In 2012, a small-time Libyan Salafist militia called Ansar Al-Sharia attacked American intelligence and diplomatic facilities in a city called Benghazi that most Americans had probably never heard of.
By the end of 2014 no less than ten investigations, six of which were conducted by Republican-controlled congressional committees, cleared all senior officials of the Obama administration including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of any wrongdoing worthy of note. None of this information dissuaded congressional Republicans from running a politically motivated (albeit a successful) smear campaign against the former First Lady. They correctly assumed that she would be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, and having the name of a once-obscure Libyan city, instantly associated with terrorist attacks on Americans be synonymous with her name certainly hurt her among low-information voters.
But remember, these attacks were random, by a small-time militia who were forced to dissolve themselves in 2017.
The Russian government, on the other hand, has been the foremost geopolitical rival of America since the end of World War Two. It is well-known and universally accepted that they interfered in the 2016 Presidential elections and are deliberately allying with and assisting anti-American regimes around the world, like Syria, Iran, and Venezuela specifically because they are belligerent to American hegemony.
And according to reporting from the New York Times, they have been putting hits on the heads of American soldiers. It is unclear from the reporting for how long this strategy has been pursued by the Kremlin and the GRU, but that specific timeline is largely beside the point. The timeline that matters is the one that involves how long the Trump administration and the NSC has known about this Russian ploy and done nothing to punish or counter it. And the answer is three months.
To return to Benghazi, the (albeit completely bad faith) criticism from congressional Republicans was that Clinton and the Obama administration writ large were supposed to anticipate an attack on American facilities by a ragtag gang LARPing as al-Qaeda. Now, high-ranking Republicans within the Trump administration have known for months that the main Russian military intelligence apparatus has been using Taliban-linked militants to put bounties on the heads of American soldiers and…. silence. No public retaliation against Russia for this affront, not even a statement of faux concern from Senator Susan Collins.
Beyond revealing the complete disregard for American military lives and stunningly abject hypocrisy, this story reveals the extent to which the Russians are wising up to the fact that American leadership is asleep at the wheel. To be clear — this is not a move that shows a hitherto unforeseen level of Russian strategic brilliance, it is merely a display of American decline at the hands of President Trump.
To return to the title of this piece, the easiest method of commentary during the Trump era is to take one of his various and sundry scandal and ask yourself how Republicans would have reacted had this blunder/controversy taken place under Obama. If Obama had known for months that Russia was putting hits on American soldiers using Taliban fighters, he would have been impeached. Lindsey Graham would have been on Sean Hannity’s show for a week straight, finding a new way to blow a gasket every night in outrage. But since it happened under Trump, the new personality cult-leader of the GOP, even the once-feistiest “Never-Trumpers” sit in neutered silence.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not come out in front of one false narrative likely to emerge from liberal commentators in the next few days. The “Russia is playing chess while America is playing checkers” take consistently employed by many within the American commentariat was always a foolish one. This story does not vindicate that view, as much as the progenitors of that theory will claim it does — the Kremlin remains as inept and clumsy as it has ever been, evidenced by the fact that we know of this plot.
This story merely reveals how Russia is playing checkers while American leadership is punch-drunk on foolhardy and dangerous “America-first” sloganeering, slumped over and asleep at the checkerboard or the wheel, whichever metaphor you prefer.
UPDATE: The intelligence that led to the original NYT report has been confirmed by the Washington Post.