A Foreign Policy for the Left: Put Gas Station Dictatorships Out of Business
We call on a strong foreign policy for the left, one that's driven by turning America into a world leader of renewable energy to finally put gas station dictatorships like Putin's oil-rich Russia and MSB's Saudi Arabia out of business. It's far past time to confront the heinous human rights crimes of these regimes that kill journalists, kill and torture LGBTQ people and opposition leaders. By doing so, we will confront other urgent man-made dangers – the catastrophic effects of climate change.
FDR: The first is freedom of speech and expression, everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which translated into world terms means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants, everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which translated into world terms means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor, anywhere in the world.
FDR: This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose. To that high concept there can be no end save victory.
[End Audio Clip]
Sarah Kendzior: I’m Sarah Kendzior, and I’m a journalist and scholar of authoritarian states. I’m also the author of the book The View From Flyover Country.
Andrea Chalupa: I’m Andrea Chalupa. I’m a writer, activist, and filmmaker, and the writer and producer of Agnieszka Holland’s upcoming journalist thriller Gareth Jones. Someone recently reached out to us over our Twitter and said, “Andrea, you promote Sarah’s book more than you promote your own film.”
Sarah Kendzior: [Laughs] I will promote your film then. Everyone should go see Andrea’s film, which deals with journalists who are covering Stalin’s era and the famine in Ukraine.
Andrea Chalupa: Alright, alright. It’s not even out yet. We’re still fighting over the final cut. It’s not out yet. So, yeah you can…
Sarah Kendzior: This is a film that’s set in another era, but it completely reflects the political problems of our own era. I saw the trailer, and I got teary-eyed, and I am not the type who cries at stuff like this, but it was really moving, it was brilliantly done. I’ve read the script, I endorse this, not just because Andrea is my friend, but because it’s really really good. So go see Gareth Jones when it comes out.
Sarah Kendzior: Welcome to Gaslit Nation, a self-promoting podcast that examines corruption and the Trump administration and rising authoritarianism around the world. And so today later in the episode we have an interview with Michael Weiss, a foreign policy expert who focuses on Russia, but first we’re going to start by talking about some of the atrocities right here in the US. Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that they are, quote, “Defining transgender out of existence.” According to the New York Times, “the department argued in its memo that key government agencies needed to adopt an explicit and uniform definition of gender as determined, quote, ‘on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective, and administrable.’ The agency’s proposed definitions would define sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with, according to a draft reviewed by the Times. Any dispute about one’s sex would have to be clarified using genetic testing.” So, there are all sorts of atrocious things about this policy. I really don’t like the kind of discussion I’ve seen online, where people say, “Oh, this is a distraction, this is something that Trump is doing to, you know, rile up liberals before the midterms.” First of all, that’s nonsense, this is part of an ongoing attack on transgender people we saw earlier with the military. And no policy that hurts human beings is a distraction. By its definition, it’s a policy worthy of attention. What’s also notable here is that this kind of targeting of a minuscule and maligned group that already faces a lot of prejudice is very typical for rising dictatorship. You saw this in Nazi Germany, with attacks on gay and lesbians and transgendered people then. It’s an issue that you should pay attention to because trans people are being hurt, and you should also care about it as a sign of increasing autocracy in the US, because it’s not going to stop there.
Andrea Chalupa: Yeah, it is going to get worse. And in this world, it’s… the greatest struggle is to be yourself, and surround yourself with people who absolutely adore you and love you for being yourself. And just imagine that battle, and also coming out as transgender, making that transition in America under Trump. Yeah, no, my heart breaks from this story, and I’m also at the same time incredibly inspired by the courage of anyone who can be part of the change we desperately need in this country, to just give greater voice to what it means to be transgender, and the harassment and the suicide rates, and everything, the whole struggle of what they face. And it’s just disgusting to me what Trump is doing. And it’s a lot like how he’s demonizing the people who are flooding from war-zones and famine, coming to our country and coming to the border with Mexico, and it’s gross. All of it is very gross.
Sarah Kendzior: It’s cruelty for cruelty’s sake, and, like you said, it’s another example of people who are abused being presented to the public as a threat, which they are not. And I want to read a little bit of a thread from Parker Molloy, who’s a journalist who is trans, and she’s a great person to follow on these issues. She was responding to people asking what they could do to fight back, she says, “Lots of people are asking what they can do to fight back against the Trump administration’s planned anti-trans actions. The answer, honestly, is to elect Democrats. Let me explain why. There’s a bill that’s been floating around Congress for a bit, called the Equality Act, before that there was the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. What it would, basically, is amend the Civil Rights Act to include gender identity and sexual orientation alongside race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, disability, veteran status, genetic information, and citizenship. Now, opponents of this like to frame these as ‘special rights’ or ‘extra rights,’ but this addition would literally just be giving LGBTQ the same rights and legal protection everybody else already has. Nothing ‘special’ or ‘extra’ about these rights. Only equal.” And then she goes on to describe how the bill already has 198 co-sponsors in the House. Only two of them are Republicans, the other 196 are Democrats. Because the GOP control the House, the bill has not made it out of committee. If the make-up of Congress changes on November 06, there’s a chance that those sorts of protections can actually be extended, and this bill can actually pass. And I thought this was a really important thread, and I encourage you to read her other threads, just about what this means for trans Americans in general, and also look up other trans writers who are writing about this. Andrea and I are not the main sources on this issue. We really encourage you to look for people with greater expertise, but one of the points I like that she makes is that, you know, this is not about voting for the Democrats to screw over Trump, this is not about voting for the Democrats to just get some kind of win for the sake of winning. This is about people’s real lives. This is about their freedom, about their rights, their dignity. In the case of trans Americans, this is an issue about that, you know, if Trump passes this bill you’re going to see a rise in suicides. You know, lives are on the line here. And that’s true for a lot of bills that are basically lying in wait because the GOP, Congress won’t pass them. We have bills on climate change, bills on healthcare, there’s a bill to protect the Mueller probe. It’s one of things, you know, most likely to actually get Trump, and other criminal members of this administration, out of office. There is a bill from Ted Lieu that will limit Trump’s ability to unilaterally launch nuclear weapons. These are life and death issues. So when you’re casting your votes, I do encourage you to vote Democrat down the line. And, you know, I’m not a registered Democrat. I’m an Independent. But it is so obvious that in terms of our rights, our freedom, our ability to make decisions for our own lives, the Democratic Party is the party that is willing to listen to people on these issues, it is willing to be persuaded in a direction that is far more humane than the Republicans, who are primarily concerned with enacting a one-party state and protecting themselves from criminal litigation. And so, you know, when you vote, don’t just think about the candidate. Think about the make-up of Congress, and what can be possible if there is an actual blue wave on November 06.
Andrea Chalupa: It’s a matter of human rights. We have several human rights crises created by the Trump regime, created by Ivanka Trump, created by Jared Kushner, created by that whole cabal of Trumps that are in power, including the sons. Don Jr. is going around—free, a free man, not indicted yet, even though he’s got that smoking cannon of the quid pro quo with the Trump Tower meeting—campaigning for Republicans. Trump is obsessively getting out the vote, he’s traveling constantly, cable news is following him around, we’ve got that same Trump reality show going as we saw in 2016. His tweets are sending the media into a feeding frenzy. Trump is really making this election about Trump, and so all of us have to see this election clearly, and it’s about human rights, it is about taking back the House and taking back the Senate, so we can not only, you know, protect trans people. It’s also about restoring voting laws, it’s also about uniting children with their families, with their parents, that were stripped away from each other at the border so cruelly. It’s a human rights election.
Sarah Kendzior: Speaking of human rights, I guess, and the possibility of not only losing our rights but our lives: nuclear armageddon! This is an issue, I’ve been writing about this for a long time. I’ve had a lot of people nay-saying me about this for a long time—
Andrea Chalupa: You have as big of a nuke fetish as Trump himself, I would even say.
Sarah Kendzior: I do not! I am on guard, y’all. I am keeping an eye on this. And it’s not just me. Like all the nuclear scientists are like, “Yeah, you know, you’re right, and this is a huge problem.” The people who seem to dismiss it are mostly just kinda Kremlin lackey types, you know, like Glenn Greenwald accused me of being a cult leader because I keep talking about my desire for no one to use nuclear weapons, which I guess if you’re, you know, into blowing the world into obliteration, then I guess you would disagree with me that this is an important thing to follow. But Trump announced that he’s going to be pulling out of the INF treaty with Russia. The INF treaty was what banned intermediate range nuclear conventional missiles; it was signed in 1987 by Reagan and Gorbachev. 1987 was the year that Trump proclaimed that he knew everything there was to know about nuclear weapons because he learned it within an hour and a half. He had had a longstanding interest in nukes, dating back to 1984. He had wanted to be the person to negotiate with the Soviet Union about the use of nuclear weapons, at the suggestion of his mentor, mafia lawyer and just general scumbag Roy Cohn, that he began to pursue this. And it was after his trip to the Soviet Union that his interest intensified. And with Trump, it was not about non-proliferation. He wanted to know, as he repeated in 2016, if we have them, why aren’t we using them? He talked about nuking France. He talked about nuking Pakistan. He’s in a position where he can actually do it. He doesn’t need permission, he doesn’t need Congress to enact war; he can unilaterally launch a nuclear weapon. And now he has John Bolton next to him, who also has talked rapturously about wanting to launch nuclear weapons. And so there’s a misperception about them pulling out of this treaty, that’s being spread by people who like to think that Trump and Russia are actually at war, and that annoying people like me and Andrea, who keep talking about Kremlin interference, are the cause of that. That’s wrong. This is not a competition between Trump and the Kremlin; it is a collaboration. They are not going to war with each other, but going to war together, possibly against another country, given that Bolton is there and has been fantasizing about bombing Iran, including with preemptive strikes. I would guess that that’s a likely target. They are kleptocrats, they are planning to enrich themselves by developing a massive weapons stockpile in tandem. You might remember, I believe it was from the Helsinki summit, where they just sat there and said, “hey, between the two of us, we have 90% of the world’s nuclear stockpile,” which is a sentiment that assured absolutely no one, just kind of leaves you thinking, like, “well what is going to kill us? Is it going to be climate change? Or are we going to get nuked first?” It’s like, those are the questions now occupying our minds as we head into, as you said, a human rights election. So I’ll just read one thing, because I wrote this two years ago, I was greatly maligned for writing it. This is an article I wrote for Quartz called “Trump and Putin: The Worst Case Scenario.” I’m just going to read the conclusion to kind of drive this point home again. “Given Trump’s affection for and connection to the Kremlin—one the Kremlin itself has confirmed—and the fact that the US and Russia have now promoted nearly identical foreign policies (and also appear to be pursuing a series of financial arrangements in the gas and oil industry that benefit billionaires of both states), it is unlikely that the US is preparing to engage in a nuclear arms race against Russia. Trump may have found the nuclear partner in Putin he has been seeking for decades. In Trump, Putin may have found a willing accomplice who will back Russian imperialistic ambitions and drop sanctions, among other benefits. This is the new mutually assured destruction: the two states with the most nuclear weapons in the world, both backed by authoritarian leaders, may be partnering against as-yet unknown shared enemies. Their rhetoric alone is dangerous, and an actual increase in nuclear arsenals more so. In a worst case scenario, the end target of Trump and Putin’s destructive ambitions could ultimately be the entire world.”
Andrea Chalupa: Somebody wrote some viral thread, saying, “The alarmists were right! The rest of us were conformist suckers!” And it’s like, there’s zero pleasure, at all, in being right, especially when so many lives have been destroyed by this regime. I just wanted to tell the people out there who—if anybody, at any point, got that of feeling of “yeah, let’s just burn it all down and rebuild”—it is extremely difficult to rebuild. Europe needed a Marshall Plan in order to rebuild, and a decade after World War II ended, France was so poor it tried to self itself to England. So it’s like never, ever, ever, be on the side of “let’s burn it down,” ‘cause that’s really what we’re up against. That’s what our enemy wants to do. The enemy wants destruction. The enemy wants to usher in some evangelical apocalypse. The Republican Party is the party of death. They want to take aware our healthcare. They want to essentially kill children or threaten death for children on the border, that come here fleeing war. They want to continue polluting and killing the planet. The GOP stands for absolutely nothing but death. Like that’s what we’re up against. And so Democrats, we have to be the party of building, building, and building and never stop building. We’re building a progressive future. We’re building a 50-state progressive strategy. We’re going to be running people in every single district to make sure that voting rights, trans rights, human rights, are a reality in America and that we’re finally stabilizing our democracy after too many years of Koch brothers and the Mercers polluting this place. And I do want to say about nuclear war specifically: this is a reality show of dictators. You know, Putin’s turned Russian television into a fever dream reality show. Trump has turned cable news in America into his own reality show, and all this is is some scam. They are saber-rattling nuclear war to try to intimidate their shared opponents. Remember, Trump and Putin talk on the phone regularly, Putin’s in Trump’s ears, and this is the same as like that fake standoff between Kim Jong-Un that ended up in a surreal photo-op of Trump shaking hands, legitimizing the mass murdering dictator of North Korea. We saw this like in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, where Putin did this massive nuclear drill in Russia, preparing the Russian military for nuclear war. And now he’s saying that you know, Russians that die in nuclear armageddon are going to go straight to heaven. He’s just acting hysterical and Trump is playing along. He loves this. He loves the theatrics of it. He loves the power of it. He loves the intimidation of it. And you even saw, in the weeks leading up to the election, when Putin was running all these nuclear preparation drills, you had Trump saying that Hillary Clinton was going to lead us to war, you had Jill Stein, Putin’s other candidate in the 2016 election, saying that Hillary is going to lead us to war with Russia. And all of this is to intimidate people, intimidate Europeans included, from backing down and not enacting further sanctions, which are necessary by now. And Trump is loving it.
Sarah Kendzior: Trump legit wants to nuke stuff. I think he’s fantasized about nuking things. He doesn’t have value for human life. He doesn’t have any sense of what that destruction will be. He just knows he will be the president that can do this, he will the first president that, you know, did it to a certain country or place. So I think the fear of it is legitimate, particularly with Bolton on board. These are not people who, you know, value human life, as you were saying before, the Republicans have become the party of death. And the reason that I keep harping on it so much is because I want this to be stopped. I think that these amendments to stop him from having this power need to be passed, I think that he needs to be taken out of office, particularly given his temperament. I think that if he feels cornered and he feels that he’s losing, rather than lose, he will destroy the world instead. And I hope I’m wrong about everything. That could be the other motto of our show, along with “it was in the public domain,” is “I hope we’re wrong.”
Andrea Chalupa: That’s actually a really great tagline for Gaslit Nation. “We hope we’re wrong.”
Andrea Chalupa: Coming to a T-shirt near you.
Sarah Kendzior: [Laughs] Alright, well speaking of even more horrifying and shitty things happening, we are still talking about Jamal Khasshogi, which is, you know, it’s interesting to me that the story is still on the news because we’re used to having these news cycles for like, the last two years, that are basically 24 hours long, where it’s just one atrocity on top of another. And then we move on to something else. But this has really stuck with people. This has really affected people. The latest in that story as of today, is that the Saudis have killed him. They’ve admitted this. It looks like MBS hired a body double to pretend to be Khasshogi, this is according to video obtained by Turkey. They have a lookalike in the video wearing his clothes, and it was implied in an article on CNN that they hacked up the body and put it in a plastic bag and sent this alleged doppelgänger out. Some have hypothesized that they were possibly going to say that he was jailed instead of murdered and mutilated and that that was going to be their way of covering it up. But yeah, this is… I don’t know. This is a deeply frightening and horrifying story… I mean I don’t know. I’m out of words. I’m just thinking of him and his family and his loved ones…
Andrea Chalupa: This has to trigger the Magnitsky Sanctions. That’s what the Magnitsky Sanctions are for. It’s anybody that was involved in the murder of an investigative journalist needs to be sanctioned. Instead the royal family and their associates, and Jared of course being literally a slumber party buddy of the crown prince. The Washington Post ran an article saying that Jared and MBS stayed up till, like, 4 a.m. on several nights. These two millennial, deeply privileged, young, untested men, mapping out their corners of the world, essentially. And it’s incredibly dangerous, and it reminds me of the that stupid slogan the Republicans just tried to rollout. As one of our listeners pointed out, it sounds like the headline for one of our shows, #jobsnotmobs. When I saw that, I thought it was, we want green jobs, not the mafia in power, not Jared Kushner in power. And it turns out that no, that’s what idiot Mitch McConnell would work as a slogan, even though it sums up what we desperately want in this country, which is green jobs to put these gas station dictatorships out of power, to absolutely cripple them. The Democratic party needs to put out a widespread rule that we will not support your run for office unless you support a robust, aggressive, green economy to wean the world off of oil. Because that is a deep-rooting factor of the human rights crises of our time, which is of course what’s going on in the Middle East, these dictatorships, what’s going on in Russia, which is also a gas station country, and Venezuela as well, which has a massive famine that’s killing innocent Venezuelans and creating a refugee crisis there. So the sooner we wean the world off oil, the better, and the Democratic Party, if you want to inspire people, cause you know, we do have these midterms, and these midterms are really community-driven. It’s a lot of fed-up women that are... that see Trump, saying, “He could be President of the United States and I can be a state rep in my state,” and this is really not the Democratic Party leading this revolution, this blue wave that is hopefully headed to the polls on November 6th. We’re seeing massive early voting numbers, but that, as we saw in 2016, can’t really predict anything. But the numbers do look hopeful so far, and… but that’s not the party establishment driving that, that’s the grassroots, that’s local communities, it’s people who are fighting for their lives right now, fighting for the lives of people they love, and really the Democratic Party, if it has any sense, across the board, our platform is to take down these dictatorships by making America the leader in the green economy, green jobs, green energy…
Sarah Kendzior: You know, it improves human rights, it improves the economy, it creates jobs, it stops some of the damage of climate change. Like, it seems like a no-brainer, but since the GOP has no brains, I guess that’s probably why it’s not happening.
Andrea Chalupa: Yeah, and they need to own the fact that the Democrats are the party of science and human rights. I know it’s not catchy, it’s like “democracy, not dictatorship, you know, hashtag,” but they have to own the fact that, as Andrew Gillum in the debate for Florida governor, he challenged his GOP opponent, pointed out that he doesn’t believe in science, and that’s really what we’re up against. It reminds me a lot of like the trial of Galileo. We’re up against people who have a serious problem with facts, we really need the braintrust of the tens of millions of liberals in this country—there is more of us than there are of them—we just have this stupid backwards system that they take advantage of that’s a legacy of slavery in America, the Electoral College of course. We really need the liberal braintrust out there to step up and be massively proud of their talents, not afraid to use them, and join communities. Keep in mind that communities are leaders now. Don’t wait for any messiah politician or organization to save you. All of us are leading ourselves out of this. Sarah and I started a podcast without knowing any idea what we were doing. [Laughs]
Sarah Kendzior: Like we still don’t—not that you can tell! [Laughs]
Andrea Chalupa: We’ve had so many amazing episodes aborted because one of us—I’m not gonna say which one—but one of us likes to spit of face of technology [Laughs] and forgot to like, record or something. But yeah, so look at us, we’re still going. So all of this is about self-reliance, all of this is about everybody standing and being counted, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work and years of commitment, and the blue wave as Stacey Abrams said, is about creating the country that we want. And there’s.. And it’s not about the midterms, it’s about looking way past the midterms and staying engaged, staying informed, and working towards the issues locally that you care about.
Sarah Kendzior: I feel like the alt-right basically tried to co-opt this, cause I kinda saw people saying that before, and of course the description of Trump as a mafia front has increased a lot, it, you know, of course existed in all of Wayne Barrett’s work and was in the public domain for the last like 30 years, but magically forgotten in 2015 to 2016, but people have been talking about Trump’s mob ties, and I think that, you know, the Trump administration’s trying to take back the word, assign it to Democrats, drain it of its power, but, you know, we know that they’re mafia, and our slogan is better, so… yeah. We’re not gonna win this through rhetoric and slogans, we will this through votes.
Andrea Chalupa: Through hard work and commitment. I actually, because I was feeling really, obviously like all of us, really stressed out, I needed to do something about that desperately, so I took up boxing. Oh I took up boxing, and it felt amazing. So I lasted an hour in a boxing gym, just smacking into things [Laughs].
Sarah Kendzior: We should do, like Gaslit Nation self-care, cause I spent the weekend like chopping up rocks [laughs]…like geode hunting, it was chopping up stuff with a pickaxe, and like getting all of the … my anger out on there, so yeah, yeah, it’s all, you know, self-improvement, or like GOOP but for authoritarian survivors. [Laughs]
Andrea Chalupa: Gaslit Nation branded pickaxes. That’s next.
Sarah Kendzior: Oh yes! That’s what we should have.
Andrea Chalupa: I highly recommend it, I highly recommend it. It really exercises the Kavanaugh toxins out of your system.
Sarah Kendzior: [Laughs]
Andrea Chalupa: I felt ready to take on the world. Like if I can survive a one-hour boxing class, we can rebuild America. I think all news shows have to talk about self-care and mental illness. We have a opioid crisis in America, we have a Ivanka Trump crisis in America [laughs], it’s like we have to have these like mental health check-ins. It’s like the new weather report. You just need those check-ins regularly. So we’re going to be doing, this is part of our series of looking back on 2016 and how we got here, and the subject is President Obama’s foreign policy and how that contributed to the rise of Trump. And really, you know, if Donald Trump is President of the United States, and he got there through the help of the Kremlin, then something was wrong with your foreign policy. That takes some of the responsibility of how we ended up here. And I know some people might be thinking, “why are you focusing on Obama, why are you putting Obama in a bad light, especially before such a critical midterm?” Well the good news is, Obama is not the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party is all of us. We’re the leaders, every single one of us, of the Democratic party, and we’re reforming it. It’s about communities leading. And it’s important for us to of course take stock because I know from being a Ukrainian-American activist and writer focused on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and before that, of course, revolution in Ukraine, I was stunned. I knew from talking to people connected or inside the Obama administration that Putin just was not a priority. Obama, you know, obviously had so much to clean up. He had the economic meltdown of 2008. He had Bush’s based-on-lies invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so he had a lot on his watch that happened. In addition to that, he had essentially a cyclone rip through the world and completely destabilize it, including of course the Arab Spring, which contributed to the worst refugee crisis, which a refugee crisis that has surpassed World War II. So Obama had a lot happen on his watch, and we’re still dealing with a massive amount of fallout. It was difficult, but he should have prioritized Putin more. He should not have underestimated Putin. I mean, I enjoyed some of the smack talking he did, making fun of like the size of Putin’s economy, that felt good at the time. But what Putin showed us was it’s not how big you are, it’s how big you want to be. And if you have a black sense of humor, you could really see Putin’s last few years as one of the greatest comeback stories, underdog stories ever. This conversation is incredibly important to have, it’s necessary cold water to splash on our faces, and it’s an important reminder to the left that you need a strong foreign policy. You need to invest in programs to help investigative journalists and reformers on the front lines, risking their lives, risking their livelihood in countries like Ukraine. That’s who led the revolution. It was the investigative journalists that were supported by Western grants and NGOs. And that’s what Putin has vilified. He’s passed a law that criminalizes NGOs, he kicked out George Soros’s foundations. And you see people on the left picking up on this Kremlin rhetoric, saying that the West interferes in these democracies through our NGOs. I can’t even understand that, that justification of why we shouldn’t give people like my friends in Kiev, who face death threats, who face harassment, doing their jobs as journalists. So I think that is not only selfish, but it just goes against human rights. You have to support a free, strong press in these developing democracies, because if you don’t, corruption is going to just take over, and you’re going to get more dictatorships that you didn’t have to contend with, and the dictatorship mold spreads further around the world.
Sarah Kendzior: The other thing to remember is that it’s not just about Obama as an individual. You know, he was not a dictator, he was not a unilaterally forming a policy. My frustration was with the administration itself, with the State Department, with the intel agencies, like everyone dropped the ball when it came to Russia. I remember during the sequester, when studying of Russia in Central Asia was heavily defunded, into 2013 and then of course in 2014 we get the invasion of Crimea, and I was like, “OK, you know, we’re going to take Russia seriously as a threat now, right?” And it just didn’t happen. And I’m not sure exactly why. I think it’s important to distinguish between negligence and malice. With the Obama administration, they certainly didn’t intend for this to happen. But you know, they didn’t do enough to prevent it. With Trump, of course, you have outright malice. You have a purposeful embrace of dictatorship and Kremlin partnership that’s enormously dangerous, not just for the United States, but for the entire world. And the only way to remedy this is to just look at it head on without nostalgia, without excuses, without unnecessary finger pointing and blame, but just figure out, how did so many people, so many intelligent people, screw this up so badly? So that way, hopefully, we can learn from the mistakes of the past, and not do that again.
Andrea Chalupa: There’s an excellent documentary on how did such smart people get blindsided by Putin, and the documentary is called The Final Year. And there’s a chilling, there’s two very disturbing scenes in this documentary. There’s a couple, but the two that really stick out to me was two women talking to Ben Rhodes, who of course was very influential in Obama’s White House in terms of his foreign policy. Ben Rhodes served as the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications for Obama, and was an adviser on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. He was active on the Iran deal, which I thought was great in spirit, great in intention, but it stretched Obama’s foreign policy team too thin, when they should have been focusing on Putin. And it just simply didn’t have enough teeth to really hold Iran in line, so when all is said and done, I think a lot of this points back to the Iran deal. That was just… you don’t start renovating your kitchen when your house is on fire. [Laughs] It’s like, you know, Putin is coming for you, you have… he’s invaded one of his neighbors, he’s imperiled… he’s gunning for you, so you need to contain him through strong, swift sanctions, and you can’t trust someone like Putin to negotiate on Syria. The way John Kerry tried to negotiate with the Kremlin, with Lavrov, it reminds me how Democrats tried to negotiate with Republicans. There’s no negotiating with terrorists. And so I just think it was just a… in terms of foreign policy, Obama’s admins—White House, which is stretched too thin and they cursed themselves by not prioritizing Putin. And Ben Rhodes with his romanticism had a lot to do with that. And if you want to see that, watch the documentary The Final Year. As I mentioned, there’s a disturbing moment where Ben Rhodes is being asked Brexit, and somebody asks him, “Aren’t you concerned that Brexit might mean that Trump is going to win?” and Ben Rhodes like basically shakes off, “No, of course not.” And then you see it flash forward, Ben Rhodes on Election Night, when the results come in and Trump is the next President of the United States, let’s all let that sink in once again, Ben Rhodes is just sitting there looking like a shocked schoolboy, just saying, “Yeah I guess we just underestimated Putin.” You think? And meanwhile, Ukrainians were like screaming at them, saying like, “Please, they’re going to come for your next.” You understand, like… It’s crazy. There’s a story of Ukrainian soldiers that thought they negotiated a safe passage with Russian backed fighters, Russian fighters essentially. And instead they got massacred. So when you see Russians doing that, when you see like the Kremlin doing that, how can you negotiate with them on anything? On Syria? John Kerry spent way too, wasted so much time. This is a very complicated issue, and a great documentary on Syria alone, and Obama’s foreign policy is a documentary called Red Lines. Obama said if Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, that would be the red line, and the US would have to act, and act swiftly. Of course we’re not advocating for war, but it was just... things like no-fly zones and other things that could’ve changed things, potentially, and…
Sarah Kendzior: Alright, and on that note, should we proceed to the interview?
Andrea Chalupa: The interview with Michael Weiss that we taped. It was a retrospective of Obama’s foreign policy in regards to how it may have contributed to Donald Trump as President of the United States. This was recorded back in August. So just to set up it, just to give people an idea of how asleep his foreign policy team was in regards to Putin, and especially… it was just too late. By the time 2016 came along and the Russians were emboldened and they were really taking a huge gamble in hacking our election. It was just too late by then. And Hayes Brown and Buzzfeed has a fascinating piece called “How Russia Hacked Obama’s Legacy,” which I definitely recommend everyone read, and I’m going to read from a little bit of it. “No one from the Obama administration seems to remember when they figured out they were falling victim to one of the greatest intelligence operations in history. ‘This was the kind of realization that came incrementally,’ a former senior State Department official told BuzzFeed News. Now, as two congressional committees and the FBI investigate Russia's role in the election, former Obama officials find themselves grappling with a new legacy, one that formed at the 11th hour of their time in power. As they looked toward a world where pariahs like Iran and Cuba were won over with diplomacy” to some extent thats my comment, “they fell victim to a sneak attack by an old adversary. And they let it happen, offering up stern warnings and finger-wagging instead of adequately punishing Russia for achieving something that even the Soviet Union at the height of its power couldn’t manage: meddling in the US election and rattling Americans’ trust in their democracy. Initially, news that Russia-backed hackers had infiltrated the email systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) split the Obama administration. White House staffers struggled to wrap their heads around the scale of what occurred and found themselves unsure of how to respond without appearing to give Hillary Clinton a boost. The State Department's staff were torn over how far to press the matter with Russia, given other priorities like struggling to find an endgame for the Syrian civil war. Across the Potomac, the Defense Department was pushing for a strong response against Russia. ‘The White House was more in listening mode,’ a former Defense Department official told BuzzFeed News. The official described what ensued as ‘endless discussion after endless discussion.’ After weeks of intense debate, the White House’s ambivalence won. On Oct. 7, a Friday afternoon, they released a carefully worded, three-paragraph statement, saying that the US intelligence community was ‘confident’ that the Russian government was behind the hack. White House staffers thought publicly blaming Russia would draw the public’s attention and keep Moscow in line by making clear the US was willing to call them out.” That’s hilarious. “They also functioned under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would win and take a more robust approach down the line.
‘When we rolled that out on Oct. 7, we thought this would get a huge amount of pickup and play and be a catalyzing moment for the country, when the United States government — the intelligence community and DHS — announced jointly that Russians were trying to hack our election,’ Ned Price, then the chief spokesperson for the National Security Council (NSC), told BuzzFeed News.
‘A colleague of mine at another department was on the phone with a reporter, who was asking him questions about the statement,’ Price said. ‘My colleague then recalled hearing from the reporter, ‘Oh my god. I’ll have to call you back.’One hour after the statement dropped, the Washington Post published the 2005 "grab them by the pussy" tape. Less than half an hour later, WikiLeaks began dumping a new series of emails, this time hacked from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. The reporter never called back. Former officials have placed a lot of hype in the statement — the key point of which was that Russia was behind the leaks, something that had been reported for months by cybersecurity companies and journalists — during the months since leaving office. But the fact remains that the brief release had been a small shot — and it had missed.” So there you have it. It basically sums up what it’s it like to be a Ukrainian-American, or Syrian-American, and watching people you care about face invasion by the Kremlin, brutality by the Kremlin. I know people that, activists who were, you know, pro-Obama, campaigned for Obama, I knocked on doors for Obama. It felt like a betrayal. It like a betrayal, just how reticent he was in his administration prioritizing standing up to Putin. It even got to the point where, you know, I was somebody who was very active in speaking out on Twitter since 2013 on what was really going on in Ukraine, and I faced the barrage of trolls. The first generation of Kremlin trolls that went after us were, like, nasty. They would call us all sorts of names, and it got to the point where I would speak at places like the World Forum of Democracy, and a Russian would stand up from the audience and pretend to be a Ukrainian and try to get me. No one in the Ukrainian delegation knew who this guy was.
[Audio clip of Russian from conference]: Thank you very much.
Moderator: Question, a small question, yes? [Russian]
Russian: Well, I have a very simple and short question to put to you, you at the head table. I mean this forum is called the World Forum for Democracy. But I’m here now for the third day, and I’m seeing you collectively as a panel, we have Andrea from Ukraine, but I don’t see democracy there. I mean you only have people expressing one point of view. There’s no alternative. And if Andrea who wants the Ukrainian people to live in that kind of democracy. Well, I’m a Ukrainian myself, and that kind of democracy—no thank you.
Andrea Chalupa: Spasiba. So it’s very obvious to anyone who lives in a country where there’s freedom of press, and they’re able to get diverse sides of the story and objective facts, that Ukraine did achieve democracy with Euromaidan. The President who was overthrown passed a series of laws that turned his country into a dictatorship, including making it illegal to investigate people in power, making it illegal to demonstrate in the streets, making it illegal to wear helmets and other gear to protect yourself from the government’s riot police who were beating protesters, and there’s very strong evidence that the Russian paramilitary inside Ukraine, and that were snipers shooting Ukrainian protesters. So anybody living in a country, unlike Russia, where there’s freedom of press, where there’s freedom of the Internet, and has been following the issues, what’s going on in Ukraine, they know Ukraine just had a democratic, parliamentary election, with election observers from around the world, who saw an overwhelmingly pro-Western, pro-Europe, pro-democratic, parliament elected. So Ukraine’s new Parliament is 70 percent pro-West, because they don’t want to live in a closed society like Russia. Spasiba.
Moderator: Thank you. So, I’m going to take two more questions. I would encourage…
Andrea Chalupa: So I would meet my trolls in person. I mean, I spoke at the National Arts Club in 2015 about resistance art in the Ukraine, and halfway through my talk, six people get up from the audience and just walk out. And the organizer, after apologized to me, she was just stunned. Turns out they were from the Russian consulate and the Russian embassy in D.C. They walked out as a form of protest against my talk. So, again and again I would have, I would speak somewhere and I would get confronted by some, somebody in the audience spouting these Kremlin talking points to me. And I would get harassed online, like viciously harassed by these troll networks. And I knew that my … I did not feel safe. I didn’t feel like the White House would protecting me. I would meet Michael Weiss, who we’re interviewing, and many others, from the frontlines of an unprecedented information war, and we were sitting ducks. And it got to the point where I remember one day I was working on organizing an event with Russian activists, people who fled Russia, and we’re going to do an event in New York City in solidarity with Boris Nemtsov’s antiwar march in Moscow, and a few days before the march, Boris Nemtsov was murdered. He was assassinated in the shadow of the Kremlin. And our march turned into a vigil. And I had to see my Russian friends, with like absolute fear in their eyes, and it was at that moment when I decided to like redouble my efforts to get my film made, because I felt like I had to grab people by the throats and be like, “Please care, please care about what’s happening before it’s too late.” And it did not feel safe, that I actually used my husband’s last name on the film because the Kremlin was so good at tracking my movements, tracking my events. Like I did an event for the one year anniversary of the revolution in Ukraine called “Global Maidan,” bringing together producers from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, and all these other like comedy producers, television producers for them to share their tips on how human rights activists in Ukraine and Syria and other places can fight for human rights using pop culture. So some weird blogpost called it a “Ukrainian neo-Nazi event,” and how do dare they, how dare Jon Stewart and Colbert send their people to a neo-Nazi gathering in the heart of New York City. So I saw the Kremlin tracking my movements and seeing what I was doing, so I felt like I had to use my husband’s last name, almost like two-step notification on your email, so a lot of reason why you see any coverage of my film Gareth Jones, and I have my husband’s last name, it’s because I didn’t feel safe having to go to Poland and Ukraine to work on my film, and I felt like I didn’t want my real name on any of the funding papers or other things that would be floating around and I just wanted to… And I knew that the Kremlin forces were [...] these Russian trolls and Kremlin trolls in person, so I knew what I was up against. And yeah, it was just little way, a little of way security in an insecure world, and whether it was really helpful or not, I don’t know, but that’s just how I felt about it at the time.
Sarah Kendzior: And I think all of the people we’ve interviewed so far were people who saw this crisis coming. Whether it’s the two of us, or Sydette Harry who had noticed the troll activity back in 2014, or Barbara Simons, with you know, election integrity and the problem of hacking, and you know, now you and Michael seeing in advance how the incompetence of the Obama administration on foreign policy could lead to basically having a Kremlin asset in the White House. It’s not cause of it, but they were unable to effectively stop it in time. Now, unfortunately, everyone is in an unsafe position due to that. So, without further ado…
Andrea Chalupa: Yeah, without further ado, we have to announce a winner! We have a winner of the Gaslit Nation “Crush the Midterms” challenge. Every episode leading up to Election Day, November 06, we’re announcing a winner of the Gaslit Nation challenge. What we want our listeners to do is go to crushthemidterms.org and make your plan in a matter of seconds on how you plan to help create the blue wave. Keep in mind that we’re up against a lot of dark money, we’re up against a traveling reality show of a President that attracts attention everywhere he goes, so we have to redouble our efforts. And one of the best ways you can do that is by going door to door, canvassing, and it’s very easy to do. It’s very effective, it’s one of the most effective ways that you can get out the vote. All you’re doing is just showing up at someone’s doorstep and smiling and being friendly and just handing some campaign lit for whichever candidate, whatever issue you’re getting out the vote for. And it sends a very powerful message. Because right now in the world we have this television renaissance. There are shows like The Good Place you could be binge-watching. I love that show. Sarah loves that show. There are so many other things that you could be doing with your time. And the fact that you’re showing up on a stranger’s doorstep and being like, “I could be watching The Good Place and instead I’m here on your doorstep, cause that’s how much I care about taking back Congress, and that’s how much I care about human rights.” So it’s such a powerful message to go door to door, it’s so easy to do. I’m going out today, this evening, knocking on doors is the new happy hour. I hope you will join me, and you can make your plan, find an election, a campaign that needs you on crushthemidterms.org. Tweet your plan at us, and we’ll select a winner who will get a signed copy of Sarah’s book. And then we’re also doing the 1,000 door challenge. I’m trying to knock on a thousand doors between now and November 06. And if you’re joining me on this soul-changing journey, because it is an adventure, then please tweet a picture of yourself canvassing, tag us @GaslitNation, and we’re going to have not one, but three winners selected from the photos we get, to come join our show after the election to share your dreams for our country and how we’re going to build a progressive America. So now, Sarah, I’m going to roll the wheel of chance here, and tell me when to stop. You love this.
Sarah Kendzior: OK. I do. I truly do.
Andrea Chalupa: I’m freaking out. Who is going to get a signed copy of your book?
Sarah Kendzior: OK, stop.
Andrea Chalupa: Oh my gosh. Are you ready?
Sarah Kendzior: I am.
Andrea Chalupa: Are you ready? OK. This is great. So @triggeredliberal, Casey Mellon. We love you, @triggeredliberal, we’re triggered liberals also, that’s what this show is about.
Sarah Kendzior: Congratulations, we’ll use your triggered pain.
Andrea Chalupa: Yes!
Sarah Kendzior: You’re going to be, like, more triggered after reading the book? That’s OK.
Bell tolling, music
Speaker: Press Secretary Robert Gibbs phoned Obama at 6 a.m. with the good but very unexpected news that was he chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. No one saw it coming. The announcement in Oslo, in Norwegian drew gasps from the audience.
Announcer: Many women have been among the protesters on the frontlines of anti-government movements in the Middle East and North Africa.
Announcer: They have toppled long-term leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Karen Sharman is the executive director for global programs at Women for Women International.
Karen Sharman: They have a played a catalytic role in terms of coming out and organizing protests, smuggling arms, getting information to international media outlets.
Announcer: After enduring decades of authoritarian governments, the people of several Middle Eastern countries raised their voices in protest. [Crowds protesting]. And ousted their leaders in what has been called the Arab Spring. In Egypt and Tunisia, the uprisings were quick and decisive. In Libya, the protests led to a short civil war that ended with the death of Muammar Gaddafi. Syria is another story.
Barack Obama: We have been very clear to the Assad regime that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.
Announcer: We want to flag for you tonight what may be an emerging genocide. The Islamic Army, known as ISIS, has seized vast territory in Syria and Iraq. And over the weekend, ISIS stormed more towns in Northern Iraq.
[Sounds of protests]
Ukrainian woman: I am a Ukrainian, a native of Kiev, and now I am on my land, on the central part of my city. I want you to know why thousands of people all over my country are on the streets. There is only one reason. We want to be free from a dictatorship. We want to be free from the politicians who work only for themselves. Who are ready to shoot, to beat, to injure people just for saving their mind, just for saving their houses, just to saving their power.
Female announcer: Violent anti-government protests sparked the Ukrainian revolution and the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych. Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a secret meeting about extracting the deposed Yanukovych and annexing Crimea from Ukraine. Heavily armed pro-Russian gunmen occupy the Crimean Parliament and allegedly force the emergency instatement of a new pro-Russian Prime Minister. The new Crimean Prime Minister takes control of Ukraine’s security forces, Russia pledges the use of their armed forces in Ukraine. President Putin tells reporters that the unidentified soldiers occupying Crimean military bases are not Russian, and says that Russia will not try to annex Crimea. A planned referendum to accede Crimea to Russia is condemned by the Ukrainian government, the US and the EU. Russia announces massive military exercises along the Ukrainian border.
Male announcer: The Russian military now being directly involved in fighting Ukrainian government forces.
Second female announcer: Satellite imagery show Russian combat units, combats units, southeast of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.
Speaker: Well the deal came after years of tension over Iran’s alleged efforts to build a nuclear bomb. Iran agreed to do away with large parts of its nuclear program and allow international inspectors to monitor what was left. In return, the international community agreed to lift the sanctions, allowing Iran to do business, sell oil, and recover $100 billion of assets frozen in banks abroad. Some people are bothered by the fact that many of the deals key provisions expire in 10, 15, or 25 years, and Iran’s behavior across the Middle East, its involvement in the wars in Syria and Yemen, that’s something that bothers almost everyone.
Andrea Chalupa: We are here with Michael Weiss, an American journalist and a co-author of the New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. He is a consulting executive editor at Coda Story, a frequent national security analyst contributor for CNN, and before I had Sarah Kendzior, I was in the trenches with Michael Weiss. And as soon as I met Sarah, I’m like, “See ya, Michael Weiss.”
Sarah Kendzior: [Laughs] You have exceptional taste, I have to say.
Michael Weiss: You’re not the first person to trade up on me, Andrea, so it’s OK, don’t worry about it.
Andrea Chalupa: [Laughs] Michael and I did see each other through some difficult times, and actually what’s really funny is our friendship history tells the story of how America got here at this moment in time with Trump and Russia and that’s of course the story through Ukraine and Putin’s invasion, all sort of coming out of that, the revolution in Ukraine. You were working around that time in 2013, 2014, you were the founder, the editor of a wonderful site, The Interpreter, which translated and analyzed media in Russia, a lot of sort of tech happenings, what was on going on on social media inside Russia, and that was interestingly enough, founded by a major opponent to Putin.
Michael Weiss: Yeah, well, so what happened was I was working at a think tank in the UK and meeting with a lot of what they would call the first generation of Russian émigrés from the 90s, who were real true-blue dissidents and opponents of Putin. And I wanted to do a project that was kind of like, I think the catchphrase we came up with was “inoppressa and reserve,” so Inoppressa takes American or Western news articles, translates them into Russian, so Russians can have a sense of what the Western news cycle is on about all about all the time. So we wanted to do something similar, with the Russian news cycle. And it started out as just whole-cloth translations of Kommersant, Novaya Gazette articles, that kind of thing, which eventually we found was pretty boring. What people wanted was context, they wanted the most relevant aspects or parts of the story, groundbreaking investigative journalism to be translated and then given, you know, put a little more meat on the bones. So when I got to New York, basically I had a grant for I think it was $50,000, I needed a matching grant to get that $50,000, and I was introduced to Pavel Khodorkovsky, who’s the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil tycoon who then became a prime enemy of Putin and was thrown into the gulag for ten years, or labor camp for ten years, his business partners were arrested, and he was, his company was taken over and then auctioned under extraordinarily dodgy circumstances and, you know, basically became nationalized. There’s no question that what he got up to in the 90s was what all these oligarchs did. But he had an insight, a rare one, which was that the future of Russia had to be in the direction of transparency and democracy, and it really did look like, one of his fiercest opponents said that he went from being the most corrupt oligarch to being the least corrupt. And somebody that wanted to really transform Russia. And all of his efforts since he’s been let out of prison have been in this direction of civil society building and so on and so forth. In fact, what his organization in Russia is doing is actually kind of like what WikiLeaks does, but on the right side. They’re the ones who are publishing leaked email correspondence of Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who went to the that Trump Tower meeting in 2016, and who I’ve written a numerous number of articles about, dating back to when she was just working to dismantle the Magnitsky Act, and to lift US sanctions on Russia.
Andrea Chalupa: I invited you to come on a panel in 2015. Putin was invading Ukraine, and Obama’s administration, which we’ll get into later in this conversation. Ukraine sort of feels left behind, and the focus seems to be, clearly the priority is, fighting ISIS in the Middle East. Ukraine is begging for weapons, defensive aid, saying, “You signed this Budapest Memorandum, we gave up our nukes for it, that you would protect our sovereignty if it should come to that, and so just give us some defensive aid. And, and Obama was sitting on his hands when it came to this, and it all came down to, reportedly, from what we understood, was Susan Rice. So our panel was basically, “How do we get through to Susan Rice?”
Michael Weiss: It came down to the Obama administration coming to office, trying to undo the disaster of George W. Bush, noble intentions in many respects. I mean the Iraq War, still the biggest strategic and moral disaster of US foreign policy since World War II, frankly. But, the misassumption they made, and this was part of the so-called reset was that look, we can deal with Russia transactionally, the Arab zero-sum geopolitics is over, they’re not in a Cold War mentality, we’re certainly not, at worst they’ll still be a nuisance for us, but a nuisance that we negotiate ourselves around. And under Medvedev, one could make the argument that the optics were there. This was a guy, a technocrat, not a KGB case officer like Putin. He liked to Deep Purple and western rock bands, but he was a loyal Putinist going back, I think, a decade, Putin worked in the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg, and let’s be honest, Medvedev didn’t wield any actual power, Putin was still the man in charge, this was just the public face to the West. And I think that the big mistake was, look, Russia decided, OK let’s put on this kind of liberal lip gloss, for lack of a better term, to deal with the Americans and get what we want, which is access to the World Trade Organization, we want foreign direct investment from the United States, we want US pressure off our backs when it comes to our quasi-monopoly on energy in Europe. The big problem was that the regime fundamentally had not changed. And in fact, one could even the case, and I would, a lot of the consolidation of the security apparatuses, you know, the rise of the Siloviki, the former KGB officer class who had now obtained unprecedented levels of power. A lot of that actually accelerated under the Medvedev placeholder presidency. That didn’t really get much notice and press attention in the West, but it was happening internally in Russia. Then of course, you have the stolen Duma elections in 2011, you have what becomes the Bolotnaya protest movement, the largest demonstration in Russia since the collapse of communism. Not violently suppressed, although certainly there were acts of provocation and there were sporadic acts of violence, but suppressed in a very clever, postmodern dictatorial way, you know, branding the opposition as paid agents of the State Department and the CIA, claiming that they were the real crooks and thieves, Alexei Navalny’s brother, who went to prison for several years, had defrauded Russian companies, etc etc. But really what this represented at that point in the particular, because remember the real turn, Putin was never a fan of the United States, but he thought that he could get something out of us by appearing to be a partner and a cooperator on counter terrorism and counter organized crime and so on and so forth. The real turn for him, when he became publicly nasty, was 2004, during the Colour revolutions in Eastern Europe. That for him was a hinge moment because he genuinely believes, or he has been led to believe, that the US State Department, the CIA, the US government writ large is undergoing these acts of regime change all around Europe. NATO expansionism, you know why is NATO creeping up into backyard, right up to our border. 2004 of course, is the year that the Baltic states secede to NATO, which is literally on the Russian border. Now the way that Putin characterizes all this is not that accession into NATO is a voluntary act, a quite difficult one on the part of aspiring member states. It’s not like NATO is this hegemony that greedily gobbles up countries that don’t want to be part of it. No. Countries aspire to be part of NATO, it takes years, they have to meet certain requirements, defense spending requirements, their military has to be up to certain codes, they have to be democracies, etc. etc. But again, for Putin it’s a giant Western conspiracy led by the United States. Now all of these things I can point to, 2008, I believe the Russian defense doctrine and Lilia Shevtsova, who’s a great liberal journalist, actually more of an analyst, on Russian affairs, always points this out. She’s like, there was no mystery about what Putin and the Russian government wanted, at least as of 2008. Embedded in the defense doctrine is containment of the United States and the undercutting of US interests abroad. Full stop. But what does that mean? It means that Russia is sort of in another state of Cold War with America. And yes, we see this most starkly in Ukraine. Again, people are very ill-informed about the origins of the Euromaidan revolution, and certain facts that you present to them are absolutely mind-boggling. For instance, Viktor Yanukovych, the guy who actually resigned from power and fled like a thief in a night to Moscow with as much stolen money as he could muster, ran for office, ran for president in 2010 on a platform of integration with the European Union, specifically that Ukraine would sign the so-called Association Agreement, bringing the Ukraine closer to the West. The Party of Regions, Yanukovych’s party, they had EU flags with the colors of the EU flag intertwined with the colors of the Party of Regions banner during that election. People forget this. Why Yanukovych was, why people turned against him was because he essentially accepted an enormous bribe from Putin to tear up that agreement, to renege on his campaign pledge. He wasn’t ousted, there was no junta, the US intervention in the Ukraine, if you can even call it that, was one of conciliation and deescalation. The US role was to get Yanukovych to accede to some of the protesters demands, but to basically call for early elections. So in other words, not regime change, not the ouster of the President. Let’s just speed up the next popular vote to determine who’s going to lead the country. Well that was the plan that was agreed to by the European Union, the United States, another party, Ukraine, the protesters of course, and the Russian government was itself a party to this. Yanukovych violated this agreement by fleeing the country. And essentially de facto resigning his position, even though he claimed he was still the duly elected President of Ukraine. Also, he violated this agreement by sending Ukrainian police forces and security forces into the streets to shoot civilians, to shoot people in the head, to shoot them dead, so it was an act of violence by the state—
Andrea Chalupa: Corruption accelerated and deepened under Yanukovych, and he also was very adept at weakening Ukraine’s military. So in early 2015, when you and I are on a panel at the Ukrainian Museum, we’re giving people an overview of what Ukraine is up against, being invaded by the second most powerful military in the world after their military had been largely hobbled by corruption under Yanukovych. And it’s not that either of us are at all pro-war by any means, we’re just unpacking for people Obama’s foreign policy and how it impacts things, and the question was, that kept getting raised in conversation, was how do we get through to Susan Rice? Because she was seen as the one that was, one of the key people that was preventing Obama from giving defensive aid to Ukraine, something that Congress was united over.
Michael Weiss: The issue for this administration, and you know, it wasn’t just Susan Rice. It was the President himself. In fact, a very good source of mine told me at the time that Joe Biden had gone out to lunch with John McCain, and McCain, stalwart foreign policy hawk, stalwart Republican internationalist, said to him, “I don’t understand why we’re not giving Javelin anti-tank missiles and other defensive military to the Ukrainian army.” And Biden’s response, according to the source, was “John, there’s only one man in the country who thinks that’s a bad idea, and he’s the President of the United States.” It was not really a coherent or strategic foreign policy in the Obama administration for term 2, bar one thing, and that one thing was getting the Iranian nuclear accord done.
Andrea Chalupa: But I want to build up to this fateful night, when you and I are on a panel at the Ukrainian Museum, and so this room is absolutely packed, and so at the end of the night, you have people hanging around him, trying to say hello, and they all sort of disperse, finally. But there’s one young college-aged girl that’s hanging around, and I think nothing of it. We think nothing of it. And so we go to a bar in the area, and she sticks around, and she’s sort of hovering, and again, I’m not really giving her much thought, and Michael is holding court at one end of the bar, I’m standing at the bar with a friend, and this girl comes up to me, because I was a moderator on the panel, she says to me, “I have a plan on how to end the war in Ukraine quickly and bring economic stability to Ukraine.” And I’m like, OK. And this is where it gets, this is where the red flag really shoots up. She says, “Who can you introduce me to, so I can talk about my plan?” Now at this point, I’m used to people coming up to me, saying, “I have this brilliant idea, now you go do it.” And so the fact that she wants me to introduce her to someone for her brilliant idea, I don’t normally hear that. It’s a bit odd. So I ask her, like, well, “Do you know, let’s see, a good person to talk to would be maybe Alya Shandra at Euromaidan PR.” And she looks at me and she’s like, “What’s that?” I’m like, OK wait. You have a plan on how to save Ukraine, yet you don’t know the main Facebook page that was used to organize the revolution, founded in part by a young man, a young activist from the Ukraine who was profiled on 60 Minutes. That’s where we all got our news from, from the activist on the ground at heart of fiery Kyev. You don’t know that page. OK. Well I ask her, “Do you know so-and-so at Hromadske.TV ?” She’s like, “What’s that?” So I’m going down the list of all the news sources that people typically follow for Ukrainian news, that’s like on the ground stuff. She doesn’t know any of it. So I’m like, “Well, where do you get your news from on Ukraine?” She’s like, “Oh I’m from Chicago.” I’m like, “Yeah, there’s a big Ukrainian community there.” She’s like, “Yeah I get my news from Ukrainian diaspora newspapers in Chicago.” I’m like, “Oh, really? Which one?” She couldn’t name a single on. And I’m like, “Oh, that’s funny. You have a plan on to save Ukraine, yet you don’t know any of these people or these sites that I’m listing.” And so I lean over to Michael Weiss, and I say to him, I’m like, “Hey Michael, that girl that was hanging around you, giving each person on the panel a box of chocolates, she doesn’t know what Hromadske.TV is.” And right away, Michael knew exactly what I was talking about, and his face went pale, and he was like, “I gave that girl my phone number.”
Michael Weiss: Well now, hang on, hang on, hang on. Now you make me look sketchy. She said, you know, “Oh I’m interested in Ukraine, and you know, I would love to talk to you at length, blah blah blah,” and, you know, fine, here, this is my phone number.
Andrea Chalupa: I have to pretend I’m drunk, take her phone, and by like, “Hey, sure, I’ll give you my number, no problem.” She asked for my number. So I start going into her phone, and looking up Michael’s name, deleting his cellphone number, putting a fake number in, I put in a fake number for myself, and I ask her to write down her name, so I can, you know, reach out to her later. So she writes it down, and I go the next day, and I Google her, and I find a GooglePlus profile, and it’s her photo, and it looks like an FBI photo, and this penetrating gaze, and the text describing who she is is the most generic text, like “I like long walks on the beach. I like coffee. I like technology.” Like so generic. One thing about the Russians during this time, is their social media strategy was so in your face, ridiculous. They would just flood the comment sections of articles that were critical of Putin, with like all of this broken English, attacking the reporter, attacking the article. And so, her original name was still in the url of the GooglePlus profile. So I grabbed that, and Googled her original name, and I found all these anti-Ukrainian comments that she was leaving on mainstream news sites. My thinking is at this time, you know, Preet Bharara, then the Manhattan US Attorney, he had just busted a Russian spy ring in New York City. And one of the things that these news reports pointed out was that the Russian spies are eavesdropping over, the Feds were listening in on, they were complaining about how difficult it was to recruit vocal college girls to go in to these events and collect intel on them. And I’m thinking, yeah, no kidding, I’ve met one of these girls, probably, I know how amateurish they are. So the Russians have a history of mapping us, mapping how our systems work, getting an understanding of the lay of the land. And if you look at sort of how they take advantage of that, it’s really to look at our weaknesses. And so I strongly felt that night that that was somebody was sent around, because this was a high-profile event, you’re a high-profile expert on what’s going on in Russia-Ukraine, who are linked to one of Putin’s top opponents, and this is an event on how to arm Ukraine, which is something that Russia simply does not want. Hence we saw a change to Ukraine’s platform in 2016, under the Republicans at the RNC, etc.
Michael Weiss: Well, I mean like, let’s say that, let’s assume that this interpretation is true, and that she’s an agent or something, the worst they would do is get my phone number and therefore possible hack my phone or listen to my conversations, which would consist largely of me and you talking about the things that we’re now talking about on this podcast, so I’m actually the most boring person in the world for any foreign government to spy on, because I usually end up saying publicly what I say privately. This kind of like, weird cloak and dagger, shadowy world of doing journalism amidst foreign agents and spies, and all that, one unintended consequence of it is that it’s actually contributed to the stability of my marriage, because I just tell my wife if ever I suspect a woman is romantically or sexually interested in me, I know that she’s a Russian spy, so you have nothing to worry about for the sake of my own security. And, you know, that’s the biggest trust builder that we’ve got going right now. So, there you go. Thank you for saving me from a potential SVR recruitment, Andrea.
Andrea Chalupa: I just want to say that I appreciate all the moral support you’ve given me over the years, cause it’s been rough, cause we were on the frontlines of an unprecedented, aggressive information war. We were getting viciously attacked—
Michael Weiss: —in 2015, Russia directly intervenes in Syria. And what I started to notice was that, whereas before you’d see some trolling and comments, it really kind of opened the floodgate. And now, looking back, with all the knowledge we have thanks to Robert Mueller and reporting that’s been done, I mean how many of these people are real people? How many are just genuinely ideologically committed to protecting Russia from the American juggernaut or believe that there’s this vast neo-conservative conspiracy to frame Putin for being a kleptocratic thug and all the rest? But yeah, and what I didn’t know at the time, the proliferation of the alt-right, I mean basically neo-Nazism, and its sort cheek by jowl partnership with the Russian government and Russian state and non-state actors really kind of frightening. Well I used to do this game where I’d retweet anti-semitic trolls, just retweet them, like and they’d keep going, for the attention. And then people would, like, laugh and say, “Oh my God,” and then people started saying, “You know, we follow you to get news or information, or your opinion, like why are you doing this?” And I’m like, because I want you to see what this kind of work engenders. Look at Jessikka Aro. I mean, this was a Finnish investigative reporter who—she wasn’t just trolled online—I mean, they called her phone, they sent text messages reporting to be from her dead father. I mean, they really tried to destroy this woman’s life, personally and professionally. It’s disgusting, and it’s designed to demoralize you and to keep you shutting up and not doing this stuff.
Andrea Chalupa: It’s such a bizarre world that we’re in, and it’s hard to relate to. And I want to say that one of my favorite moments was, I was flipping through the channels on TV, and I stop on you, on Bill Maher, at the exact moment you are fact-checking some right-wing pundit who is spitting out the Trump administration’s lies that my sister worked with Ukraine.
Michael Weiss: Ralph Reed. He was claiming like the black ledger on Manafort was bullshit, and unsubstantiated, of course now it’s substantiated, and Paul Manafort’s going to jail for 200 years. There’s this whole kind of meta-phenomenon taking place where—and you guys privy to it, you’re subject to it because you’re on Twitter and you’re online—you know what’s a Russia expert versus who’s a fake expert, and who really has the authority to comment on this stuff, and blah blah blah, and liberals have to appreciate it. Active measures, Russian disinformation campaigns, Russian propaganda: they would not have succeeded without American relays and without people who were ideologically sympathetic to the message, whether or not they believed in the veracity of the message, and also people who are just fucking stupid, you know, the moronic inferno of American politics, which is one of the reasons the Russians thought, right now’s the time we can do this. The culture is changing so dramatically after the Tea Party, after the rise of the alt-right, and after the 2008 economic implosion. Whereas before, these things, these cockamamie conspiracy theories, Infowars, RT and Sputnik, you know, claiming that the Pope is a space alien, and, you know, Ebola is a CIA bio weapon, all of these things might have just been on the fringes of society, they’ve now become the mainstream. And that to me is the scariest thing. You know, the guy who said this the best is the head of Estonia’s Domestic Security Service. They go after the “human rights activists” who steal across the border from St. Petersburg and then dress up as neo-Nazis, pretending to be Estonian neo-Nazis, when they’re not. So you know, they really anatomize this beautifully. And he said, “Look. Be educated, be literate when it comes to Russian influence operations. But also just be media-savvy and media literate. Stop being so fucking gullible. I mean, you know, do a little due diligence. Be skeptical of the things that you read and try to find out the provenance of them. And that’s something that unfortunately the FBI can’t help us with. That goes down to the bone, the DNA of what America is now.
Andrea Chalupa: And how absurd has it been for us, seeing our little corner of the world become the biggest news story today, with, sort of—I’ve said on a podcast that the election of Donald Trump feels like the sequel to Ukraine’s revolutions.
Michael Weiss: Yeah, well, it, you know, I mean, Ukraine, Syria, the Baltic States, these were trial balloons for what they, for the big show, which was what they did here. And they wouldn't have done it unless they had had some success elsewhere. I mean it is important to remember, you know, I’ve gone to all these meetings over the last couple of years, think thanks, conferences, State Department meetings, you know, meetings with politicians here, there, everywhere, as have you guys, I’m sure. One of the things that strikes me the most, though, America likes to be the moral and strategic tutor to other countries, particularly former Soviet occupied countries. But when it comes to Russian disinformation campaigns, we have a lot to learn from what the Estonians, the Lithuanians, and the Ukrainians have found out at firsthand, and a lot to learn from the antibodies they built up for this stuff. I mean, where is the American StopFake, for instance, Yevhen’s outfit in Kyev. We don’t really have—I mean, Politifact, kind of, but that’s focused on lies being told domestically by Americans, more than it is on foreign actors. We need something—and you know, one of the things that I suggested, and I know this didn’t go down very well in some of the cooler precincts of online Russia-watching, is that major media organizations need a kind of ombudsman for disinformation. Right, you know? The tricks—the best trick that the Russians have to play is preying upon American journalists’ sense of even-handedness, fair and balanced reporting. So if the Russian foreign ministry says something, even if it’s “the moon is made of cheese,” that gets reported as though it were on par, information-wise, with a US denial or debunking or a fact coming from a more credible source. And after what point do you say, “Right, here’s a government that pathologically lies, lies in a contradictory fashion, makes up absurdities, you know, the lie told on Monday is logically incongruent with the lie that’s told on Tuesday, in fact it debunks the lie told on Tuesday and so on and so forth. At what point do you say, “Alright, enough is enough. We’re not gonna present this stuff like it’s, it’s all the news that’s fit to print. We’re going to call it what it is, which is a lie.” And ironically, what’s happening is, American journalism is doing that with respect to Trump, right? We’re doing that with respect to our own politicians, but we’re still hesitant or reluctant with respect to doing it to foreign governments. And as an international affairs correspondent, that latter is as significant and as important to me as the former. I say, listen to Ukrainian civil society, Estonian, Latvian civil society, Lithuanian—Lithuania, I mean Lithuanians, these guys are on the front lines, pushing back against Russian trolls; they even created their own little species, Lithuanian elves, people who just together on Google Hangouts and decided, you know, “obviously these are, you know, these are bots or these or trolls peppering credible news sites with comments of bullshit disinformation and anti-EU, anti-NATO, anti-American.” So they just ganged together and push back against them, online. But as you know, Andrea, and you Sarah too, it’s exhausting, you know, unless you have really a force of numbers behind you, unless you have sort of organized counter disinformation campaigns. This stuff you could spend the rest of the your life swatting away falsehood after falsehood, and really never get anywhere, right? Because it’s designed to exhaust you.
Andrea Chalupa: And where was, you know, the Obama administration on this? So, could you speak a little bit about, sort of like, you know, looking back now how their foreign policy, specifically contributed to this moment of how we got here.
Michael Weiss: It wasn’t a priority. The Iran deal is to Term 2 what Obamacare was to Term 1. So these are the two the two signature, legacy accomplishments of the administration. The administration will move heaven and earth to make sure the Iran deal gets done. And by moving heaven and earth, I mean it will forfeit, it will sacrifice in their minds lower order priorities, such as the war in Syria, without which, without Moscow’s help, you know, does not get solved, according to the US government. The war in Ukraine—“well, we don’t want to antagonize the Russians too much, we don’t to run guns to the Ukrainian military, because that might mean that Putin will back away from the P5+1 negotiations, or not come to our aid when we need him to certify or to, to fully realize this nuclear arms agreement.” For Obama, bringing Iran in from the cold was more than just about putting a safeguard on its nuclear program. He had a more utopian conceit, which was “this is going to create greater regional stability, this is going to create an equilibrium between the two major powers in the region”—non-Israel, that is—“Saudi Arabia and Iran. They will lie down like lions and lambs together, Sunni and Shiite will get along, and we will have ended this pax Americana, which has only contributed to more chaos and more bloodshed.” Listen to what they said. Listen to what Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic. Listen to what he told David Remnick in the New Yorker. The idea was, Iran is a rational actor, we hope that they will stop spreading chaos and you know, sort of dial down the state sponsored terrorism and all the rest of it. And of course, they didn’t do that. And they didn’t do that for the same reason that Russian didn’t withdraw from the Don Bas, and that Russia hasn’t pulled its forces out of Crimea, that Russia, you know, has stopped bombing hospitals and civilians in Syria, which is, in the absence of American assertiveness, as cumbersome and as a destructive as that assertiveness can be, you don’t create equilibrium, you create a vacuum of power, and the vacuum of power is filled by hostile foreign actors, who behave much more destructively than the United States does on its worst day. The region has never been more chaotic than it is now, meaning the Middle East, and perception of the United States there has never been more dire and almost dismissive, as it is today. And this is the reason. I mean, you know, if you want to get something done in Egypt or Syria or Saudi, the first stop is Moscow before Washington, and that’s unprecedented in the last 50 years. I like Obama, I would much rather he were still President now, but I’m not, I’m not an ideologue, I’m not a partisan, I can’t uneducate myself from what I have educated myself into, to knowing, covering the Syria conflict over the last seven years. And then covering the war in Ukraine, and what might have been done. And it’s impossible to traffic in counterfactuals as a historian, “if we only did X, then Y would have resulted”—no. But when you say, “We did, and Y resulted,” that’s just history, being a dutiful student of current events. I mean, I don’t know, does anyone have a good case to make that Obama’s foreign policy was an unmitigated success or even on the whole a success? I, apart from the Iran deal, which is now torn asunder because of Trump, what’s left? Syria in ruins. Ukraine still occupied. And Russia resurgent. Everywhere. Look at what just happened in, in Africa to a Khodorkovsky-funded investigative journalist, who were tracking the Wagner mercenaries, who have been deployed before there to Ukraine and to Syria. It’s not a fine bill of health by any stretch of the imagination.
Andrea Chalupa: And it’s sad, because, you know, he really obviously did a lot of great work domestically.
Michael Weiss: Sure!
Andrea Chalupa: But his legacy is now being undone, because he didn’t have a stronger foreign policy.
Michael Weiss: Right.
Andrea Chalupa: Do you see us shifting now, you know, I hate to use this term, because it sounds so dumb, but like a “new world order.” Who’s going to emerge now? Our allies are confused about who’s in charge, and people just feel like they have to got it alone now.
Michael Weiss: I have this internal debate with myself about this, all the time. Some days I think, that’s it, the American century is well and truly gone and buried, and Trump, what Trump has done is irrevocable, and we’re never going to recover from this. On other days, I think, OK, so even under Donald Trump, he decides in retaliation for the use of Assad’s chemical weapons use in Syria, he’s going to lob missiles at Syrian military installations. And do the Russians threaten World War III? Is anyone there to stop the United States and France and the UK from doing this? No. So, there’s still a lot of, potential energy in what the US can do, I mean we still are the world’s only superpower, we have a GDP—I mean, Russia’s GDP is I think the size of New York state, maybe a little less. So, I mean, you know, it’s just a matter of being strategically wise, having the kind of leadership where we don’t abandon our allies. And by the way, you know, abandoning our allies or not meeting them even halfway was a problem under the last administration. Now it’s not just a problem, it’s sort of a petulant display of rancor on the part of the fucking man-child, right? But these things can be corrected, I think. It’s going to take some time. Unfortunately, I mean, you guys might disagree, I don’t think he’s gonna lose reelection in 2020. I’m not confident of that. I wish I were, but I’m not. And if the economy performs as it has been, and even improves, I think most of Americans, like the stuff that we’ve been talking about—nobody cares. Nobody really cares. They care when planes fly into buildings—
Andrea Chalupa: —one issue that really breaks my heart is, where did we go wrong in Syria?
Michael Weiss: Mmhmm.
Andrea Chalupa: What could have been done differently in Syria under Obama?
Michael Weiss: There was a point in 2012, and even up to 2013, after the chemical attack in Ghouta let me just dispel some shibboleths that get thrown out by, well—first the Obama administration and now the far right and the far left, and just anti-interventionists. You do not have two choices as a superpower between full-on regime change and occupation, à la Iraq and Afghanistan, or no fly zones, humanitarian intervention, à la Bosnia and Kosovo. And even between those two options, I mean, there is an entire spectrum of things that can be done. You can say, well the US ran guns through the CIA to the Free Syrian Army. Yes they did, but they didn’t run the guns that would have been game-changing in the war, and the purpose of that program was not to really bleed Assad or defeat him militarily or to even liberate more terrain. It was to force him to the negotiating table. But he knew, because rebels were saying it, they were telling me at the time, that every time the rebels started to succeed and actually push the regime back, the weapons and ammunition spigots were turned off by the CIA at the behest of the administration. So America was basically telegraphing its true intent. We don’t want a conflict in Syria, we see this as kind of an inconvenience and a distraction, Assad must go, but we’re not going to do anything to facilitate it, we don’t really know who the good guys are in this conflict, who’s the opposition, remember doctors and pharmacists and dentists in Obama’s famous formulation? Leaving aside the fact that every Syrian male has done military service cause they have a conscription army. So it was all this excuse making. And then it became a policy of regime preservation, right? Again, just listen to US officials. Preserving state institutions in Syria was a priority. Well, what kind of state institutions? The Mukhabarat? The security services, which arrest and torture political dissidents and are now delivering the names of the dead, going back to 2011, to the survivors and the family members of those victims? The army, and the military, the Praetorian guard forces, the Republican guard, and the Fourth Armor Division, led by Bashar al-Assad’s sociopathic brother, Maher al-Assad. I mean this guys were complicit in some of the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity. So it became a game of “how do we negotiate this guy out of power, but leave the system that he commands in place?” Which itself was already a declaration of defeat. And it was one that was seized upon by the Russians and the Iranians. I mean, in fact, Fred Hof, who was a US ambassador at large at the State Department, really running the Syria program, quit in disgust over the Obama administration’s handling of this. He said at one point that his job also included doing a Track 2 diplomacy of the Iranians with the nuclear deal. And one of his, his counterpart in fact, on the Iranian side, said to him after the 2013 chemical weapon attack, which crossed Obama’s famous red line, and which everyone thought the US states would finally intervene against Assad, and that contact for the Iranians was like, “We couldn’t believe that America backed away from this. We were shocked. We thought it was all over for Assad after he did that. And now we realize, oh, it’s because this administration wanted an arms deal with us, more than they wanted to paper over or to repair a humanitarian catastrophe.” But again, Syria is in many ways Patient Zero for a lot of our current unpleasantness. It led to the refugee crisis, which has in turn galvanized the populist far right in Europe, arguably galvanized Donald Trump here. He was focused on Mexican immigrants, but remember his comments about ISIS and we don’t know who’s coming in, and his Muslim ban. I mean, all of these things have a direct correlation to the catastrophe in Syria, destabilized Turkey, Turkey is led by an authoritarian thug, very similar to Putin in many ways, but I will say, having reported from there, that their treatment of refugees really makes the United States and other countries look deficient. And their own sovereignty, their own national security was at stake, because of the Syria crisis. We’ve patted them on the head and said, “Sorry, we’re not going to help you do what needs to be done,” which is create a buffer zone at the border. I can go on and on about all the countries we turned against or we neglected because, again, A-1 priority: Iran deal. Talk to the Gulf states about this, talk to the Israelis about this, whoever you like, the Europeans, the French, François Hollande left office still incensed over the fact that John Kerry called him at the 11th hour and said, “You have to pull your fighter planes out of the sky, we’re not actually bombing Syria over the chemical attacks.”
Andrea Chalupa: So where are we now with Syria? It seems like it’s just been leveled, by Russia, by Putin and Assad.
Michael Weiss: I mean, you know, the regime has retaken Daraa, which was the cradle of the revolution, the cradle of the uprising, and they retook it because the rebels that the US and other countries were backing in the south were told, “We don’t have your back.” So they were abandoned and the regime swept in. The next province they have their sights on is most certainly Idlib, unless they cut some kind of deal with Turkey that allows Idlib to become almost a defacto annex territory of Turkey. But the country is balkanized, I mean Turkey is occupying a wide swath in territory in northern Aleppo, as well as several key cities in Aleppo province. The US is occupying maybe a third, maybe a little less territory east of the Euphrates river. This is the so-called Jazira where US proxies are now continuing to fight ISIS and expunge them from territory there. But Assad has regained control of a large portion of the country, certainly what he would call useful Syria, which is the capital, the coast, and the direct line of communications needed to transfer weapons and men across the border into Lebanon for the sake of Hezbollah, which is another Iranian client or proxy.
Andrea Chalupa: Assad gets to stay, but he’ll be forever beholden to the Kremlin.
Michael Weiss: He’ll be forever beholden to the Kremlin and Assad has mortgaged his country for the sake of victory. And the difficulty is, I mean, I‘ve reported a little bit on this, and I’m sure more of it will come to light as time goes on. You know, the Russians aren’t writing blind checks. The Russians are saying, right we saved your bacon, now we want a cut of the action. So the Russians are going to pour in with their typical kleptocratic reconstruction deals, you know, the son of Gennady Timchenko, or, you know, the Rotenberg brothers, will come in and do their thing. You know, it’ll be like what happens domestically in Russia. The point is, yes, Assad has lost control in all significant, substantive aspects of Syria. And he’s now wholly reliant—I mean he’s got two crutches. One is called Iran, and the other’s called Russia. And if Iran were to befall a revolution, which is probably not likely, although likelier now than it was, has been at any point in the last ten years, given the continuing protests and the economic state of the Islamic Republic, and given the fact that the US is now reinstituting sanctions that were lifted because of the Iran deal, where does that leave Assad? Then wholly reliant on Russia. And as one “former Russian diplomat”—I think you know what I mean when I say that—put it to me, “Russia has no strategic purchase in Syria without Iranian ground forces. Hezbollah and IRGC militias in particular. The Syrian army is largely a spent force. And if the Iranians did pull out of Syria—this is why I think the Israelis are—whatever the fuck they’re smoking, I want some—they think that Putin can negotiate Iran’ withdrawal from Syria. If that happened, Russia’s hold, Russia’s intervention in Syria would collapse. And the Russians would be the first to tell you that, privately. So that, that, that whole thing is a complete sort of non-starter. So yeah, I mean, you essentially a virtually occupied state in Syria by two foreign countries—three—actually, no, four if you count Turkey—it’s not a state in any reasonable sense of the word. And the war, although it is true that its winding down as Assad gains more territory, it’s not over. You still have people with guns, you still al Al-Qaeda, you still have Islamist militias, you still have defectors from the regime, or defectors from various rebel groups, you still have ISIS in their Deir ez-Zor, we haven’t heard the last of this conflict. The only difference is, ISIS is no longer mowing over people at Christmas at bazaars in Berlin or down the West Side Highway. At least not at the rate they used to do, in 2015 to 2017. So it’s out of the news cycle.
Andrea Chalupa: Should we give Obama credit for that? That he didn’t prioritize fighting ISIS, and we don’t really hear from them much these days.
Michael Weiss: He prioritized fighting ISIS. The rise of ISIS caught him so unaware—because for him, you know, remember, the famous line to again, David Remnick, that these guys are the JV team of jihad, they didn’t have it all over Al-Qaeda—he was focused preternaturally on Al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak theater, Al-Qaeda in Yemen and some of the African countries. He didn’t really care, thought ISIS was sort of a bust and flush. That’s the old insurgency from Iraq, and Iraq is now a more or less stable government under Nuri al-Maliki. So it caught him by surprise, it distracted him from what he was going after, which is again this deal with Tehran, and his policy in defeating the Caliphate, so-called, I guess you could argue was successful, but my counterargument is, yes, but killing the bad guys, flushing them out of cities and urban populations, we’ve done that before. We’ve done that innumerable times before, ever since we invaded and occupied Iraq. The long-term problem here are the forces that get unleashed in scorched earth counter terrorism campaign. And what we have done in the prosecution of this war is enable the rise of Iranian fifth columnists in Iraq, who run various militia groups, many of them committing human rights abuses as bad as what ISIS has done, according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and these guys are now jockeying to be political actors. Similar to what Hezbollah has done in Lebanon. That’s not good for Iraq, that’s not good for the region, certainly not good for the United States, which has lost all power and most of its credibility in Iraq. And again, this is a country we invaded, and as the Pottery Barn metaphor goes, we broke it, we own it. Now Iran owns it. So, well done America. And yeah, Russia’s influence is still ever-present there. I mean in Baghdad, the Russians liaise regularly with Iranian intelligence services, Iraqi intelligence services, Hezbollah, and these Iranian-built Iraqi militias to run their own show, completely independent and removed from the US prosecuted war.
Andrea Chalupa: John Bolton is in the White House now. He really wants his war with Iran. Iran and Russia are allies. What do you sort of see happening there, in terms of all the saber-rattling the Trump White House is doing against Iran?
Michael Weiss: Trump has this sort of hawkish anti-Iran perspective. He still has an overriding worldview, which is that the Middle East is a mess, we don’t know what’s going on, does anyone know what’s going on, I want out, I don’t want anything to do with it, I don’t want to send constituents to die in wars in the desert, and just let’s wash our hands of it, and let the Saudis figure it all out. And that’s not a strategy. That’s essentially defeatism wrapped up in the banner of triumphalism. John Bolton is somebody who is very skeptical about intervening in Syria, I don’t know where he is on that now—probably still skeptical—because we’re not really intervening apart from fighting a war against ISIS. When it comes to Iran, I think their goal now is economic warfare: sanctions, create hyperinflation, make the value of the rial drop, hoping that that prompts, if not revolution on the streets, then some reconsideration of Iranian behavior. But it ain’t gonna do that. If anything, the Iranians are going to dig in more. And when it comes to their foreign operations, which is America is really concerned with from a national security point of view—has Qasem Soleimani gone into early retirement? No. he’s still fighting proxy wars in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, lobbing missiles, allowing the Houthis to lob missiles into Saudi Arabia on a routine basis, getting up to no good in other countries in the Middle East and probably beyond, Europe for instance through Hezbollah and Iranian spies and operatives there. So no, that’s, again, it’s, it’s, it’s sort of a tactical pantomime policy masquerading as grand strategy. And Bolton and Trump and his entire cabinet, as far as I can tell—at least the people remaining—suffer from what I would call “Michael Flynn derangement syndrome.” Which is the path to peace for America is lie down with the Russians, and we will solve the problem of radical jihad, be it Sunni or Shiite. Absofuckinglutely not. Completely—that is the dumbest idea advanced for the 2016 election cycle and now being circulated around in foreign policy shops. It’s not gonna happen. I told you before why it can’t happen. Because Putin, whether he likes the Iranians or not, is reliant upon them to solidify his gains in the region. And it’s a great opportunity for Putin to say, “Oh yeah, let’s entertain this theory. Come to Moscow, prostate yourselves before me. Let me interrogate your, the former ambassador to Russia, let me interrogate Bill Browder, let me interrogate DHS special agents, and everybody else I want. And, and, yeah, yeah, no, no, we’ll keep talking about me getting Iranians out of Syria.” Meanwhile, he’s just laughing, because it’s not going to go anywhere. And what shocks me, though, is the Israelis seem to have fallen for this boy. Because they usually know better.
Andrea Chalupa: What can be done in terms of foreign policy by the US and the EU to contain Putin?
Michael Weiss: In a weird way, it may vindicate my earlier prescription, before the interference in the US election, but in another way it kinda complicated that prescription. According to Russian journalists, what motivated Putin to hack the DNC and to wage this influence operation: the Panama Papers. What the Panama Papers disclose: his longtime buddy Mr. Roldugin, concert cellist, is a billionaire on paper, and the money that he’s holding is really money held in reserve for Vladimir Putin. So in other words, going after Putin’s personal wealth so aggravated him that he decided to declare a kind of soft war on the United States. And yet, that betrays his Achilles heel, doesn’t it? I mean, yes, we should be doing all of the conventional things: you know, beefing up NATO, getting countries to spend 2 to 3 on their defense spending as members, sending troops, materiel, rotating forces in and out of Eastern Europe. All of those things are great and necessary. But I think that at the level of information warfare, at the level of really driving a stick up his ass, it would be, “hey, this is how much this guy is worth. Here’s where we show you where the money is. And the chateaux and chalets and Swiss bank accounts, and the Cypriot and BVI offshore entities that have been created.” He’ll go nuts. And he’s not going to go nuts in the sense of “I’m going to launch nukes at the United States.” This is another shibboleth that sort of proponents of conciliation with Russia like to advance: “we’re at the brink of World War III.” To which I say, when the Russians pull their kids out of British boarding schools and liquidate all their assets and holdings in the West, then you can be worried about Russia sending atomic bombs into the West, but until and unless that happens, they’re not that stupid, and that’s not an option. But yeah, we have a whole arsenal of things at our disposal, that I think we haven’t used even a fraction of the tools. And again, this is not, we’re not talking about conventional military engagement or confrontation. Full stop. Because people like to say, “Oh this means going to war.” It doesn’t. It doesn’t. It means amplifying the things that we’re already doing, but just doing a little more strategically and with better sense of what the pressure points of the system are. There is no Kremlin ideology. You could argue that anti-Americanism is, is the posture, it’s the sort of fallback position for everything, but there’s not an ideology like there used to be with the Soviet Union. So if you’re not fighting a fundamentally ideological opponent, you have to say, “What does that opponent really care about?” And the one thing that time and time again, Surkov’s Portchester, postmodern Diderian hijinks all come to dust when it comes down to going after the money. If you go after the money, the lupine grin on their face morphs into a look of absolute terror and dejection. And going after oligarchs? OK, that’s driven the oligarchs closer to Putin and, and, you know, there’s been a rallying effect opposite to that which was intended. But then again, not always. Going after Deripaska makes him divest from Rusal, that was pretty targeted and pretty clever, I thought. Go after more of the oligarchs. These are the public faces of Putin’s kleptocracy. Hit them, and then you end up hitting him. And then go after his own money. And I refuse to believe, with the, I mean, the vast resources at the disposal of America’s intelligence community—I mean, look at what Robert Mueller fucking put together in that indictment, those 12 GRU operatives, how does he know all of that? I refuse to believe that the US government doesn’t know where some of Putin’s ill-gotten gains are buried. I refuse.
Sarah Kendzior: Gaslit Nation is produced by Sarah Kendzior and Andrea Chalupa. And our editor is Nick Torres.
Andrea Chalupa: We were gifted a new transition song by Damian Arriaga, who first told Sarah and I to get a podcast. Thank for you that, Demian, and thank you for your lovely song.
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Andrea Chalupa: Gaslit Nation would like to thank our supporters at the Producer level on Patreon and Marshall and Ari Guardia, Ethan Mann, and Jeb Breslavick, Peter Case, Peter White, Timothy Michael Wilson—thank you so much, we could not do this show without you.
Sarah Kendzior: Thanks for listening!