Alan Zendell, April 11, 2017

Stephen F. Cohen is a Professor Emeritus in Russian Studies from Princeton and New York Universities. Over the last few months he’s often been interviewed on cable and network news programs concerning the charges that Russia was responsible for hacking the DNC and attempting to influence the 2016 election. Depending on your point of view, Cohen has been either the calm voice of reason in a chaotic debate or a salmon swimming against the stream of public opinion.

He consistently argued that there is no evidence that Russia is guilty of these charges, for which some characterize him as Putin’s apologist. But as Putin himself pointed out over the past weekend, we’ve been fooled by intelligence reports before. Remember the WMDs in Iraq? The Gulf of Tonkin?

I’m not siding with Putin, but I resent the lynch mob approach to decision making. A majority of Americans seem to want to believe Russia hacked its way through our election. I say “want to believe” because it’s not clear whether anyone, even the president is sure of the truth. The people investigating these charges all say, “We’re sure Russia did it.” But when asked how they know, everyone up to FBI Director James Comey tells us they can’t discuss details of the investigation, and in any event they’re classified.

Again, depending on your point of view, that’s either sound national security policy or a convenient diversion. It reminds me of the early days of the O. J. Simpson investigation. Everyone was sure he was guilty the moment the killings were reported, long before there was a shred of evidence, but that didn’t stop people from believing it.

Why do Americans want to believe Russia is guilty? Clinton supporters need someone to blame for her defeat; right wing hawks love the idea because it supports their contention that Russia can never be trusted. Americans have a need to believe we’re always the good guys, but even Trump recently asked a reporter, “Are we so innocent?” when discussing Russia’s atrocities. No doubt people will be dancing in the streets if it’s finally proven that Russia did what they’re accused of. But stop and think. If that happens, it will wreck relations between the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world. Is that something to be happy about?

Now we have the Syrian gas attack on innocent civilians. Putin claims Assad wasn’t responsible, that the whole thing might be a setup to weaken his support. Yet everyone in the Trump administration assures us that Syria is guilty of a serious war crime. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a statement today saying there was “no doubt” that Syria was responsible for last week’s chemical weapons strike ( But no one, from Mattis to Sean Spicer to Donald Trump has presented any evidence.

This morning, Professor Cohen appeared on CNN’s morning show and said the same thing. We really haven’t proved that Assad was behind the gas attack or that Russia is covering for him. I understand that releasing detailed evidence might compromise our intelligence, but that doesn’t change the fact that the administration expects us all to take their word on faith, despite the fact that the president has sent inconsistent signals about Russia. He seems to not comprehend that his vaunted love of unpredictability is the worst possible way to conduct diplomacy with a powerful adversary.

After Trump continually praised Putin during the campaign, his administration now says he will do anything to assure Russian dominance, and he will say anything to advance his agenda with no regard for the truth. He lies by design. The problem is that Donald Trump has behaved that way since the beginning of the campaign, and a majority of Americans believe he lies whenever it suits him.

But all this obfuscates the fact that we may be on an irrevocable path to a military confrontation with Russia that cannot end well for anyone, and that mustn’t be allowed to continue based on unproved allegations. In this morning’s interview, Professor Cohen chastised the media for focusing entirely on the gas attack and America’s airstrike on the Syrian airfield. He said the real story, which the media have ignored, was what Russian Primer Minister Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday. Medvedev is viewed as the most powerful person in Russia after Putin, and the only one in the Russian leadership who favors good relations with the United States. When he said, yesterday, that Russia was on the brink of war with the U. S., Cohen thought that was the main story.

So do I. I grew up during the “duck-and-cover” days of the anti-Soviet hysteria in the 1950s. Whenever I was awakened in the middle of the night by a fire engine racing through the streets of Brooklyn, I thought the sirens were telling me we were about to be nuked. I don’t want my grandchildren growing up with those terrors.

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