VLADIMIR PUTIN marked his state-of-the-nation address on March 1st by announcing the development of a new, unstoppable nuclear missile that NATO has apparently nicknamed “Satan 2”. People who know about rocketry think this technology may be either unfeasible or not very useful, but that is beside the point. The jumbo-nuke is intended as a statement and, given that Russia is already in breach of arms control treaties that held good even through the cold war, it is not the sort of statement that can be shrugged off as merely the deluded ramblings of an ageing strongman. What, then, was the response of the president of America to this apparent threat? Donald Trump found time to tweet about plenty of other things on the day Mr Putin made his announcement. He had nothing to say about super-sized rockets. If this were another president, it might be possible to dress up his silence as strategic patience, or some other grand synonym for doing nothing. Yet neither strategy nor patience are words that come to mind when thinking about the 45th president.
This omission is the latest in a long line stretching back to 2016 and beyond. Last week Mike Rogers, who is in charge of Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, told Congess that he did not have the president’s go-ahead to disrupt Russian attempts at election hacking. “Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough,” he said. When Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals in February for trying to influence the outcome of the presidential election, the White House issued a statement that did not come close to condemnation (“it is more important than ever to come together as Americans”). The Republican Party trusts the president so little on Russia policy that its members in Congress voted to take sanctions out of the White House’s hands. Mr Trump fired James Comey and toyed with firing Mr Mueller. And then there is the oddly laudatory tone which the president adopts when speaking about his Russian counterpart.
Taking these things together, it is sensible to ask why Mr Trump behaves so guiltily if he has nothing to hide. And it is highly tempting to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with supposition. The headline of a recent column by Tom Friedman in the New York Times—”Whatever Donald Trump is hiding on Russia, it’s hurting all of us now”—captures this line of thinking, which is common among even the president’s more level-headed opponents. It is seductive but, in your blogger’s view, wrong. And it is wrong in a way that is reminiscent of a previous large-scale failure of imagination on the part of right-thinking people.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, Saddam Hussein played a game of cat-and-mouse with UN weapons inspectors. The governments of America and Britain believed, on the basis of intelligence that turned out to be thin, that Saddam’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that were banned by international treaties. The Iraqi dictator’s refusal to allow Hans Blix and co. to roam around Iraq looking for WMD seemed to confirm this. Why would Saddam risk war with much more powerful armies over chemical and biological weapons that he did not actually have? It made no sense. Occam’s razor suggested that the obvious explanation was the right one: Saddam had WMD and was refusing to give them up.
The result of that logical leap is still with us now. Occam’s razor slipped, right by the jugular vein, costing the lives of more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 4,000 American troops. The Iraq war is also one reason why the West is now exhausted and short of confidence when faced with populists who say that its elites don’t know what they are doing.
Those who argued that Saddam must have WMD because his behaviour was so obviously that of a guilty person made an error of empathy, rather than of logic. They asked themselves one question: if I were the ruler of Iraq and I possessed no banned weapons, would I welcome UN inspectors in? They answered: yes of course. They should have asked another: if I were a violent dictator with my own personality cult, but who possessed no banned weapons, would I welcome UN inspectors in? It is easier to see how the answer to that question could be no.
Now back to Mr Trump. The right question to ask is not: if I were a president and I had a compromising secret involving Russia that I wanted to keep, would I fire Mr Mueller? It is: if I were Mr Trump, how would I behave? Asked that way, many other motivations for his otherwise inexplicable behaviour present themselves: pique, frustration, annoyance, arrogance, a sense of injustice, a desire to finally build that elusive tower in Moscow at some future date.
Your blogger’s contention is not that we should ignore the possibility that Mr Trump and his presidency are compromised in some way we are yet to discover. Plenty of people think that is the case. After all, here is a man whose campaign paid a porn star to keep quiet about the affair she says they had while he was married to the now First Lady. It is not a stretch to think that the Russian secret services, who try to collect kompromat on almost anyone, would have tried it with Mr Trump when he was in town. But we do not know yet, and that anyone who suggests otherwise is stretching the available facts beyond their breaking strain.
To say this is journalistically unsatisfying and psychologically unappealing. The most enjoyable op-ed to read is the most strident one. We are all attracted to people who seem more certain about things than we are ourselves. Yet we also know that wisdom consists in doubting. This is not to excuse the president’s Russian omissions, which show that he has repeatedly failed to act in the national interest, and which ought to be enough to condemn him. It is to remember past mistakes and to try to make different ones next time.