The Other Way the Debate About Russian Hacking is Like the Debate About WMDs

Don't be distracted into debating the wrong things.


Todd Frantom

The debate about Russia's alleged hackscapades has a lot in common with the debate about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. That's not just because, as Scott Shackford pointed out today, in each case we've been asked to put our faith in government sources who may not deserve it. It's because both disputes focused relentlessly on the wrong things.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, I doubted those claims that Saddam Hussein had a secret stash of WMDs. But I also thought those weapons were beside the point. The more important question was whether Hussein was a threat to Americans, with or without weapons of mass destruction in his arsenal. Whatever ambitions he had were confined to his corner of the globe, so he didn't really have any reason to target us—except for Washington's sanctions and sabre-rattling. The focus on WMDs distracted from the deeper case against the war. Indeed, it led even some antiwar voices to speak as though those sanctions and sabre-rattling were appropriate. (Hence all the references to "containing" Saddam.)

Just as it was conceivable to me then that Saddam was lying about WMDs, I think it entirely possible now that Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee. That may not have been proven, but it's plausible—certainly more plausible than that rapidly-crumbling story that they hacked Vermont's electrical grid. Yet vast swaths of the center-left wing of the establishment seem to think this would mean Russia "installed" Donald Trump as president. (I'm quoting Paul Krugman, but he's hardly alone in using words like that.) Trump's lack of interest in investigating the question has led some pundits to start slinging around the term "treason." Meanwhile, in the news pages, headlines routinely describe the intrusion at the DNC as "election hacking," a habit that helps explain why half of Hillary Clinton's supporters believe that Moscow interfered with the actual vote count, according to a December YouGov poll.

Now, if Putin was working to help Trump become president—or even just to spread doubt about American electoral integrity—that's certainly worthy of note. But in terms of its actual impact, that would basically mean he was among the many forces spreading oppo over the course of the campaign. I'd be hard pressed to name a presidential election where various groups didn't publicize embarrassing information. Releasing the DNC emails wouldn't even be the most egregious way the Russians have messed with our information ecosystem. The Kremlin is known to spread actual disinformation, as in stories that aren't true. That seems more destructive than releasing authentic documents, but it doesn't have that spooky word "hacking" attached to it, so I guess it's harder to work people up into a fever about it.

Needless to say, it's hard to name a recent presidential campaign that didn't contain any disinformation either. Even here, Putin's electoral "interference" amounted to being one of the goons spraying signals into the ether.

So keep Putin in perspective. He's a repressive thug with nuclear weapons, but he's not a grand puppetmaster moving American voters like chess pieces. And keep your eye on the ball. Just as focusing on WMDs yielded too much ground to the argument for war, focusing on Russia's alleged election antics yields too much ground to Trumpism. We may be entering an ugly age of paranoid nationalism. If you want to fight that, you shouldn't put paranoid nationalism at the center of your critique of the new order.