Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election set off a classic Beltway frenzy. Democrats, on the hunt against President Donald Trump, led the way, echoed by neoconservatives, always eager to pump up the next crisis. This was an "act of war," the "equivalent" of Pearl Harbor, liberal Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., charged.
A "9/11 scale event, a "Pearl Harbor scale event" intoned New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "similar in terms of impact." If Russia's efforts were as successful as the indictment says, wrote the normally sensible Robert Kuttner, "it means Trump literally became president in a Russia-sponsored coup d'état."
Please. Bots are not bombs. Facebook ads are not the equivalent of planes flying into the World Trade Center. The casualties of Russian interference in our election are a far remove from the thousands lost during the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, or at Pearl Harbor. The efforts detailed in the indictment — $100,000 in Facebook ads, more than one-half of which was spent after the election plus some scantly attended rallies — do not constitute a coup d'état. With Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania vital to Trump's electoral college victory, a Senate hearing reported the total amount spent on Facebook targeting Wisconsin was "a mere $1,979; all but $54 was spent prior to the completion of the primary. … The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania was even smaller." According to the indictment, the supposedly sophisticated operation only learned in June 2016 that it should focus its activities "on purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida."
Of course, more may be disclosed later. Cyberspace is the new arena for election interference and disinformation that have been a deplorably routine and illegal clandestine activity of major powers. As all the fulminators know, the United States and Russia have interfered in elections abroad for years, both covertly and overtly. Steven Hall, the former CIA chief of Russian operations, told The New York Times, the United States has "absolutely" carried out such election influence operations historically "and I hope we keep doing it." A recent study totaled at least 81 elections in 45 countries that the United States had interfered with since World War II. As former National Security Agency and CIA director Michael V. Hayden said about the hack into the Democratic National Committee, "I have to admit my definition of what the Russians did is, unfortunately, honorable state espionage."
The hysteria derives from the bitter aftermath of Trump's stunning upset victory in 2016. So unexpected and narrow — Trump lost the popular vote but won the electoral college, with a total of 80,000 votes in three states making the difference — virtually anything can be blamed for the defeat, including the unimpressive level of Russian interference exposed thus far. But fewer than a dozen Facebook ads in Michigan and Wisconsin combined (the majority seen by fewer than 1,000 viewers) probably weren't determinative.
In reality, if Russian President Vladimir Putin signed off on the operation, he may have seen it as retribution for U.S. meddling in elections in Georgia, Ukraine and Russia. Mueller's indictment suggests the operation began in 2014, which coincides with the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of the thoroughly corrupt but democratically elected Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Putin, like Trump and everyone else, assumed that Hillary Clinton would win the election handily. That she lost made the Russian cybermeddling, as American Conservative editor Robert Merry wrote, citing Talleyrand, "worse than a crime, a blunder."
The blunder comes as U.S.-Russian relations have turned more perilous. The United States is sending arms to Ukraine to counter Russian-backed forces, something President Barack Obama wisely chose not to do. U.S.-led NATO forces are holding unprecedented exercises in the Balkans along the border with Russia. Allies and proxies of both countries are bombing each other in Syria. Recently, Russia admitted that U.S. forces had killed Russian contractors aiding Syrian government forces there. Russian fighters have been harassing U.S. jets and drones. Progress on nuclear disarmament has stalled. As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made explicit, the Trump administration has concluded, "great power competition, not terrorism is now the primary focus of U.S. national security." William Perry, the former secretary of defense, hardly a peacenik, warns that "the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was in the Cold War."
Finding a way back from the brink won't be easy, but less hysteria and more reason would be a useful first step. There are things we can do on our own. Clearly the Mueller investigation needs to continue. Bipartisan congressional legislation to protect our elections from foreign interference is needed. We could finally do what we failed to do after the 2000 presidential election and invest in our election infrastructure. Returning to paper ballots or, at the very least, machines with a paper-ballot record combined with mandatory audits would be a minimal first step. Social media companies should explore ways to reduce false-flag operations — Russian or otherwise. (We also should curb the greater threat to our elections: big money, much of it secret. As Thomas Frank noted, "every American plutocrat will soon be fielding his or her own perfectly legal troll army," with far greater sophistication than anything displayed by the Russians.)
Those who care about our democracy should be particularly wary of stoking a new Cold War. Worsening relations only feed the worst forces on both sides — militaries expand, the space for dissent closes, nationalist fervor rises, diplomacy is sidelined. Already, those daring to question the hyperbole around the Russian operation immediately face attacks as either Putin or Trump apologists. If we begin to equate, the historian Jackson Lears fears, "dissent from the Washington consensus with foreign subversion," it will only "reinforce the reigning orthodoxy and tighten the boundaries of permissible public discourse." The scandal has already erased any possibility for the Trump administration to try to engage Russia constructively. Yet we have real security concerns that require engagement with the Russians. Nuclear disarmament will be impossible without Moscow and Washington working together. Russia could play a key role in pressuring North Korea's regime to turn from its dangerous course. Agreement on cyber rules of the road will be vital to limit expanded interference in the future.
Resistance to Trump is essential, but it won't succeed if it is fixated on the last election. Russian meddling should be investigated, challenged and protected against. But with Trump outsourcing his national security policy to the generals and the neoconservatives, it is particularly perilous for Democrats to be fanning the flames rather than looking for ways to limit the fire.
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Washington Post.