In defence of Trump's Russia policy
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In defence of Trump's Russia policy

Sidney Hook, the prominent liberal anti-communist philosopher, once formulated a rule for debate: "Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they may legitimately be impugned, answer his arguments."

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Unfortunately, Donald Trump's critics have not respected that rule. Indeed, one of the things that strikes me most about the debate over the new President's Russia policy is its vicious nature, especially on the part of those who claim the moral high ground.

Words like "stooge", "puppet," and "Manchurian" are tossed about freely and with little in the way of supporting argument. The charges seem perfectly circular. "Why does Trump support detente with Russia?" Because he is Putin's puppet. How do you know he is a puppet? Because he wants detente with the Russians."

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Vice President Mike Pence (left) watches as President Donald Trump prepares to sign his first executive order.

Vice President Mike Pence (left) watches as President Donald Trump prepares to sign his first executive order.Credit:Evan Vucci

Alas, attributing and attacking motive is often the first step in what passes for political debate these days. But that does not necessarily undermine the soundness of an argument.

In recent weeks, Trump's critics have used a profoundly weak US intelligence report on Russian hacking to delegitimise the new President. Putin, the argument goes, was responsible for Hillary Clinton's loss on November 8. That's why about 70 Democrat lawmakers boycotted Trump's inauguration at the weekend.

Other critics have even used a dodgy dossier to sabotage his plans to reach an accommodation with Russia. It makes unverifiable claims that the Kremlin has compromising information about the new President.

But the effort to delegitimise Trump and his overtures to Russia has been outrageous. It's only going to further poison American politics and hurt the US national interest. The Democrats, especially on the left, have been completely unhinged by Trump's victory. And by suggesting he is in cahoots with the Kremlin without any supporting evidence, they neglect the legitimate issues he raises.

There is another issue at play here: a lot of people are so worked up over the former reality television star and property magnate that if you don't disagree with him fully on every issue, they say you're an unashamed supporter of The Donald. But this is absurd logic. One can be a critic of Trump, and Putin for that matter, and still support detente with Moscow.

My approach to this subject, for instance, has nothing to do with any love for the US and Russian leaders and everything to do avoiding a Cuban missile crisis-style nuclear confrontation in the 21st century.

Trump's critics should answer the following questions:

Why did Moscow seize Crimea, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and part of Russia from Catherine the Great to Khrushchev? Was it after the western-backed coup to bring down the democratically elected, pro-Russian regime in Kiev in February 2014?

Why interfere in the near abroad of a great power with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons? Have years of NATO and EU expansion to the former Soviet Union's frontiers upset Russian sensibilities? Why do NATO military exercises from the Baltics to Black Sea unnerve Moscow?

Why make threats and commitments to Russia and the Baltics respectively when Western governments are unable or unwilling to honour them? Will a war-weary America really commit blood and treasure to a region where no US army has ever fought and where Russia commands greater military superiority?

Why can't America and Russia work together to fight Islamic State jihadists, help create a political settlement in Syria, keep Iran's nuclear ambitions in check and reduce each other's nuclear weapons?

Some perspective is required. Matthew Dal Santo, an Australian academic at the University of Copenhagen, reminds me that before 2014 Russia was widely viewed as being so weak relative to the US-EU-NATO alliance that its interests could be safely ignored, even when Washington and Brussels sought to peel Ukraine away from Moscow's strategic orbit.

Yet just three years later, we're told Russia has become such a pervasive menace that it's considered powerful enough to install its own candidate in the White House and break up the European Union. You can pick one or the other assessment, says Dal Santo, but not both and still lay claim to anything like rational consistency.

As for the charge that the Russians hacked, it is of no great importance. Lots of hacking goes on all the time. (Recall that Australian intelligence once hacked the mobiles of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.) The question is who disseminated the information from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chief John Podesta's emails to WikiLeaks. And as even the relentlessly anti-Putin, anti-Trump critic Masha Gessen concedes, the US intelligence community has risibly failed to prove that the Russians helped defeat Clinton.

Trump is right: "Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing." The critics need to present compelling arguments, and not just impugn Trump's motives, if they want to derail the new president's signature – and justified – foreign-policy initiative.

Tom Switzer is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a presenter on the ABC's Radio National.

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