by Glenn Harlan Reynolds
September 1, 2016
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The Democrats mocked the GOP four years ago for having a Cold War foreign policy. Now it doesn't seem so funny.
Think of it as Mitt Romney’s revenge. When Romney suggested, back during the 2012 election, that Russia was the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, Barack Obama mocked him with a line lifted from Seinfeld, saying “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Well, you wouldn’t know that to listen to Democrats talking today. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been issuing dark warnings of Russian election-tampering. In a letter sent to FBI Director James Comey, Reid warned that the threat of Russian election-tampering is more serious than generally appreciated (it’s like he’s been reading my columns on the subject or something!) and “may include the intent to falsify official election results.”
He’s not wrong. It’s probably too late to move to paper ballots this cycle, but we need to do something about the vulnerability of voting and vote-counting systems to hackers. A foreign hacker wouldn’t need to hack everything — just enough systems in key states or precincts to throw the outcome of an election in doubt, resulting in chaos. (Putin may or may not prefer Trump to Hillary, but he’d probably prefer chaos in American politics to either). We also probably need a plan for what to do if that happens. But Reid’s dark warnings are a poor fit with Obama’s snide mockery just four years ago.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank is worried about a Putin-sponsored "October Surprise” that might swing the election: A dump of emails, or some other sort of leak or hack that might include genuine documents, or possibly fakes:
Perhaps they’ll show that the Clinton Foundation has been funding the Islamic State, or they’ll have Hillary Clinton admitting that she didn’t care about those Americans who died in Benghazi after all. Maybe they’ll show that she really did lose most of her brain function in that fall several years ago and is now relying on Anthony Weiner to make all of her decisions.
Russian “dezinformatsiya” campaigns such as this go back to the Cold War; the Soviet portrayal of AIDS as a CIA plot was a classic case. But this type of cyberwar — email hacking and, now, the altering and release of the stolen documents — is a novel escalation. It’s tempting to wonder how differently the Cold War might have gone had there been cyber-hackers back then.
Of course, it’s not as if there isn’t plenty of bad stuff about Hillary that’s true. So though Milbank may worry — or want you to worry — that any October Surprises about Hillary are just Russian disinformation, she’s vulnerable to this because she violated email security rules in order to bypass the Freedom of Information Act and avoid political scrutiny, and she wanted to avoid scrutiny because she was doing things that couldn’t withstand scrutiny.
And this Russian stuff is a problem in no small part because President Obama — consistent with his Romney-mocking in 2012 — failed to fight Putin’s growing propaganda-and-hacking apparatus over the past several years. This was a mistake, because although the Cold War is over, Russia has always played a major part in Great Power politics around the world, and even though it’s no longer the Soviet Union, it remains — or, at least, aspires to remain — a Great Power. That means that Putin (and probably any other Russian leader) will probe for, and exploit, any vulnerabilities that are offered, whether they’re electronic, economic, or diplomatic.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign is trying to tie Trump to Putin. Back when it was Republicans tying Democrats and Communists to Russia, this was called “McCarthyism.” (Though, in fact, there was nothing imaginary about the presence of Russian agents in America). But now Hillary is suggesting that Trump has ties to Putin — which he does — while ignoring the fact that her own close confidants John and Tony Podesta have close ties themselves, as the Panama Papers revealed.
A healthier political system would have electoral mechanisms that weren’t vulnerable to foreign powers. A healthier political system would choose nominees that don’t have close ties to a foreign power, not to mention — at least in Hillary’s case — potential blackmail problems due to lax email security. It might even choose someone who recognizes that Russia is a serious geopolitical threat, and wants to take appropriate steps to deal with it.
But in the political system that we have, electoral security is a joke, a serious nominee was mocked with a Seinfeld line, and most of the media, and the electorate, thought that was just fine. Now even Democrats are beginning to worry about the consequences.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.