Most dangerous woman in America?
Daniel Lazare considers the role of Fiona Hill in the anti-Trump impeachment campaign.
For a while, things were not going well for America’s anti-Russia, ‘impeach at any cost’ crowd. In mid-October, Hillary Clinton stepped into a hornet’s nest by attacking anti-war candidate Tulsi Gabbard as “a Russian asset”, earning rebukes from everyone from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump (“Hillary’s gone crazy!” tweeted the latter). A few weeks later, The New York Times ran an amusing interview with Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, the alleged power behind the throne of president Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he thundered his contempt for the United States and threatened to join forces with Moscow. “Russian tanks will be stationed near Warsaw and Krakow,” he said. “Your Nato will be soiling its pants and buying Pampers.”1
Finally, the Nielsen TV rating service revealed that only 13 million people tuned into the first congressional impeachment hearings on November 13 - a substantial decrease from the 19.6 million who watched FBI director James Comey testify in June 2017, or the 20 million who caught Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in September 2018.
Russia-bashing was running out of steam, Ukrainian policy was in disarray and impeachment was sagging - or so it appeared. But then came Fiona Hill - a ramrod-straight Russia specialist from the north of England, by way of Harvard and the White House National Security Council - to save the day by bucking up the anti-Moscow forces and reminding them of what the Evil Empire is really about. She said this to the house intelligence committee:
Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country and that perhaps somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan congressional reports. It is beyond dispute ...
She went on, as committee members listened with rapt attention:
The impacts of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined. US support for Ukraine, which continues to face armed Russian aggression, has been politicised … In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interest.2
Liberals cheered. The New Yorker praised Hill’s “moral earnestness”, The Nation described her as “poised, confident, brisk in her remarks, unflustered by browbeating from Republican representatives”, while New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said she was “a powerful reminder of what makes America great and of how president Trump has taken a sledgehammer to ‘its role as a beacon of hope in the world’”.
Hill’s testimony was indeed powerful, but in a very different way: ie, as a reminder of how thoroughly anti-Russian hostility has penetrated the Democratic Party and its intelligence allies. Everything that has gone wrong in America in recent years, in their opinion, is Moscow’s fault. Division, polarisation, loss of faith, Trump himself - all are by-products of Russian meddling in 2016. America has had enemies before, but nothing compares to the Democratic obsession with Vladimir Putin - a man who now looms over the US the way Emmanuel Goldstein looms over Orwell’s Oceania in Nineteen eighty-four.
What are the roots of this monomania? Although impeachment is billed as an effort to rein in a runaway presidency, it is better understood as an attempt by Democrats to claw their way back from the setbacks of Barack Obama’s last years in office. The dimensions of the Obama disaster are not fully appreciated, but it was little short of monumental. The problems started in 2011, when the White House initially seemed to welcome the Arab spring - or at least made no effort to interfere, when long-time allies like Tunisian strongman Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were overthrown. But it reversed course when Saudi Arabia and the other the Arab gulf states launched a powerful counter-offensive a few weeks later - sending troops to put down democratic protests in Bahrain, funding Sunni jihadis in Libya and Syria, and then launching an air war against Houthi Shi’ite insurgents in Yemen in March 2015. Simultaneously, the Obama administration gave the green light to a fascist-spearheaded coup in the Ukraine that sent a mildly pro-Moscow president packing in February 2014, while sparking a parallel insurrection in the country’s Russian-speaking east.
The results were devastating - civil war, massive death and destruction, an upsurge of terrorism, an Islamic State offensive that brought it to within a few dozen miles of Baghdad, plus the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. Not since Vietnam had US foreign policy gone so spectacularly awry. Even worse from an American perspective was the Russian response. Instead of watching from afar, Moscow forcefully intervened by annexing the Crimean Peninsula, funnelling aid to pro-Russian insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk, and then, in November 2015, injecting itself into the Syrian conflict in support of Bashar al-Assad.
The US was livid, but Russia in fact had little choice. The loss of its historic Sevastopol naval base in the southern Crimea, which it operated under a long-term lease with Kiev - an arrangement directly threatened by the change of government - would have closed off access to the Black Sea and might well have led to the unravelling of the Russian Federation’s entire southern tier. An Al Qa’eda-IS takeover in Damascus - a growing possibility as of mid-2015 - would have been even more catastrophic, not only for Russians facing their own Islamist insurgency in Chechnya, but for Americans and Europeans as well.
Then Trump rubbed even more salt into the wounds. Running on an isolationist platform, he dismissed the annexation of the Crimea as “Europe’s problem” in July 2015 and told CNN two months later that he did not care much about Syria either: “You know, Russia wants to get Isis, right? We want to get Isis. Russia is in Syria. Maybe we should let them do it.”3 Not in decades had a major presidential candidate broken ranks with established foreign policy so fundamentally, and certainly not in such a casual, dismissive way. Before long, Hillary Clinton was taunting Trump as Russia’s “puppet”, while liberal columnist Paul Krugman blasted him as a “Siberian candidate”. America had been stabbed in the back, and Trump was holding the dagger. The upshot has been something close to civil war, as Democrats vowed to combat a fifth-columnist threat from within.
Which brings us to Fiona Hill. The daughter of a County Durham coal miner, she studied history and Russian at St Andrews University, before journeying to the Soviet Union in 1987 as part of an academic exchange, and witnessing the signing of the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) treaty and a Moscow meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. From there, she went to Harvard to study for a PhD under Richard Pipes.
Pipes, of course, is the famous Sovietologist who headed up the CIA’s ultra-hawkish Team B in the mid-1970s. Aided by such neocon luminaries as Donald Rumsfeld, Albert Wohlstetter, Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Nitze, it argued that the Soviet Union was more powerful and aggressive than the foreign-policy establishment realised and that its goal was nothing less than to launch and win a nuclear war on its own. Where Team A - led by Henry Kissinger, among others - argued in favour of detente, Team B countered that such analysis was based on “mirror-imaging”: the fallacious belief that US and Soviet leaders were on the same wavelength, when it came to the horrors of nuclear war.4 But they were not, Pipes said. The Soviets were more ruthless than poor, innocent Americans could comprehend.
Hill carries the same lopsided logic forward into the 21st century. In a book-length study of Putin that she wrote in 2013, she notes how Boris Yeltsin’s team “ran a dirty campaign to keep their, by now, ailing and unpopular leader in the Kremlin” by winning re-election in 1996. But she makes no mention of America’s all-out effort on his behalf by arranging a $10.2-billion International Monetary Fund loan or by sending for a team of high-level political consultants to spend four months working clandestinely in Moscow to put him over the top. “We’ve got to go all the way in helping” Yeltsin win, Bill Clinton told deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott - and, even though Yeltsin’s approval ratings had been in the single digits just a few months earlier, the campaign bore fruit.5 But American meddling does not bear mentioning, since Russian interference is the only kind that counts.
Hill sounded a similar theme in her impeachment testimony, when asked about a 2017 Politico report that Ukrainian government officials interfered in 2016 by publicly questioning Trump’s fitness for office. She disseminated documents implicating a top campaign aide in corruption, and also helped Clinton allies dig up dirt of their own. Hill conceded that the reports were true.6 But “there was little evidence of a top-down effort by Ukraine,” she added, whereas Russian interference was “personally directed by Russian president Putin and involve[d] the country’s military and foreign intelligence services”. Ukrainians do not interfere either - at least not those at the highest levels. Once again, that is a Russian prerogative.
Needless to say, evidence of Russian meddling is much thinner than Hill acknowledges. As sceptics on both the right and left have argued, the narrative put forward by special prosecutor Robert Mueller is rife with contradictions. The Internet Research Agency (IRA) - the alleged St Petersburg troll farm whose Facebook efforts supposedly helped sway voters in Trump’s favour - purchased just $46,000 worth of ads prior to election day: a tiny fraction of the $81 million that Trump and Clinton spent on social media. The ads, moreover, could not have been more amateurish, with one depicting a buff Bernie Sanders in a Speedo bathing suit (presumably to win over gay voters) and another showing Jesus arm-wrestling with the devil (“Satan: If I win, Clinton wins”).7 It is hard to believe that anyone was swayed by such nonsense. Where Mueller said nothing about a Kremlin link when he indicted the agency in February 2018, his report asserts a year later that the group’s campaign “constituted ‘active measures’ - a term that typically refers to operations conducted by Russian security services”. Yet the only evidence it cites of a government connection is a New York Times article describing IRA owner Yevgeny Prigozhin as “Putin’s cook”, because the Russian president dined at a restaurant he owns on a number of occasions between 2001 and 2003.8
This is just one example among many.9 But the point is clear: Russian interference is hardly the slam-dunk Hill says it is. Indeed, with attorney general William Bar currently at work on his own investigation into Russiagate’s origins, the US may soon have two official reports, both “beyond dispute” as far as partisans are concerned, yet both likely saying very different things.
It’s Team A versus Team B all over again, with the GOP - believe it or not - arguing for a more realistic appraisal and the Democrats painting Russian actions in the worst possible light. Despite Team B’s dominance, the Reagan years did not lead to a war with the Soviet Union, although they did lead to a major arms build-up, not to mention vicious proxy wars in Afghanistan, central America and Africa. The big question now, therefore, is whether neo-Team B’s dominance thanks to people like Fiona Hill will lead to something worse.
It is hard to believe, if only because of the 4,000-plus nuclear warheads in Moscow’s possession. But Democrats will be under intense pressure to get tough if they capture the White House, and, given the degree to which they are prisoners of their own stab-in-the-back mythology, anything could happen. There are any number of theatres in which a direct conflict could break out - the Ukraine, the Middle East, even Venezuela. Impeachment as a new birth of democracy is a joke. Impeachment as a prelude to war is not.
. ‘A Ukrainian billionaire fought Russia. Now he’s ready to embrace it’: www.nytimes.com/2019/11/13/world/europe/ukraine-ihor-kolomoisky-russia.html.↩︎
. A transcript of Hill’s November 21 testimony is available at www.rev.com/blog/impeachment-hearing-day-5-transcript-fiona-hill-and-david-holmes-testimony.↩︎
. For Trump’s comments on the Crimea, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=haJeTeOuK4Q; for his remarks on Russian intervention in Syria, see ‘Donald Trump: let Russia fight the Islamic State in Syria’: www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/09/25/donald-trump-let-russia-fight-the-islamic-state-in-syria.↩︎
. R Pipes, ‘Team B: the reality behind the myth’ Commentary October 1986, p33.↩︎
. See S Talbott The Russia hand: a memoir of presidential diplomacy New York 2002, p195; ‘Rescuing Boris’ Time Magazine July 15 1996; and F Hill and CG Gaddy Mr Putin: operative in the Kremlin Washington 2013, p17.↩︎
. KP Vogel and D Stern, ‘Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump backfire’: www.politico.com/story/2017/01/ukraine-sabotage-trump-backfire-233446.↩︎
. S Shane, ‘These are the ads that Russia bought on Facebook in 2016’: www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/us/politics/russia-2016-election-facebook.html.↩︎
. N MacFarquhar, ‘Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian oligarch indicted by US, is known as “Putin’s Cook”’: www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/world/europe/prigozhin-russia-indictment-mueller.html?searchResultPosition=1.↩︎
. For a more detailed analysis, see my article, ‘Russiagate and what it says about America’ Weekly Worker August 16 2019.↩︎