The party of Ronald Reagan, the president who stared into the eyes of the Soviet Union until its walls came tumbling down, is now a party divided on all things Russia.
When President Obama unrolled a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions against Moscow over its cyber-intrusion into America’s election, you would think Republicans would have clamored for more. Instead, an obvious schism is forming between traditional hawks like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump loyalists like Congressman Duncan Hunter who view Obama’s retaliatory measures as a “stupid” attempt to tie the president-elect’s hands.
The interesting thing about this is that Trump’s commitment to seek improved bilateral relations with Russia is, at its core, a pragmatic thing to do. GOP hawks may not like the language that Trump uses or his strange insistence that the intelligence community doesn’t have a clue about whether the Russians interfered in the election, but they’d have a hard time explaining why better relations with Moscow aren’t in our national security interest. Can anyone credibly argue that a U.S.-Russian friendship wouldn’t introduce some needed stability into the international system? Of course not: the more that two nuclear-armed powers talk with another, the safer we will all be. Yet listening to some in the Republican Party and even establishment types in the Democratic Party, you would think merely starting a conversation with Moscow is tantamount to appeasement and buckling.
The truth of the matter is that the relationship between Washington and Moscow at the present time is piss poor, and that’s a bad thing.
If you think the personal rapport between Obama and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is bad, look at the body language and facial expressions whenever the president meets with Putin. The chemistry between U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin is so terrible that the U.N. Security Council is lucky to end their meetings with mundane and watered-down press statements, let alone resolutions of any consequence.
Heck, American military leaders are even barred from bilateral military cooperation with the Russians under U.S. law, a policy that, by cutting communications between two nuclear-armed powers, is just asking for trouble. Yes, the defense secretary can waive that prohibition, but it’s alarming that the U.S. Congress thought it was important enough to codify in the first place.
Trump, for better or worse, wants to turn the page in the hope that the U.S. and Russia can arrive at some mutual understanding for the benefit of both nations. What congressional Republicans and Democrats are concerned about is that the Trump administration will give up too much in its pursuit of that goal. Will Trump, for instance, recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, which would overturn current U.S. policy? Will he allow the Russians to continue their military support of the Assad regime while at the same time decreasing U.S. support to the opposition in order to coordinate against terrorist groups in Syria? Will Trump condone the kind of election hacking that we saw this year and fight Congress if a new Russia sanctions package reaches his desk? Hawks like John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Paul Ryan are certainly worried about all of this.
Russia is quickly transforming into yet another card in the deck of American domestic politics. If Donald Trump and his administration truly want a more solid U.S.-Russia relationship, they will need to do battle with an anti-Russian consensus on Capitol Hill that is becoming more bipartisan by the day. They’ll also need to split with the most senior members of their own party, the majority of whom look at Vladimir Putin and see the spawn of the devil.