Putin or Trump: Who to Believe?

With Neal Gorsuch just confirmed to the Supreme Court and a Republican president launching missiles against a Middle Eastern country, today is not a comforting day to be a liberal.  Our Bush Era PTSD has been reactivated in a big way. While I offered a limited and cautious and conditional defense of President Trump’s decision to authorize the strikes against Syria, I was at pains to note that it’s very important that the administration provide convincing evidence that the Assad regime is responsible for the sarin attack that served as the predicate for the missile launch.

Predictably, the Kremlin is insisting that the rebels were the ones in possession of the sarin. One side is right, and the other side is lying. How do we decide which side is which? How does the world decide?

To begin with, let’s look at what the Kremlin is saying:

Syria has denied that it possesses chemical weapons, and Russia held to its view that Mr. Assad had not bombed his own people…

…[Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin] said that the cruise missile strikes on Friday represented a “significant blow” to American-Russian ties, and that Mr. Putin considered the attack a breach of international law that had been made under a false pretext. “The Syrian Army has no chemical weapons at its disposal,” Mr. Peskov said…

…General Konashenkov also repeated the Russian assertion that all chemical weapons had been removed from Syrian government stockpiles, and he called on the United States to present evidence that Damascus had used them.

Mr. Peskov said that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had declared Syria to be free of chemical weapons, although that is not quite true…

…Mr. Peskov said that the United States had launched its attack to distract attention from the high number of civilian casualties caused by a recent American airstrike in Mosul, Iraq.

Separately, the Russian Defense Ministry and other officials said the American mission was too complicated to have been set up in a few days, meaning that Washington must have planned it long ago and claimed a fake chemical weapons attack as a pretext.

There will be no shortage of people on the left who are predisposed to believe what the Russians are arguing. The Iranians and the Syrians are making similar arguments. And maybe they are correct. The problem is that Russia’s propaganda network has been exposed as people have examined their role in influencing the American presidential election. I mentioned this network in my Matt Taibbi piece and I referred you to an important New York Times Magazine article written by Adrian Chen in June of 2015. Mr. Chen went searching for how hoaxes goes viral on the internet and wound up in St. Petersburg.

Who was behind all of this [fake news]? When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency. The agency had become known for employing hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a “troll farm.” The more I investigated this group, the more links I discovered between it and the hoaxes.

You’ll want to read that whole article, but the reason I mention it today is because it demonstrates the sophistication and resources that are committed to Russia’s efforts to shape public opinion. They know who to target if they want to find an audience predisposed to amplify their foreign policy positions. Before you know it, a bunch of liberals are calling every Ukrainian patriot a Nazi sympathizer and explaining that Victoria Nuland is responsible for the annexation of Crimea.

It isn’t hard to find antiwar left skeptics of American claims about weapons of mass destruction, so why not feed that doubt and use it to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s decision to strike this airbase?

On the other hand, it wouldn’t be so easy to do this if we didn’t have that video of Colin Powell making a ridiculous case for war in Iraq at the United Nations in 2003. And, in particular, it wouldn’t be so easy if Donald Trump didn’t have a record of lying virtually every time he opens his mouth.

Asking a liberal to take Donald Trump’s pronouncements at face value is a perfect example of the Boy Who Cried Wolf fable. When you lie and lie and lie and lie and lie, then when it matters you will not be believed.

And perhaps Trump is lying now, or has been deceived. Who can say?

There has always been propaganda flying back and forth in the world of international politics and diplomacy, but we’re at an extreme point right now where neither side has the credibility of a five year old standing above a broken cookie jar.

President Obama had credibility. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have none.

I will say, in this case, it matters to me to see the leaders of Australia, the U.K., France and Germany are backing up what Trump says. I don’t trust Trump, but I do have some trust in something that Western leaders are united on. Remember, France and Germany were not convinced by Colin Powell’s WMD presentation (at least to the extent that it justified an immediate invasion), and that was telling at that time. In this case, they are speaking with one voice.

There’s more to debate about Trump’s strike in Syria than whether it was based on accurate intelligence, but we need to work very hard to convince the world we have the evidence since Putin’s propaganda efforts are extremely effective and our own president isn’t even believed when talking about crowd sizes.

Personally, Trump’s lack of credibility in a situation like this is serious enough to warrant removal from office on these grounds alone. Call it a high misdemeanor, for crimes against the truth.

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