"What we have here is a failure to communicate."
(Cool Hand Luke)
Several years ago a Russian friend invited me to lunch at an elegant restaurant a couple of blocks from the White House. My friend pointed to a brass plaque on the wall of our booth. The plaque indicated that at this very location on October 26, 1962, ABC news reporter John Scali met with Alexander Fomin, the KGB station chief in Washington. Fomin told Scali that the Russians were open to a diplomatic solution to the Cuban missile crisis. Fomin asked Scali to deliver this message to Scali's contacts in the State Department, which he did.
Thus began the negotiations that brought the United States and the Soviet Union back from the brink of nuclear war. The deal? The Soviet Union agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, in exchange for the American pledge never to invade Cuba and eventually to remove missiles from Turkey.
Suppose the conditions of today were in place in October 1962. Might not Scali have said to Fomin, "I can't do that. What you're asking would be a violation of the Logan act." If Scali had so replied, then we might not be here today discussing this event of 55 years ago.But now, the simple act of "talking to the Russians" appears to be a disqualification for high office. This act, and the lying about it that followed, cost Michael Flynn his job as National Security Advisor. The same offense may yet oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The very idea of "talking to the Russians" has become so toxic in today's politics and media, that a cabinet nominee would rather risk perjury than admit to meeting a Russian diplomat face-to-face.
(Personal disclosure: In the nineties I traveled to Russia seven times, presenting papers at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and several Russian universities. Today I remain in contact with many Russian friends and colleagues. Question: Where do I go to turn myself in?)Why didn't Flynn, Sessions and others simply say, straight out: "of course I talked to the Russians. Isn't it to our advantage to learn what the Russians are thinking and, conversely, for the Russians to find out where we stand?" As Winston Churchill once said, "better jaw, jaw, than war, war."
Of course, there are legitimate limits to what an American official should say to a hostile foreign government. Classified information is clearly out of bounds. Also private business deals facilitated by the advantages of public office. (Cf. the emoluments clause of the Constitution). And, to be sure, collaborative efforts with a foreign power to influence elections must forbidden and, if discovered, punished.
However, other communication should be encouraged. This would include scientific information and research, cultural and educational exchanges, collaborative business enterprises, open access to international media, and unrestricted travel by ordinary citizens.
In fact, discussions between politicians, both in and out office of are not only acceptable, they are routine. Several Presidents-Elect and their staffs have met with leaders of rival countries, Russia included, and no one raised a ruckus about it. Why now?
Jack Matlock, the final US Ambassador to the Soviet Union(1987-1991), emphatically agrees:
Our press seems to be in a feeding frenzy regarding contacts that President Trump's supporters had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and with other Russian diplomats. The assumption seems to be that there was something sinister about these contacts, just because they were with Russian diplomats. As one who spent a 35-year diplomatic career working to open up the Soviet Union and to make communication between our diplomats and ordinary citizens a normal practice, I find the attitude of much of our political establishment and of some of our once respected media outlets quite incomprehensible. What in the world is wrong with consulting a foreign embassy about ways to improve relations? Anyone who aspires to advise an American president should do just that. . .
In fact, I would say that any person who presumes to advise an incoming president on vital policy issues needs to understand the approach of the country in question and therefore is remiss if he or she does not consult with the embassy in question. . . I have been taught that in a democracy with the rule of law, the accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence until convicted. But we have leaks that imply that any conversation with a Russian embassy official is suspect. That is the attitude of a police state. /
He is correct, of course. So why the brouhaha over these "nefarious" "Russian contacts"?
My best guess is that (a) the media loves a good, ongoing "spy story" -- great for profits, and (b) the Democrats have adopted a demonization of Vladimir Putin and Russia as a convenient crow-bar with which to pummel Donald Trump and perchance pry him from his office. Damage to Trump is their main objective. A resumption of the Cold War and the risk of nuclear war is "collateral damage." The attack mob includes such otherwise admirable individuals as Michael Moore, Paul Krugman, Keith Olberman, John Oliver and Bill Maher.
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