Clinton and Russia: Who is Ms Hillary?

10 october 2017

Richard Sakwa - Professor of Russian and European Politics, University of Kent at Canterbury; Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)

Resume: In her recently published book on why she lost the 8 November 2016 US presidential election, What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton provides a powerful and in some ways convincing interpretation of events.

In her recently published book on why she lost the 8 November 2016 US presidential election, What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton provides a powerful and in some ways convincing interpretation of events.[1] If one were to take her analysis at face value, she comes over as by far the best-prepared candidate with a battery of sensible policy proposals that would undoubtedly have made America a better place to live. However, there is an undercurrent in the book that is extremely disturbing. It would not be accurate to call this ‘Russophobia’, since she has nothing serious to say about Russia as a whole, and instead the focus is on Vladimir Putin personally, and the general malevolence of Russia’s contemporary political system and actions on the world stage.

  In the normal run of affairs, scholars working on Russia and Europe, or even on international affairs in general, would not comment of domestic US politics. But it is clear that the whole ‘Russiagate’ affair, alleging collusive behaviour between the eventual winner of the presidential election, Donald J. Trump, accompanied by charges of a systematic Russian attempt to help him through ‘hacking’ and media propaganda, is far from normal. As far as many international observers are concerned, Trump basically had one good idea, that it made sense to ‘get along’ with Russia, but the Russiagate scandal was designed to prevent him achieving this goal, and in general to constrain his international behaviour and possibly to lead to his impeachment and expulsion from office. If that was the goal of those advancing the thesis of Russian ‘hacking’ of the election, then it has succeeded admirably. US foreign policy has to a degree been ‘normalised’, with the commitment to NATO restored, foreign activism and militarism lauded by liberals and neo-conservatives alike, and military figures installed in many of the key offices of state.

There are many reasons to criticise Trump, but the use of Russia as the cudgel with which to beat him is both dangerous and counter-productive. It is the outcome of the effective convergence of Clintonite liberal internationalists and neo-con global interventionists. During her stewardship of the State Department in the first Obama administration, Clinton brought in many of the old Dick Cheney neo-cons, and she gave institutional impetus to the merger of the two trends in defence of the ‘leadership’ concept of American primacy. Trump, by contrast, is no less concerned to defend US primacy (hence the substantive rise in military spending), but he wishes to do this within the framework of a new concept of American ‘greatness’. The latter is based on a less multilateral approach, accompanied by the reassertion of what are perceived to be US national interests without the encumbrance of the defence of the US-led liberal international order.

In this context, Clinton’s personal animus against Putin assumes broader political significance, and thus needs to be examined more closely. It is clear that Clinton still has no real understanding of why she lost the election to a man, she quite rightly stresses, who is uniquely unsuitable for the post of president of the USA. Even if Trump offered the possibility of a genuine ‘reset’ in relations with Russia, his volatility, narcissism and lack of understanding of the dynamics of international politics means that it would always be fragile and vulnerable to his changing moods. Thus the question is posed even more sharply: how could Clinton have lost to such a candidate? This is not the place to delve into that question here, and a growing literature deals with the issue.[2] In this analysis, Clinton’s view of contemporary Russia helps us understand the limitations of her political identity that contributed to the enormity of her failure in 2016. It is irrelevant that she won the popular vote (largely thanks to huge majorities on the East and West coasts): she failed to carry enough states to gain the majority in the Electoral College, and that’s what counts.

Clinton herself points to a number of factors that undermined her campaign: the desire for change, after two terms of the Obama presidency, in which she would inevitably appear as the surrogate third term continuation of Democratic leadership; the endless corrosive effect of the email issue, her use of a personal server when Secretary of State for official business, and the head of the FBI, James Comey’s resurrection of the issue on 28 October, just 11 days before the vote; her gender, which she believes prompted a sexist and even misogynist counter-movement; and ultimately the resentment stoked in declining economic regions accompanied by the long-term stagnation of middle class wages. These factors certainly played a part in her downfall, but her limitations as a candidate were probably decisive.

So, how can Russia help us shed light on these? For our analysis, let us look at what she says in her book. First, and above all, she talks about the ‘audacious information warfare waged from the Kremlin’ (p. xii), the ‘mounting evidence of Russian interference in the election’ (p. 3), and many other references. However, in keeping with the fundamental tenor of the ‘Russiagate’ allegations, no evidence is provided. The intelligence assessment of 6 January 2017 is mentioned, but as we now know, it was prepared by a ‘hand-picked’ group of analysts, seeking to prove the allegations. It was certainly not the unanimous verdict of 17 US intelligence agencies, each of which had conducted its own investigations and came to the same conclusion. In other words, this document, a good part of which is devoted to RT commentary on events in the US in 2012, in fact acts to undermine the credibility of the allegations (as well as the professionalism of the US intelligence community, but that is another issue). Above all, it is now clear that there was no Russian ‘hack’ of the Democratic National Committee server, but it was in the first instance a leak (as argued by Julian Assange, when he put the material on Wikileaks) and in the second instance, a download, as demonstrated by the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity report. I will leave the full examination of the evidence to a later work, but the point is clear: the whole evidentiary basis of Russia’s alleged ‘hacking’ of the US election is weak to non-existent.

This brings us to the second point. Clinton is right to argue that Trump, as with the partisans of the Leave campaign in the UK Brexit vote, simply makes it up as he goes along, with a very tenuous relationship with facts and the truth. The British and US votes certainly reflected a popular revolt against the arrogance of the experts, but this then slid into a repudiation of ‘facts’ and the search for truth in its entirety. She quotes Karl Rove’s notorious comment about critics who lived in ‘the reality-based’ community’ (p. 9), but the real tragedy of the Russiagate scandal is that the partisans of ‘truth’ have been as guilty as the Trumpians in making assertions that are based on prejudice rather than fact. The example that Clinton gives of one of Trump’s alleged falsehoods is precisely one in which Trump was actually correct. She condemns him for arguing that President Obama wiretapped him (p. 9). We know now that Trump Tower was subject to multiple surveillance operations (including one covering Paul Manafort’s apartment in the tower). Although Clinton was right to say that there was no ‘wiretapping’, modern surveillance techniques work with a broader brush but the effect is the same. In other words, the Clintonite inflation of the Russiagate affair is an example of ‘fake news’ and intellectual dishonesty of the sort for which she condemns Trump. Both reflect the broader degradation of the standards of political discourse in US public life. The role of false media narratives is part of this story. Clinton movingly describes a media obsessed by her emails while failing to discuss her multitudinous sensible policy initiatives, but in the next breath she falls prey to the same syndrome that she justly condemns.

Third, her intense personal dislike of Putin has clearly become pathological. In defending her decision to give paid speeches to various audiences and keeping some private, she notes that this allowed her ‘to be candid about my impressions of world leaders who might have been offended if they heard. (I’m talking about you, Vladimir)’ (p. 45). Although intended to be light-hearted, the comment reveals a well of arrogance that is hard to beat. Clinton is right to note that an ‘alternative reality’ was relentlessly built up by right-wing oligarchs like the Mercer family and Charles and David Koch (p. 326), but her failure to articulate a political response in part explains her failure. Instead, she mixes fact and fantasy: ‘by the time Vladimir Putin came along, our democracy was already far sicker than we realized. Now that the Russians have infected us and seen how weak our defences are, they’ll keep at it’ (p. 326). This biological language is not the idiom of political analysis but of prejudice, and is one reason why she failed to devise an effective response to the torrent of abuse to which she was subjected. Her obsession with Putin and Russia distracted her from the real political issues facing American democracy.

Putin responded in kind, and given Clinton’s open attempts to side with the ‘Russian people’ against the regime at the time of the reset, it was understandable that he believed that the protests against electoral fraud in December 2011 could be blamed on Clinton giving ‘them a signal’ (p. 329). This was certainly not an adequate explanation for anger against the abuse of the ballot box. But equally, Clinton’s characterisation of him as ‘the leader of an authoritarian, xenophobic international movement that wants to expel immigrants, break up the European Union, weaken the Atlantic alliance, and roll back much of the progress achieved since World War II’ (p. 332) is paranoid. It is clear that Clinton surrounded herself with a coterie of left-liberal and neo-con adversaries of Russia’s refusal to accept the hegemony of the US-led liberal international order, and all the rest flows from that.

Fourth, Clinton has often been called a ‘war-monger’, and she does have a track record of supporting interventionism, from Iraq in 2003 to Libya and Syria in 2011. Clinton noted that she differed from Obama on ‘how to deal with an aggressive Russia’ (pp. 66-67), and she worked for ‘stronger action’ in Syria (p. 221). She was ‘the one worried about Putin subverting our democracy’ (p. 221) and condemned Trump for ‘embracing dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin’ (p. 233). Responding to the hypothetical question of what she would have done, she notes: ‘There’s nothing I was looking forward to more than showing Putin that his efforts to influence our election and install a friendly puppet had failed. Our first face-to-face meeting would really have been something. I know he must be enjoying everything that’s happened instead. But he hasn’t had the last laugh yet’ (pp. 233-4). She goes on to note that ‘In 2016 our democracy was assaulted by a foreign adversary determined to mislead our people, enflame our divisions, and throw an elections to its preferred candidate’ (pp. 325-6).

She gives no evidence that Trump was the ‘preferred candidate’, although she is right to have guessed that Moscow would not have been in raptures about her victory. What she fails to take into account that Moscow, like the rest of the world, believed that it would be hard to lose against a candidate like Trump, and thus assumed another Clinton residency, and was preparing to work with her. The Kremlin, like the rest of the world, was surprised that Clinton was able to lose against such a candidate. In any event, the Kremlin was right to be worried about a candidate who believed that Putin ‘responds only to strength, so that’s what we must demonstrate’ (p.371). Her policy prescriptions included the need to ‘strengthen NATO; help our allies reduce their dependence on Russian energy supplies, a key source of leverage for Putin; and arm the Ukrainian government so it can resist Moscow’s aggression’ (p. 372). If this was not a declaration of war, then it runs pretty close.

Finally, what all this suggests is that Clinton is caught up in the wider paradox of American power today. The US is undoubtedly the most powerful country on earth in military and economic terms, yet the conduct of its international affairs is imbued with a profound provincialism. Despite the country’s global role, too often in the recent period it deals with foreign leaders and the concerns of other states as if it was dealing with schoolyard squabbles. In Clinton’s case it also degenerates into a type of inverted sexism, when she says     At one point Clinton even asserts that ‘Putin does not like women’, even though Putin has appointed many women to top positions (for example, Elvira Nabiullina at the head of the Central Bank of Russia, and she was recently re-appointed to a second term). Putin certainly does not match up to liberal America’s model of what a man should be, and Putin is indeed cut in the traditional Russian mould, but this does not mean that Putin does not treat women with the appropriate respect. In fact, Clinton’s hatred of Putin is directed against him as a man, and that is a profoundly sexist position.

The tendency to the personalisation of international affairs, and the lack of a broad strategic vision is frightening. Although Obama had a professorial and knowing air about him, he was also deeply provincial – in the sense that his horizons and understanding of the dynamics of international politics was relatively limited, and he certainly never understood Russian concerns. Clinton has taken this arrogance of provincialism to a whole new level. And as so often, provincialism is accompanied by a crusader mentality. The presumption of the provincial is that if others do not match up to our standards, then they are in some way deficient, and need to be beaten to see sense. This left-liberal provincialism is a hardly more sophisticated version of Trump’s renascent parochial American nationalism. The experience of America is projected across the globe, and its concerns are taken as universal. There is no greater danger than a big country with small-minded leaders.

Valdai International Discussion Club


[1] Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (London, Simon & Schuster, 2017), from which all page citations are drawn.

[2] A particularly hard-hitting account of Clinton’s inadequacies as a candidate can be found in Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (New York, Crown Publishers, 2017).

} Page 1 of 5