WASHINGTON — How clever are these Russians! We now learn that they placed at least 3,000 ads on Facebook to confuse and divide the American people, that they connived at a “photo” of Hillary Clinton in a prisoner’s striped uniform (imprisoned in a cage, no less!) and that they placed Russians to live in American society as “Americans” to disrupt our comity firsthand.
This and much worse we now know from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment of 13 Russians accused of attempting to “sow discord in the U.S. political system.” Yes, that much we know — although our president still does not seem to know it.
But there is something else going on in this dark world of “noir diplomacy.” We are rather taking it for granted that those Russian trolls — which, I recently discovered, is the word for those who sow discord on the internet inside another country — should know us so well. We should not!
For underlying this scandal of Russian influence on the American political system is the question of why they and many other peoples know us too-too well, while we seem to know them all too-too little.
When I went to Latin America as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News many years ago, one of the first things that struck me was that the Latins seemed to study us night and day. They were obsessed with us. They insulted us so much — we were unregenerate gringos and yanquis and other unmentionables — that you had to know we were important in their lives. In fact, too important.
That same obsessive spirit is true today in faraway Russia. Average Russians have little real understanding of the true nature of the American system, but they’re unimportant. We are talking here about Vladimir Putin’s upper-echelon oligarchs like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the “czar’s right-hand,” and Russian students of social media and sociology (probably 80 in all) at Putin’s Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, whose $1.25 million monthly budget funds programs designed explicitly to destroy Americans’ faith in their system.
Before Mueller and his merry band of counter-trolls, we could say we didn’t know; now we do. And so now we must ask: Are we going to let the weaknesses Putin and the czar’s right-hand have exploited so well — like the inability of American congressmen to work together on just about anything — prevent us from dealing with the Russians’ dangerous meddling?
Facebook says it is doing all sorts of things to make up for allowing the Russians to play them for fools. We’ll see. In Congress, money allocated for anti-Russian intervention in American elections has so far not been used for anything.
And American citizens: Do they care?
If they do, they surely are not showing it. Where could they start? Well, by not wasting their time watching too much cable news, by demanding the truth about those Russian ads, and by supporting newspapers. Newspapers are the only place you will find the truth about your friends, and especially about your enemies.
More ideas: Proselytize for more Voice of America (VOA) news programs to Russia like the ones that unquestionably were consequential in destroying the Soviet Union (these programs are all but dead today). Resuscitate the U.S. Information Service, which President Clinton wantonly destroyed. And realize that societies do not abruptly change unless defeated by war; programs like the VOA need to be permanent, expected and consistently excellent.
Finally, tell your congressmen to get off their ... errr ... bums. And do it in whatever language you please!
I think we congratulate Moscow too much with our seemingly helpless reactions to them. For in truth, while it is easy for the Russians to know about us because we are an open society, it’s not really impossible for US to know THEM, either.
The one time a brilliant and workable analysis of another society was made from our side was in 1944, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur, knowing he was going to be tapped to be the “substitute emperor” in Japan after the war, started preparing himself. He helped form a group, largely of anthropologists, in the Pentagon and, once in Tokyo, did exactly as they advised with respect to his behavior in Japanese culture. It was an enormous American success that still inspires the world.
Why do we not have such a group in the Pentagon today? In the State Department? In the White House? Wherever? Why do we not go all-out to create and listen to our Machiavellis, Sun Tzus or even MacArthurs?
As the Russians keep trolling, we should start rolling.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)