Steele’s very British coup
Whatever the truth of the salacious details, the Trump dossier is a reminder that the state is not politically neutral, argues Jim Grant
Shall the fun never end? This paper has already called the present lame-duck phase of the American political cycle the most dramatic since 1860,1 but in accordance with the laws of the Hollywood narrative arc, the stakes have been raised at the very death.
At issue, of course, is the infamous Trump dossier - 35 pages of allegations against Donald Trump and his people, ranging from the dubious to the treasonous, to the downright bizarre; all rendered in the bland, grey prose of the MI6 house style. The author is widely assumed to be a certain Christopher Steele, a former operative at the Circus gone private; he and his firm, Orbis, are merely one of a whole nexus of private intelligence firms operating in London, whose previous claim to notability consists in compiling evidence of corruption at the top of football’s governing body, Fifa, on the UK government’s dime, which issued ultimately - after the information made it to Washington - in the dramatic arrests of mid-2015 and the resignation of Sepp Blatter.
Steele’s name came up after it was admitted that the source of all these allegations is a Briton, which in the end is hardly surprising. Britain has the right combination - slavish obedience to US policy, coupled with a most hospitable environment for Russian oligarchs to stash their fortunes. No doubt there are many Russian gentlemen with ambiguous relations to the Kremlin available for a ‘private chat’ in the right sort of Mayfair club. A whole industry, it appears, has grown up around this fortuitous position, with ex-spooks very quickly replacing their income (and more) in the private sector.
There are, now we think of it, a few parallels between Blatter’s case and Trump’s: both men are sexist buffoons, for a start; and what Blatter achieved within the small circles of football’s governing elite (founding a firm and unpleasant regime on the support of more marginal constituencies) Trump aims to replicate on the grander stage of American society. They are both, above all, men who are liable to make enemies, and Blatter’s ultimately caught up with him.
While the interest of the secret state and its semi-detached private apparatchiks like Steele in the black heart of international football is merely a testament to how bizarre the distempers of the imperialist world order can get, the interest in Trump’s Russian adventures is more easily explicable. US state department doctrine in the recent period has been dominated by the objective of encircling Russia, in order to ensure ready American access from western Europe all the way to the far side of the Mediterranean and the Arabian peninsula. Such activity has increasingly clashed with Russia’s perceived interests in its near abroad - a policy that has provoked crises over Nato expansion and the recent wave of fatuous doublethink over who may be said to have liberated cities from Islamic State in the Middle East.
Trump’s stated foreign policy represents, on this point at least, a dramatic shift. He has made no secret of his admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin, and is gleeful in ramming home the point that the Russians have a freer hand to bomb the hell out of jihadist militants than the United States, such is the diplomatic cat’s cradle the latter has built for itself in the region.
The dossier purportedly written by Steele alleges in substance that the new president’s approach can be explained simply thus: Trump is compromised by Russian intelligence. His close advisors are accused of collaborating in the hacking of Democratic national committee emails. It is alleged that the Russian authorities, while ‘cultivating’ Trump as a presidential hopeful for five years, were simultaneously gathering compromising material (kompromat) as a guarantee of good behaviour, including the eye-catching claim that he paid prostitutes to piss in a bed once used by Barack and Michelle Obama, while he watched.
Trump’s response was to call all this so much “fake news” and a “political witch-hunt”, which raises inevitably the question of exactly how much there is in these claims. An interesting piece on the website of the London Review of Books by Arthur Snell, a former foreign office apparatchik, makes the point that there are rarely smoking guns in strategic intelligence, which is not so much post-truth as para-truth. What the poor, beleaguered spook has to work with is essentially hearsay:
At the heart of this game of betrayal is trust: the source of the intelligence must be trusted by his or her handler. The reader of the intelligence report has to trust the provider of the intelligence, while remaining critical. Intelligence is about degrees of credibility, and reading it is not the same as reading reportage, or a piece of political analysis. In order to make an assessment of its reliability, a reader needs to examine how it’s been sourced, insofar as that’s possible.2
All news outlets, especially in libel-crazy Britain, are keen to point out the unsubstantiated nature of all these allegations; and it certainly seems at least that the most straightforwardly damning one (that Trump ally Michael Cohen met with Russian intelligence on a particular date in Prague to discuss dirty digital tricks) is factually incorrect. As for the business with the bed, it is unlikely that any interested parties in the west are going to get any DNA swabs from the sheets. Who knows?
The more interesting question is perhaps not whether such things are true in the narrow sense, but whether they are advanced in good faith. The story being told about Steele is that, having been commissioned by the Democrats to look into Trump for them, he was so spooked by what he discovered that he went to the FBI, who merely sat on all this stuff, not wanting to be seen to intervene in the election. In this version, Steele (or whoever) investigated and reported the allegations out of concern for the west’s internal security, and the leak is essentially a disaster, shifting the terms of debate from the probabilistic models of the securocracy to the less nuanced arenas of the civilian legal system and media scrutiny.
There is the alternative explanation, which is that the whole thing is straightforwardly a fabrication - a Zinoviev letter for the right, playing on Manchurian candidate-style fantasies of the White House somehow being seized by an enemy agent. The Steele dossier then has two potential uses - the one, being employed as a pretext for impeachment early in Trump’s reign, in a ‘very British coup’ (spooks, sex, the whole works!); the other, being used to make it politically difficult for Trump to pursue his thaw with the Kremlin without appearing to confirm the idea that he is Putin’s catspaw.
On January 20, unless events truly spiral out of control (Trump is indicted for corruption or espionage, say), the transition of power will be complete. The new era will begin. How should the labour movement - in this country and the States - respond?
It is no surprise that the occasion shall be marked with protests; indeed, protests have barely let up since the election. In Britain, too, the event will be marked by many leftwing organisations in the time-honoured format of the street demonstration. The horror among progressives, socialists and democrats is palpable, and understandable, at the rise of this narcissistic, bigoted cretin to the Oval Office; and we are disturbed by the apparent reality that he succeeded in part not in spite of his posturing machismo and gleeful cruelty, but because of them. Trump has exposed a rottenness at the heart of political culture in the Anglosphere; the question is merely what exactly it is that is rotting.
Yet it is a peculiar age indeed when American spies and the Stop the War Coalition see eye to eye on anything, never mind changes in US foreign policy; the latter is one of the sponsors of demonstrations coinciding with Trump’s inauguration, and it will be interesting to see what (if anything) the comrades manage to say about the virulently pro-imperialist tenor of the present scandal-mongering. The disaster is that the identification of the left with the establishment, the meat and potatoes of the American (and British) right, has been successful; it was only a matter of time before a radical rightist who was not secretly a member of the establishment benefited electorally.
The spectre of the ‘liberal elite’ is paralysing any meaningful counter-strike against rightist national chauvinism; and the radical left has failed to benefit because it fails to acknowledge that mere ritual denunciations of racism, sexism, etc have not only lost the dissident edge they once possessed, but are now official state policy on both sides of the Atlantic.
1. See ‘Different next time’ Weekly Worker November 17 2016.