests and of course, one of America's values to find a rapprochement with Russia.

SS: Why is it that Trump, who didn’t want to pass new sanctions, was cornered into doing that by Congress – which is controlled by his own party? Why are Republicans working against their own president? 

RB: Trump is not a 'cradle' Republican, if you understand what I mean. He ran on the Republican ticket but his allegiance to the Republican party is weak and the Republican party's allegiance to Donald Trump is weak, and this was intra-party warfare.

SS: But it would seem like, as time goes on, it's in each other's interests to kind of bond. Why isn't Trump succeeding in getting them on his side?

RB: Well, there's a lot of hostility from the Republican regulars toward Donald Trump. They’ve tuned it down, because he did run on the Republican ticket, he is, at least, nominally a Republican, and they do prefer party unity. But there are vast policy and dispositional differences between the Congressional leadership and Donald Trump, and those create ongoing tension.

SS: How do you fix those differences? What would be your advice?

RB: This may sound a little esoteric, but it's really very important: one of your great statesmen Georgy Arbatov said about 30 years ago that Russia - then the Soviet Union - would use its secret weapon against the United States, of depriving it of an enemy. This was a brilliant insight by mr. Arbatov. And when the Soviet Union dissolved, then America lost its long-term Cold War enemy, the narrative, or the big story that our politicians have lived inside for generations went away, and we've entered a state of kind of wilderness, and our political leaders are still wandering around, trying to figure out what the big story is now, and they don't have one. Trump represents a representation of a different story, a story of peace and prosperity, and the establishment Republicans haven't really wrapped their heads around this yet, I'm sorry to say.

SS: Democrats love using this alleged collusion between Russians and Team Trump to undermine the president’s legitimacy. Meanwhile, Republicans use Russia to look strong and counter opposition pressure. Is Russia just being used as a bargaining chip?

RB: No, Russia is being portrayed as an imaginary hobgoblin. Remember mr. Arbatov - "deprive you of your enemy", your secret weapon - the political establishment feels that they need an enemy, and they're painting Russia as an enemy which is of course preposterous.

SS: So, okay. While U.S. politicians claim Russia is a threat to American interests, Washington still enjoys Russian help on some key issues, like Syria, North Korea, fighting ISIS - is this strange dual approach the only way for them to actually move forward?

RB: Oh no, there are much better ways, and... in the Republican primary, there were 17 candidates. Three of them were “tough doves”, what I called it in my Forbes.com column, “tough doves”, there were then some "Weak hawks" and there were some "strong hawks". The Republican electorate favored the "tough doves" that would be Donald Trump, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, who were not belligerent, by 60% of the vote, and the remaining 14 candidates had to split the rest of the vote between them. Some of them were very hostile to Russia, and they got very small percentages of vote. Then, in the general election, Trump was clearly the "tough dove" against the neocon Hillary Clinton's belligerent stance towards Russia, and he won the election. So Trump, whatever his faults, - and he'll have faults - clearly understood the mood of the American people is one that craves peace. This is a strong asset on his part. Now, as we move forward, hopefully, we will become clearer on the fact that Russia and America are natural friends, that the Cold War is over and it's time for warm relations between our two countries, rather than this belligerence.

SS: So you've said that Russia is being used as an enemy, by all sides, but why do these traditional politicians need an enemy anyway?

RB: Well, there was a Nobel-prize winning economist, named Kahneman, he's Israeli, and with his colleague Tversky, they did something called "behavioral economics" and they discovered that people are far more motivated by threats than they are by rewards. And so, this is just politicians exploiting this factor of human nature.

SS: The latest set of U.S. sanctions against Russia targets energy projects and those involved in them. As a result, the European energy sector suffers more here than Russia’s. What’s the point for Washington in hampering relations with the EU - a much closer ally than Russia?

RB: I see Russia as a very important potential ally for the United States. America is trying to re-orient itself. At the end of the Cold War, it ended up as the one hyper-power in the world. But I hope your listeners will understand that America never sought world hegemony. We kind of inherited that. And the world is now moving towards sort of six regional dominant powers - and Donald Trump instinctively gets this. So, what's going on here, America is just kind of "feeling" its way to a post-Cold War era, 25 years after the fact.

SS: With so much resistance from both the Democrats and Republicans, can America’s stance on Russia ever change – is that realistic?

RB: Oh yes. Oh, it's not just realistic. I understand, as you read from my column at Forbes.com, you know, Russia's sense of vulnerability and I said in that column: "people all over the world prefer butter to guns, but if they feel threatened, they'll choose guns", and so the more America sees Russia as a beautiful culture, beautiful people and natural friends of ours, then the animosity between of our politicians to Russia will just melt away. Sophie, between 1910 and 1912, the world imperial empire collapsed. Empires that governed the world for thousands of years, and then, in this incredibly short period of time, the Russian Empire dissolved, the Chinese empire was overthrown, the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed and the Ottoman Empire went away, and the British Empire, which was the least authoritarian of the empires, began to go into fast internal decline. To see a world order, imperial order, collapse after thousands of years in little more than a decade, just shows you how quickly progress can be made when proper consciousness of where our real interests and where our real values lie - penetrates the consciousness of the people. The politicians try to follow the popular mood.

SS: You just said the keywords - they are trying to follow the popular mood, and the popular mood right now seems to be bashing Russia. I mean, why is  it really bad to do business with Russia - which is, according to Congress, run by a so-called ‘strongman’ - and it’s perfectly okay to do business with, say, Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with a radical religious bend? How do American politicians manage to go around this contradiction? I mean, the double standards here are kind of mind boggling.

RB: It's a holdover. There's a lot of confusion between the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. A lot of Americans don't really get the distinction, and it was really a great tragedy that 25 years ago, when the USSR dissolved itself peacefully, that there was no joint celebration of the end of the Cold War. After WWI there were parades and after WWII there's a famous picture of a Navy sailor kissing a nurse on Times Square, and so the message got through to the American people that the war is over. There was no celebration - and it's not too late, by the way, to celebrate the peaceful end of the Cold War. The fact is that the lack of that celebration has caused the American people to be vague on this fact, that the world has entered the most peaceful era in world's history. So the carry over of the old imagination is the imaginary hobgoblin that haunts the reputation of Russia and that should be dispelled.

SS: The diplomatic row between Moscow and Washington is ramping up with Vladimir Putin saying Russia will go to an American court over property rights. It’s clear that a diplomatic break is unlikely - but what way out do you see in this situation?

RB: This is expulsion of diplomats is trivial, in State Department parlance it's called "tit-for-tat". It's entirely symbolic, and it has no serious long-term policy ramifications. America does not desire war with Russia, and Russia does not desire war with America. It serves neither of our interests and neither of our values, so this is all what I would call "stray voltage". The key to me is getting the message through to the people and the people will instruct the politicians.

SS: Part of the resistance to normalising relations with Russia, the sanctions, etc - comes from the hype around the story that President Trump colluded with Moscow, about Russian election interference. The Trump-Russia story is massive, but it’s not the most solid of stories, really. A CNN producer was caught on tape saying it’s mostly rubbish, but it’s good for ratings. So is the U.S. foreign policy in the end decided by media and ratings?

RB: Yes. Not in Secretary Tillerson's case, Secretary Tillerson is a very level-headed man, but the animosity is not coming from the Trump administration, which is being victimized by this. The imaginary hobgoblin of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign is being used by Trump's enemies and adversaries to delegitimize his presidency. It's coming from the Congress, it's not coming from the Trump administration.

SS: So now looking at America’s media landscape, you see an anti-Trump and as you say biased New York Times, CNN, etc., but on the side of the right it’s the same story - I mean, Fox News is a right-wing channel, Breitbart isn’t in the middle. Is this a new trend - being stuck with right-wing media and left-wing media, with nothing else in between or has it always been like that?

RB: There didn’t use to be right-wing media, but after the invention of cable TV and the internet and so forth right wing voices came to the fore. I do not think that the right wing media has nearly as much animosity - in fact, I know, since I read and watch heavily as a contributor to Forbes.com, that there's far less animosity towards the Russian Federation coming from the right than the left. The problem, Sophie, is that Russia is not telling its story in a compellent way. I don't blame Russia for that, the channels that it has to do that, like RT, are limited, but Russia needs to define itself, or else its enemies and adversaries will define it in the media sphere. Russia has a great story to tell, it's just not getting out sufficiently, and of course, RT is attempting to get it out, good on you for that.

SS: Right now I'm not even talking about how Russia is portrayed in the media, but more about Trump. Trump’s election has stirred hate in the media, but when Obama was elected, the same thing happened, just from a different side. Will American politics grow ever more polarised with every new election now? Is this dangerous?

RB: No. Our politics have always been a hot mess ever since the first election, after George Washington. Always, the insults between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who had the election after George Washington, who was elected by consensus, were so vicious that they make our current hot mess look practically tame by comparison. So this has always been the case and we shouldn't romanticise what the past has been. We’ve manage to move through the tabloid nature of politics because the people, collectively, are very wise.

SS: You’ve been saying that Trump is committed to peace. But with all the bellicose remarks about North Korea lately, the “fire and fury” stuff, the Afghan troop surge again, all that - do you still think so?

RB: Yes. He had to be dragged into a modest Afghan troop surge, by his general. He clearly was very resistant to the idea and gave O'K to a very token increase of forces there. But, yes, he likes to talk tough, when it comes to people who insult him or people who he feels are threatening him or his interests. He likes to tweet tough. He engaged in a very tough war of words with Kim Jong Un and guess what, Kim Jong Un stepped back, he blinked, he said: "No, no, no, we're not going to bomb Guam", so... I wouldn't necessarily this rhetorical fire coming from the President - as a return fire from the rhetorical fire coming from Kim Jong Un to be an indicator that we're gearing up for military action.

SS: In Trump’s inauguration speech, he promised that the US is going to guard American borders now, not the borders of other countries. But Washington is planning on sending yet more troops to Afghanistan – and the U.S. even admitted it had more troops in Afghanistan than formerly disclosed. So some U.S. soldiers will still end up guarding other countries borders after all?

RB: Yes, but let's put that in proportion. Whether you love or hate - just to take you back a moment - whether you love or hate Barack Obama, he campaigned uniquely in 2008 where he beat the more bellicose Hillary Clinton and then bellicose John McCain, he campaigned against the bellicose Mitt Romney - to end the forever war in the Middle East and bring America's troops home. And he brought almost all of them home. The Afghan government begged us to leave a residual force there, begged us add very slightly to that residual force, but it’s a very tiny residual force, it's more symbolic and so to see that as a breach of a commitment - no, we're modelling towards the fulfillment of commitment, of America's complete disengagement from the forever war. Sophie, I beg your patience, these things take time.

SS: Okay, because from observer's point of view, it does seem naive for a leader of the world's only superpower to be committed to peace - when you have all this military might, you probably have no choice but to use it once you're in power, no?

RB: It's very expensive for America to police the world. It's a role that was thrust upon us, it was a role that we inherited. It's not a role that we ever coveted, and it's not in our nature. Americans are a peace-loving people who are interested in doing business and in prospering. So this is an artefact that we're pulling back from. And the question is, yes, there are still people who want America to have world hegemony. They are in the minority, they have positions of power, and America is evolving its way back to a peaceful classical liberal Republic which is what it's designed to be and by the Declaration of Independence, by the Constitution and by what Thomas Jefferson called "the Empire of Liberty". We emerge from a hundred years of war, from WWI to WWII to the Cold War to the invasion of Iraq. It takes a while for the culture to change. I wish, I'm nudging it in my little way, that it changes faster, but the tides of history are very much on the side of peace and politicians who swim with the tides of history rather than against the tides of history, tend to win, and they like to win.

SS: I just want to talk about Trump's future. His approval rating is at a record low - just 35%. according to Gallup polling institute. Some polls suggest that more than 40% support impeaching the president. This option was voiced by several congressmen as well. How do you estimate Trump’s chances to serve out his first term in full?

RB: I wish President Trump the best, I wish him success, even a prominent Republican Senator recently went on record as expressing that wish. I don't have a crystal ball and I have no idea what is to come next. President Trump has proved unpredictable, consistently, he's outperformed the expectations of the political elites consistently, and so far be it from me to make any predictions about his future. I hope he gets a policy mix right and moves the world towards the peace and prosperity, in which case his popularity rating will rise.

SS: But his #1 task is economic growth and jobs to the country, but half of the American economy depends on global pulse as well. Can there be a monetary policy change that would provide a boost to the Trump economy, and can the idea come from the outside of the U.S., can Washington use ideas from the countries it's currently at odds with, with benefit?

RB: Thank you for asking that. Monetary policy is often overlooked, because it's the oxygen in the fire of industry, and oxygen, of course, is invisible. The American dollar is a reserve currency, and it's the dominant reserve currency in the world. This is very bad for America as well as for the world. It hurts our economy. The gold standard would rectify this to the advantage of both America, Russia, and the world. Russia is a central player in BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The BRICS together can put the gold standard back on the table, the gold standard does not constrain economic growth, it simply takes the place of a dollar as a reserve currency and then you can print as much of your currency as you want, as long as its convertible into dollars. This would super-charge world economic growth, including both Russia, United States and the rest of the world.

SS: Alright, Ralph, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Ralph Benko, former Reagan administration official, author, political columnist, discussing Trump's Administration Russia collision and the way it's affecting his presidency in general. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.