Wisdom on Trump-Russia From an FBI Asset

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Stefan Halper, now confirmed as the intelligence asset apparently used to tease out possible ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia, probably wouldn’t approve of the politicized behemoth the Trump-Russia investigation has become. Some of his academic work was about similar episodes in U.S. history, in which what he called the “rational center” failed and big, simple but wrong-headed ideas prevailed.

The world knows Halper now as a person the Federal Bureau of Investigation had covertly tasked with contacting Trump advisers, apparently to sound them out on Russia connections. But before the current controversy, which has Republicans and Democrats debating the legitimacy of his mission and the implications of its belated disclosure, Halper, a politics professor who had worked for several Republican administrations, was largely known as a critic of recent U.S. foreign policy. An early supporter of President George W. Bush, he was disappointed by the decision to send troops to Iraq. Later, he was on record warning against the illusion, popular during the Obama years, that China was democratizing as its economic prosperity grew. China, Halper argued, instead presented a variation on the authoritarian model that could successfully compete with U.S. values and worldview.

It’s no surprise that he got involved in an effort to foil a putative Russian operation to co-opt a U.S. presidential candidate. Back in 2010, in “The Beijing Consensus,”  a book published as the Obama administration attempted to “reset” its relationship with Russia, Halper expressed a deep skepticism about the U.S.-Russia relationship that is far more widespread today. 

“International competition between the United States, Russia, China, Europe, India and Iran raises new threats of regional conflict,” Halper wrote. “While communism is dead, a new contest between Western liberalism and the great Eastern autocracies of Russia and China has reinjected ideology into geopolitics.” Halper’s  suggestion was to give up dreams of “housebreaking” Russia, minimize deliberate challenges to Russian interests and, if anything, engage in a deal-based relationship – a realist platform that wasn’t popular with U.S. neoconservatives or with the Obama administration, which saw itself as a defender of liberal values.

Halper consciously made his arguments as a member of a centrist elite, an expert community that has, through most of U.S. post-World War II history, asserted its right to determine the nation’s foreign policy by virtue of knowing more than anybody else about the subject matter. In a 2007 book he co-wrote with Jonathan Clarke, “The Silence of the Rational Center,” Halper ruthlessly analyzed three episodes that, according to him, broke with that paradigm. He called them “institutional failures”:

Three times since World War II, Big Ideas have seized the political discourse and driven policy experts to the sidelines: during the Red Scare of the early Cold War; during the entry to the Vietnam War, with its talk off democracy and dominos; and at the onset of the Iraq War. Each time, framing concepts rooted in Big Ideas turned complex foreign policy challenges into undifferentiated, apocalyptic threats to the nation’s very existence. Professionals and area experts were excluded from the debate if they diverged from the patriotic consensus, and the mainstream institutions and publications that could have opposed the rush to simplification were either silent or instead provided an echo chamber for the dominant narrative.

“Simplification,” in Halper’s view (or really, oversimplification), was the populist magic behind all three episodes in U.S. policymaking when ideology trumped expertise. Joseph McCarthy’s Russia scare, the idea that Communist gains in Vietnam would lead to the spread of Communist ideology to other countries and the painting of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a source of a major terrorist threat all shared this feature. 

The irony of Halper’s involvement in what Republicans paint as an attempt to entrap Trump campaign officials and Democrats defend as a legitimate counterintelligence operation to thwart a hostile power is that the Trump-Russia scandal born of this operation could be added to “The Silence of the Rational Center” as a fourth institutional failure.

As in the three episodes described in the book, U.S. policy is driven by the portrayal of a simplistic, near-existential threat that comes from an entity named “Russia” or, synonymously, “Putin.” That many establishment media outlets and a large part of the expert community now serve as an echo chamber for this narrative because of a “patriotic consensus” also makes Halper’s analysis applicable to the current episode of politicized fever.

It is unclear at this point what Halper’s work for the FBI accomplished or uncovered. The fruit of that work is kept secret by the investigators. Thanks to the dearth of firm facts, all things Russian are toxic, and even minor deals are out of reach.

Halper hasn’t commented on his involvement with the Trump-Russia investigation. In “The Silence of the Rational Center,” however, he and Clarke have some sound advice on how the U.S. might eventually leave this episode behind as it did the others. “Don’t pivot policy or the nation’s security around intelligence,” they wrote. “This is simply another way of guaranteeing further nightmares.”

As a long-time U.S. intelligence collaborator, Halper knew what he was talking about. Reading his academic work would be more help in regaining a sane perspective than arguing about his intelligence role in 2016.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.