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Director Of Center For National Interest Gives Historical Context For Russia Hysteria

Ben Domenech:  We’re coming to you from Hillsdale College Kirby’s Center in Washington, DC where my guest for the hour today is Paul Saunders, who’s the Executive Director of The Center for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @1796farewell which is an interesting choice for your handle, Paul. Tell us a little bit about why that is.


Paul Saunders: Well, I’m a great fan of George Washington’s farewell address and actually, Washington generally. We could do well to pay a little bit more attention to him than we do.


Ben Domenech: We should think about him more especially when it comes to the realm of foreign policy, shouldn’t we?


Paul Saunders: Well, that’s a good place to start. He has a number of useful admonitions there, some relating to having excessive sympathy for other countries, others, actually, are related to having too much antipathy for other countries which he viewed as equally dangerous.


Ben Domenech: You are, of course, a foreign policy expert and I want to talk to you about that. We spend a lot of our time on this show looking at various aspects of policy more than politics. I think that we do need to have a discussion about the politics of the Russia investigation that has been playing out in the mainstream media in the past several months. I am used to, now, seeing at 5:00 or 6:00 every evening some new report from The New York Times, The Washington Post or CNN that describes in very breathless terms something that, oftentimes, has already been reported or reported in some other fashion typically involving anonymous sources. What is your attitude toward this overall Russia investigation of the president and particularly to the naming of Former Director Mueller to head up a special counsel investigation into it?


Paul Saunders: Sure. Well, I’d say several things about that. First of all, from a political perspective, at this point, it’s probably unavoidable to have a special counsel just to maintain public confidence in the process. That said, I don’t really view it as necessary for many perspective, other than a political perspective and I’m not sure that it’s that desirable because I think our past experience with special counsels has been … They start looking for certain things that may not pan out, then they start looking at a number of other things. Once you’ve got a bunch of government lawyers with an almost unlimited budget looking for somebody who filled out a form incorrectly or something like that, it’s virtually certain that they’ll find something.


Ben Domenech: You, obviously, are someone who’s spent a lot of time looking at issues related to Russia and paying attention to them. What is your perspective on what they think of the way that this investigation is played out? We’ve seen them effectively, on a number of different instances, act as if they’re basically trolling the press or something along those lines. Do you think that their attitude towards it is this is all just a big joke? What is their assumption about it?


Paul Saunders: Well, certainly they’re denying having interfered in the election which most people don’t find especially credible at this point although obviously, there’s a manner of degree and there are a variety of other questions. Intent is another question that has yet to be established. I think their basic attitude is that this is an example of the American media and political system going just totally out of control. They have, from their point of view, seen an anti-Russia hysteria in the United States for many years now and from their point of view, this process is the culmination, really, of that.


Ben Domenech: It seems to me that we’re very early in appreciating what this administration is going to look like. One of the things that has already become evident is that the president has a tendency to just fire from the hip when it comes to a lot of the ways that he shares information. We had this conversation that took place within the White House with Russian representatives that was very quickly, in the press, depicted as being him sharing information that wasn’t appropriate. Obviously, General McMaster pushed back against that. What do you think needs to change about the way that the president approaches these types of conversations if anything?


Paul Saunders: Well, I think that it would be helpful for the president to develop a relationship of trust with some of his advisors or alternatively, to bring in some advisors with whom he already has established relationships of trust so that he is in a position to turn to others for advice and guidance and is comfortable hearing it. That’s a good departure point.
That being said, the specific circumstances of the conversation with the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador, I’m not sure that I really have a problem with that. It’s certainly within the president’s authority to decide to share information like that.
If you look back historically when President Nixon and Henry Kissinger went to China, Nixon had Kissinger give the Chinese a pretty detailed and quite classified briefing on Soviet military deployments which could not have been done in a way that didn’t reveal American capabilities to the Chinese who were, in theory, a potential adversary.
Nixon and Kissinger calculated that it was worth sharing that information partly to try to develop a relationship of trust and a common strategic understanding with the Chinese. Actually, partly to reveal to the Chinese what our capabilities were which could also be a deterrent to the Chinese.
Ben Domenech: “Here, look at this stick.”


Paul Saunders: Right. It’s appropriates for presidents to share information like that if it’s a part of, what I would call, a strategic decision-making process.


Ben Domenech: I feel like one of the things that we have trouble detecting, if we are not fully versed in this type of conversation and this level of discussion between foreign figures, is we see a lot of things that are fairly normal in the Trump era being depicted as huge breaks with normalcy as being, “Oh, this is unprecedented. I can’t believe they would do X, I can’t believe they would do Y.”
This can even take place at a very benign level. We saw the depictions on the internet of all sorts of things that are perfectly normal for a president to do as being unprecedented and as something that should rile people up in various ways.
Whether it’d came to dismissals of certain government officials or something as small as the fact that President Trump put his books on the same bookshelf that President Obama had previously been displaying his books. That type of thing seems to be true of this Russia conversation as well. I’d like to know from your perspective, what actually strikes you as being unprecedented or odd about what the Russians that’s related to our election and what is something that has happened more typically?


Paul Saunders: Well, let me maybe approach that from a slightly different way. I was listening yesterday to the Former CIA Director Mr. Brennan and his testimony. One of the things that I found interesting in his testimony was his statement that he was in touch with the head of one of Russia’s intelligence services to warn that individual that it was a mistake for Russia to interfere in the American political process and it could cause backlash in the United States and prevent any kind of favorable change in the US-Russia relationship.
What I found interesting about that is it made me think to myself so did Director Brennan warned President Obama or Secretary Clinton, then Secretary Clinton, at any point that American efforts to influence Russia’s internal politics might provoke a backlash in Russia? That that might have consequences in the US-Russia relationship and for Russian perspectives on the US-Russia relationship. It’s quite clear from the testimony of others that they felt that Putin was reacting in no small part to that very perception that the United States had been too deeply engaged in Russian politics.
The first thing that I think about in this whole situation is the context and the context is not a context of one day out of the blue, the Russian government decided to intervene in the American political process. The context is, instead, that we have a relationship of rivalry and mistrust in which the United States, well, really since the end of the Cold War, has been trying in various different ways to promote political outcomes in Russia that we want and the current Russian government doesn’t appreciate that.
Now, you asked, of course, a different question, what’s new and different or what isn’t new and different? Yeah, there are a lot of things that we still don’t know and the answers that come out during these investigations will give us more of a sense but things like Moscow-controlled media running a story that’s favorable to one or not to another. That’s very common in the Cold War era. Certainly, having operatives trying to collect and disseminate information that’s going to help somebody or hurt somebody else not really outside the historical parameters for that relationship either.


Ben Domenech: Is it outside historical parameters to have people in the media or in public eye go as crazy about this as individuals have since the election? That’s something that I’m not used to seeing play out in real time thanks to the tools of social media.


Paul Saunders: No, there actually was a time in American history when something similar did happen in the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy who played a central role in that. Our political process has gone completely out of control and we were talking at the beginning about George Washington and his farewell address, another important element of it, of course, was Washington’s warning about the spirit of party.
I’ll condense a little bit one of the quotes but he said the alternate domination of one faction over another sharpened by the spirit of revenge is its own frightful despotism. That’s what we’re living through right now and I wouldn’t hold either party blameless in that.
I don’t think it’s appropriate to but certainly, at the current time, the Democrats who are animated, clearly although a small part, by this eagerness for revenge and it has unleashed a torrent of really unprecedented invective directed at a sitting president. Plus standards of evidence and standards of logic that are far looser than I remember or really seen for quite some time.


Ben Domenech: Is this a situation you feel like there’s going to be any break to this acceleration? We’ve seen people, people who formerly held significant positions in media or in academia, make outrageous claims about various things including, of course, that Donald Trump would never actually be sworn into office, that he would be removed by now, that there is compromising material and all these different individuals and that type of thing. None of it actually coming to a conclusion, is there going to be anything that stops that or do you think it’s just going to keep going for four years?


Paul Saunders: Well, I think it’s going to go for a long time. Certainly, I hope that the various investigations will proceed expeditiously, that they’ll uncover anything that should be uncovered and that that will help us to move on as a country. My instinct, unfortunately, is that even the conclusion of these many investigations in a manner that doesn’t implicate the president in any wrong doing won’t really be enough to put an end to it. I fully expect that the 2018 mid-term election is going to be driven by this and that that’s going to create it’s own climate. I assume that’s going to start, actually, fairly soon. It’s probably sooner than anyone would wish. Unfortunately, we’re going to see this poisonous atmosphere for a long time to come.


Ben Domenech: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up at the center. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing as it relates to foreign policy over the years.
Paul Saunders: Well, I’ve been at The Center for the National Interest, actually, for much of the last 20 years. We changed our name during that period. It’s an organization, actually, that was founded by Former President Richard Nixon. It used to be known as The Nixon Center. We changed our name five or six years ago. I took a break in the middle of that period to work in the George W. Bush administration, I was a Senior Adviser at The Department of State and worked in the part of the State Department that deals with transnational issues. The department has been reorganized since then, actually, so that office doesn’t exist in quite the same form. It was an office that dealt with issues like human rights, refugees, international narcotics, drug trafficking, climate change, a lot of the cross border challenges is global issues that the department called them at that time.


Ben Domenech: You talked about spending that much time at the center, did you have the opportunity interact with Former President Nixon at all during those times?


Paul Saunders: I met him once late in his life which was a terrific experience. Henry Kissinger is the Honorary Chairman of our Board, still to this day, and it’s been really terrific to have a chance to meet him and to interact with him over the years.


Ben Domenech: When you think about the role that President Nixon had and his team, one of the things that, it seems to me, is that he was the last true strategist that we had in the office of the presidency. The people who have been there since have often been reactive as opposed to having a strategic agenda that is thought through from the perspective of the office. Do you think that we would be better off having people who arrived to the presidency with more of the mindset that Richard Nixon or do you think that this is a situation where now, given the challenges that we face, it’s more difficult to have someone who think in those long-term goals?


Paul Saunders: I think it’s always difficult to think long-term for anyone in an office like that because you’re constantly besieged with day-to-day challenges. Certainly, the 24-hour news cycle of today is something that Nixon and Kissinger and others in the past that they didn’t have to contend with. At the same time, that kind of strategic approach is essential. Look, the United States is certainly the dominant global power but we don’t have unlimited power, we don’t have unlimited money, we don’t have a military with unlimited capabilities. We have to establish strategic priorities and establishing strategic priorities also means establishing that some things aren’t priorities. That those other issues need to be subordinated to our priorities so that we can achieve the things that we need to achieve as a nation.


Ben Domenech: What’s been wrong with America’s dominant foreign policy establishment, for lack of a better term, in this past season of life? It seems that they often gone off in directions that are very much at odds with what Americans would prefer the foreign policy of the government be. There’s all sorts of polls and data to look at when it comes to that. Why is the foreign policy’s overall order is at such a distance from the way that Americans would prefer the country run?


Paul Saunders: Well, I see two factors. I’m sure there are many but there are two that jump out for me. One is that for many in our elites, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the American success in outlasting the USSR really seemed to leave no challenger for the United States and at the same time, to validate our approach. The consequence of that was to give many in our elites a sense that there were really unlimited possibilities for the United States, a sense of lack of constraints. At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union also had another consequence for our elites and how they thought about US foreign policy.
That was really the loss of intellectual discipline if I can put it that way. During the Cold War when the United States made important foreign policy decisions, our leaders always had to ask themselves, “Okay, so we have these three options. How are the Soviets going to react if we do this? How will they react if we do that? How will they react if we take this other approach?”
It required us to think not just about what we wanted and what we were to do but how others would respond to our actions and would we be better off or worse off after others responded. People in the US Military would say the enemy gets a vote and as a decision-making system and a political system, we’ve lost this ability to think about how others ar going to react when we make decisions. It leads to a situation in which people advocate particular policies assuming that if the United States does X, then we will impose our solution, everyone else will go along with that, the issue will be resolved and then we can move on to something else. It’s obviously wrong.
Ben Domenech: I feel like one of the things that we see happening around the world today is just an assertion that America needs to be much more involved in every other aspect of what’s happening, that our presence would solve the various problems and challenges that are affecting people negatively around the world. That hasn’t been something that we’ve been doing all that well recently, has it? It’s not something that we have a lot of provable situations perhaps other than disaster relief where our involvement has been a huge success, let’s put it that way. That’s something that I wonder why doesn’t make them pause, doesn’t make them reconsider their approach if their answer is always American involvement to a significant degree and that’s an unknown cost and for an unknown length of time.
Paul Saunders: Look, I certainly agree. I’m certainly surprised that it doesn’t give people pause. I would say on one level, look, we’re an exceptional country, there are a lot of amazing things about the United States. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we also have to recognize that we have a number of challenges as a country that we have not been able, ourselves, successfully to address. In some cases, over a long periods of time. Knowing that about ourselves, the idea that we can go elsewhere and that we are uniquely suited to solve others’ problems strikes me as very, very ambitious. It’s particularly striking to me, actually, when people on the right take this view because you have individuals who, within the context of their own society, would be resolutely opposed to the idea of government as a social engineer, if I can put it that way, who very readily adopt that role for the United States government elsewhere.
Ben Domenech: It’s very odd in the sense that there’s just an assumption that we would be able to get these various things right if we were simply involved to a greater degree but that’s been what people have been pushing for. The media as it relates to a lot of different conflicts but none, it seems more so, than Syria. Do you think that American involvement to a greater degree in Syria could have any hope of having a mitigating effect on that conflict or is this a situation where what would be required of us in order to achieve that goal would be such a burden that the American people would just be unwilling to bear it there?


Paul Saunders: I think one of the important realities of, certainly, international affairs and also of our own politics is that something that might be possible at one point in time is not possible at another point in time. There may have been a point in time when a relatively modest expenditure of US resources or a modest effort could have made a difference. I think, at this point, that time has long passed.


Ben Domenech: Yeah. Well, it also just seems to me though that that hasn’t, despite that time being passed, it hasn’t necessarily been something that has changed the use of the media’s megaphone and other actors basically saying something must be done, something must be done. Sometimes, again given to your point the different context of these questions, sometimes there’s nothing that can be done in these situations, is there?


Paul Saunders: Well, look, it’s a tragic situation. In this particular case, I certainly would support diplomatic efforts to try to find some kind of a political settlement in Syria. I certainly would support efforts to try to create the largest practical coalition to fight against ISIS. Those two things make sense and wouldn’t necessarily cost the United States too much. At the same time, clearly there are limits. If we look at Iraq, if we look at Libya, if we look at Afghanistan, particularly at Afghanistan I have to say, there’s very little evidence that sustained, large scale, American troop presence and massive investment of taxpayer resources can really create sustainable situations. In Afghanistan, it’s an open question of how long that government would last absent American support, after how long?


Ben Domenech: It also seems to me that the American people have grown, I don’t want to say war weary, but weary of conflicts where they have no clear outcome, no clear, “This is what victory looks like. This is how we’re going to achieve it,” approach. Why is that? Because it seems to me that in the past that that was, at least, something that’s definitionally a part of most of the cases that we had for being involved in various conflicts, “This is the thing we want to achieve.” Now, it seems like we are signing up for permanent stability missions basically where in the absence of a massive American military presence and putting the lives of American sons and daughters at risk all the time is something that’s just expected as being part of any conflict. Why did that change?


Paul Saunders: Well, there are a couple of elements to that. One is this idea that we can’t really leave until every single problem has been fixed. We’ve got to create a stable, Jeffersonian democracy wherever we go to war. Another element of it is that there are people who have been advocating in favor of intervention for a long period of time and they keep saying, every time, over and over again, “If we don’t use force, then we’re not showing leadership.” Americans want to be leaders, they want our country to have that kind of a role so that argument worked for a certain period of time. Then, it stopped working and Americans decided, “If that’s what leadership means, then we don’t really want leadership.” During the end of the Bush administration, early in the Obama administration, you saw many Americans pulling back. There was also rejection of Obama’s particular approach to that political problem and there were many people who felt that he wasn’t doing enough which is a separate issue. These two dynamics have been at play.


Ben Domenech: You have a couple of pieces up at the National Interest site, If we can look at a couple of different figures who I’d like to talk to you about now. You have one up from about a week ago in which you contrasted the way the two Former Intelligence Chiefs look at Russia and look at the issues associated with it. You were looking at what Bob Gates had to say about it and what James Clapper had to say about it. Talk to me about the differences between these men and their style when it comes to Russia.
Paul Saunders: Well, I thought what was most important about Bob Gates who, certainly, has no particular sympathy for Moscow let me put it that way. What’s important about Bob Gates is that he places Russian conduct into historical context and into the context of the US-Russia relationship and he tries to think about Russian perspective and Russian motives. That doesn’t mean excusing Russian conduct, what it means is trying to understand Russian conduct so that we can deal with it. General Clapper has taken a much more simplistic approach and doesn’t really try to make that intellectual effort. Frankly, he looks much more like a politician in some respects than an intelligence official.


Ben Domenech: It seems to me that one of the things that you see from Clapper quite a lot is that he will say something and then he’ll try to distance himself from it after the fact. That he’ll get over his skis on something, a particular thing and then basically, have to do work afterwards to repair it. You certainly saw that during his tenure and the various testimonies that he offered to Congress which I still think could be particularly actionable in a number of different ways. Let’s just stick to that right now, do you think that he’s just being irresponsible when he makes the kind of assertions that he’s made recently? The assertions that sound more like the kind of things that would be coming out of the mouth of a senator, as a politician as you say, as opposed to someone who held the position that he did?


Paul Saunders: Well, look, I certainly don’t have any special insight into General Clapper for that matter and to Former Director Brennan, Former CIA Director Brennan. Brennan, he was on Obama’s White House staff before he went to the CIA. We need to remember that. In Clapper’s case, certainly we know that he was at the center of the Obama administration’s difficult parting from General Flynn. There is a legacy here. If you listen to Brennan’s recent testimony, a real hostility, really a clear, personal hostility to the president. Look, people are entitled to have their perspectives on the president but Americans are also entitled to have senior officials in key security agencies who are objective and who serve the national interest.


Ben Domenech: What do you think of General Flynn? Do you think that he is someone who is unstable? Is he someone who was never cut out for this kind of work to begin with? What is it that’s happened to him in his career?


Paul Saunders: Well, I’ve never met General Flynn. All I really know about him I know from the press which is not necessarily the most reliable source these days. What I would say is that he certainly seems to have exercised bad judgment at a number of important points. Now, bad judgment is different from doing something illegal. I would say conversely, the idea that someone could blackmail General Flynn because he left out some information in talking to the Vice-President about his conversations with the Russian ambassador is preposterous.


Ben Domenech: One of the things that we’ve seen, unfortunately, in a lot of the reports about this is a lack of skepticism when it comes to the reporting that we read. One of the things that I’m sure you’re familiar with as being a long tenured person in Washington is just that whenever you’re reading a story, you should be sure to put the hat on and look at who benefits from this being reported, why is this being reported in a particular way, why is this source not on the record, et cetera.
I feel like one of the things that we’ve seen around this Russian investigation and all the questions related to General Flynn and elsewhere is just an overheated nature of reporting that, basically, attempts to make everything sound important, puts very little context around the actual discussion of what’s going on in the country and presents the viewer or listener with information that is often incomplete or is more designed to benefit the political leanings of the source as opposed to reveal something that we should actually be concerned about. In your own discussions, because I’m sure you’ve had them with friends or colleagues about this sort of thing, what do you do to try to stamp down a little bit and say, “Calm down, this is not as crazy a thing as you’re saying.”?


Paul Saunders: Well, since I follow Russia professionally and often read the Russian media, I’m used to reading the media with a skeptical eye. I wish I didn’t have to apply some of the same analytical processes that I apply in reading the Russian media now to the American media. That’s the reality that we’re living in and certainly whenever you read the Russian media, you’re often focused actually less on what’s being reported and more on who might be behind this story and why and what are they trying to accomplish. Another element on this whole situation which really sticks in my mind goes back to the period of the campaign. One of The New York Times editors, I think his name is Jim Rutenberg, wrote an entire column about how normal standards of journalism should not apply in covering Donald Trump because he represented, from Rutenberg’s perspective, such an unprecedented threat to American democracy.

There are a number of people in the mainstream liberal media who feel that way, who actually don’t believe that they’re obliged to uphold their professional standards because they believed that this is a unique situation. It’s quite remarkable. Going back though to the issue about the analytical process that you have to go through, there was a recent story in The Washington Post about this flap surrounding Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s comments about the president and one of this colleagues in the House. The most remarkable thing to me about that story was the dateline which was Kiev, Ukraine. There’s a story about this recording, of this conversation which supposedly took place when our members of Congress were meeting with officials from Ukraine. This recording leaks, the person who’s writing about it is writing about it from Ukraine but there’s no discussion in the article of what’s the source of this recording, how did The Washington Post get it? That’s unusual.

Ben Domenech: Yeah, that seems highly unusual. It is something that we’re having to get used to in depicting the coverage of this administration. You describe yourself on your Twitter handle as being a foreign policy realist, you had a piece recently about Rex Tillerson’s address to the State Department and his advocacy, his articulation of the foreign policy views of this administration. Are the realists in charge now after being away from it for awhile or is this a situation where you’ve got a lot of different people with a lot of different views trying to figure out what the president wants and what they can do to achieve it?


Paul Saunders: More the latter than the former at this point. Certainly, the president and some of his advisors seemed to have some instincts that are in line with a realist’s perspective on US foreign policy. They also have some other instincts and there are a variety of different people advising the president and increasingly spreading out through the US government. I expect that in this administration like in any other administration, there will be a variety of competing perspectives which is a good thing.


Ben Domenech: Yes. How did you view Tillerson’s address and what did you take away from it as a vision of what he is going to try to achieve as Secretary of State and what the president’s going to try to achieve?


Paul Saunders: Well, I certainly viewed it as a very important address because I saw it as the first occasion on which someone other than the president had really outlined, in a thoughtful and comprehensive way, what this America First approach means. I saw a lot there that I like. I thought it was a very sensible and practical and pragmatic approach to US foreign policy and I think if it succeeds, it’ll do a lot of good for the country.


Ben Domenech: It’s one of these things that I think is going to be a real test though because we’ve seen a Republican administration that was, for a significant part of its tenure, led by a lot of neoconservative figures. We’ve seen the consequences to their fortunes of basically having a couple of failures on their hand for, at least, let’s say the more utopian vision that they had among them of spreading democracy in the Middle East. Do you think that if President Trump’s tenure is viewed as being one that faces significant challenge or problems and when it comes to the arena of foreign policy, that this will end up discrediting the people who have advocated for maybe a more restrained or realistic approach to foreign policy?


Paul Saunders: Well, that’s certainly a danger. Beyond that, I would say that many of the people who want a more interventionist foreign policy are going to be looking for every possible opportunity to try to attack the president and the administration on precisely that access. It certainly does argue in favor of the president and his advisors taking a very thoughtful and deliberate approach in making foreign policy and making sure when they do things, that they succeed.


Ben Domenech: One of the things that we’re going to see tested, particularly as we saw in the early goings related to Syria, was whether the president is going to be someone who takes very quick action in response to things. He seems, in many ways, to be the opposite of President Obama in that respect. Given that, what do you think, internally, people who work for him need to guard against as maybe a rash decision or something that could potentially have a bigger negative effect than just throwing some Tomahawks at Syria?


Paul Saunders: Sure. Well, in any foreign policy decision-making process, you always want to pause and to think about unintended consequences of your decisions. That’s always something to take seriously and the Tomahawk strike was basically constructive. I don’t have a particular problem with that but at the same time, looking at it from the perspective of unintended consequences, one of the things that we saw fairly quickly after that was the Syrians moving many of their aircraft to new locations that were much closer to the air base that the Russians are using which will make it much harder to do anything like that again in the future.


Ben Domenech: One of the things that we always have to be careful of as you’re alluding to here is what we’re really going to see whenever it comes to the consequences of these types of decisions. It really is unpredictable to think what he’s going to be confronted with when it comes to a lot of different areas and so let’s hope that he has good people around him in order to handle it. You can follow Paul Saunders on Twitter @1796farewell. He’s the Executive Director of The Center for the National Interest. Paul, thanks so much for taking the time to join us today.

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