Congress cracking down on Russia by, er ... easing sanctions?

Either confusion has spread wide in the reporting from Capitol Hill, or Congress has lost itself in its own version of eight-dimensional chess. Politico reports that legislators have been champing at the bit to punish Russia and Donald Trump for what Allahpundit calls The Stinky in Helsinki. They want to pressure Trump into taking more aggressive action to counter Vladimir Putin, but absent that they’ll take matters into their own hands:


Bipartisan momentum is building in the Senate to crack down on Russia, even as President Donald Trump prepares to bring Vladimir Putin to Washington.

It’s a remarkable split-screen moment, with lawmakers pressing not only for new penalties against the Kremlin but for Trump to use more of the sanctions power Congress overwhelmingly approved one year ago. The effort is still something of a long shot — Trump himself fumed over the sanctions measure he signed into law and might resist — but the possibility of a follow-up Russia sanctions package remains very much alive despite the intense partisan pressure ahead of November’s midterms.

That’s largely because of Trump’s jaw-dropping performance in Helsinki next to the Russian president, which will be a major focus of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

“I understand why members would want to respond to what happened in Helsinki, and I think there’s concerns about just where the administration is with Russia,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who left the door open to possible new sanctions legislation in an interview with reporters.

So Congress is about to pass tough legislation imposing new penalties on Russia, right? Er, not so fast, reports the Washington Post. Rather than pressuring Trump to get tougher on Russia, Trump has succeeded in pressuring Congress to back off:

Bowing to pressure from the Trump administration, lawmakers unveiled a sweeping defense policy bill Tuesday that would give the president greater power to forgo certain Russia-related penalties.

The move to scale back sanctions stands in sharp contrast to mounting bipartisan fervor in the Senate to get tougher on Russia after a summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin that was roundly decried as an embarrassment and a missed opportunity to deal harshly with the Kremlin over election interference. …

In negotiations on the annual defense authorization bill, House and Senate lawmakers agreed to give the president the power to waive sanctions, without first checking with Congress, against certain entities that still do business with Russia. The move came in response to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s request for more latitude to bring countries, such as India, that historically have been dependent on Russian defensive materials in closer alliance with the United States.


Wait, what? Did no one tell Bob Corker about this development? Actually, he’s the first person quoted in the Post report:

Leading Republicans hailed the move as “necessary . . . to wean them off Russia and build them onto U.S.-made products,” in the words of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who co-authored the original sanctions legislation.

It’s Corker v Corker on sanctions, apparently. This demonstrates the complexity of foreign policy and international trade, but also the failure of media outlets to communicate those nuances. That’s not entirely the media’s fault either, because politicians of both parties have stripped all nuance and historical context from the acute issues with Russia, making it almost impossible to craft a wise and effective policy from either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Every sanction no matter how well-designed isn’t enough; every attempt to adjust them is seen as a sign of weakness, no matter how it might benefit our overall position; engagement becomes “treason” regardless of how substantive it might be.

Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia, laments the absence of a “coherent grand strategy” in dealing with the threat from Moscow:

There is nothing wrong with simultaneously using both engagement and containment means for pursuing U.S. foreign policy objectives with respect to Russia. During the Cold War, American and Soviet leaders met at summits even when the consensus, bipartisan grand strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union was containment. But Trump’s approach to engagement, at least as practiced in Helsinki, was different from the Cold War encounters in two important ways. First, no American president during the Cold War lavished praise on his Soviet counterparts as being great or strong leaders. That came after the end of the Cold War.

Second, previous American presidents both during and after the Cold War used summits to pursue concrete U.S. foreign policy objectives, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. In Helsinki, the goals of engagement were not clear, and no concrete deliverables were produced as a result of the meeting. Even the agenda moving forward was vague. The only concrete productive proposal hinted at by Putin was a suggestion to negotiate an extension to the New START treaty. …

Finally, the absence of a coherent, unified grand strategy for dealing with Russia makes it difficult to forge bipartisan support at home or allied support abroad. The beauty of the elastic term “containment” during the Cold War was that U.S. presidents and their partisan opponents outside of government could at least agree on the basic strategy, even when arguing over some of the concrete policy issues. What is striking today, especially after the Helsinki summit, is how little support Trump has generated for his Russia policy even within his own party, let alone among Democrats or allies.

To be effective over the long run in containing Putin’s Russia, the United States needs unity at home and support from allies abroad. A necessary step for advancing this united front is agreement on the basic tenets of the strategy. Conceptual work for devising such a grand strategy needs to be done now more than ever, especially in the wake of the Helsinki summit, even if the product of such strategizing might become usable only after the Trump administration.


McFaul misses one vital element out of this mix, which is the role naked partisanship has played in this incoherence. Six years ago, Democrats scoffed at the idea that Russia needed containing at all, with McFaul’s boss Barack Obama ridiculing Mitt Romney for suggesting that Russia was a geopolitical foe. The Obama administration never had a “coherent grand strategy” on containing Russia or preventing their intelligence operations in the US, and passed up several opportunities to create one until the autumn of 2016. Only after losing the election have Democrats switched from reset buttons to Red Scares. Republicans, on the other hand, have found it very convenient to go from Russia critics to engagement fans as a means of defending Trump, going from Red Scares to reset buttons.

It’s all incoherent, and the leadership of both parties have indulged so much in short-term thinking that coherence isn’t on the horizon. It may not even be in the Beltway universe. We might need a reset button for all of the institutions in Washington before coherence makes a comeback.

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