How is it that so many Senators on both sides of the aisle, and media outlets ranging from liberal to conservative, seem so fixated on goading the Trump Administration into confrontation with Vladimir Putin and Russia…?

putinIt never fails to get a few chuckles and more than a few eye rolls whenever a worn-out comedian offers the well-worn question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Some laugh because of the arguable cleverness of a question that demands a simple yes or no response that indicts the responder regardless of how he responds. But most roll their eyes because it is an old and tiresome shtick that is more suitable to the political arena than to a classy nightclub act. It is, therefore, somehow reassuring to see this latest iteration of the “wife-beating question” being used recklessly to score political points. While not much of a punchline, it makes a riveting headline.

But before we become too entranced with the cleverness of the question, perhaps it is worth asking a few simple questions about that question. First, has it ever been asked before? It was not that long ago that former President George W. Bush assured us that he had seen into Mr. Putin’s soul and all was right with the world. No one raised any concern about Mr. Putin’s “killer instincts” directly with Mr. Bush. Even more recently, former President Obama and his sidekick former Secretary of State Clinton engaged in a “reset” with Putin and were broadly applauded in the mainstream media for their efforts. Again, no one bothered to ask Mr. Obama if he thought Mr. Putin a killer.

A second related question is this: Have other presidents been asked about other political leaders who might have been killers? Well, yes, provided they are known and sworn enemies: Fidel Castro, the various ayatollahs, Manuel Noriega, and so on. But has any president ever been asked this question about any other leader with whom the U.S. is striving to maintain a working relationship? The list of possible candidates is legion, but here are a few: Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-tung? Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran? Ronald Reagan and Ferdinand Marcos? Bill Clinton and any and all of the Saudis? The plain answer is no. Until now no one had dared to ask a sitting president whether the leader of a major country with whom we are not at war and with whom we are seeking to maintain cordial relations is a killer.

A third question and one that President Trump inartfully and undiplomatically touched upon in his recent interview on Fox: “Is there any government that has clean hands?”  This touches a raw nerve with most Americans because we all know that we strive to be better and that we generally work to improve human rights and advance freedom everywhere. But the operative word is “generally.” Sometimes even the staunchest of conservatives forget that one of the chief principles of conservative political theory is that government, by definition, is a necessary evil—with emphasis on the word evil. Government by its very nature is coercive and inclines toward excess and the abuse of power. The details documented by the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee) regarding extralegal activities by American intelligence operatives is sobering. We should not be surprised that it was not until 1976, by Executive Order 11905, signed by President Gerald Ford, that political assassination was explicitly banned.

But we don’t have to go that far back in history to see the absurdity of the question about world leaders being termed killers. The massacre of Syrian civilians is appalling, and understandably the U.S. and other nations keep working to prevent more death. But is this really a legitimate litmus test for whether Vladimir Putin is a killer? And by killer do we mean murderer or merely that there is some causal link between someone in power and the tragic deaths of many people? Have we already forgotten that there are those in Europe and elsewhere who continue in their efforts to bring Mr. Bush to court for the huge number of Iraqi civilian casualties that occurred in the wake of the 2003 invasion?

It would be morally repugnant to try to justify the wholesale slaughter of civilians anywhere, but it is wholesale foolishness to impugn guilt to any world leader who falls short of the grotesque standard set by Hitler, Stalin, and very few others. And even in such a case, we would risk much in our sometimes reckless headlong drive to show ourselves morally superior. Imagine if someone had asked FDR in 1941 if Joseph Stalin was a killer? We can be grateful that Roosevelt made the alliances necessary to defeat the greater danger to world civilization posed by the Nazis, and that he avoided the sanctimony trap that both Democrats and Republicans easily fall into these days. We can also be grateful that neither Rex Tillerson before the Senate nor President Trump in his Fox interview derailed any chance we might still have of forging a workable relationship with Russia.

A better question than “Is Putin a killer?” might be: “How is it that so many Senators on both sides of the aisle, and media outlets ranging from liberal to conservative, seem so fixated on goading the Trump Administration into confrontation with Russia?” Many of us disagree with Mr. Bush’s view that Mr. Putin is “trustworthy” and with President Trump’s apparent belief that there is some moral equivalency with the United States. But to keep pressing for a more belligerent, combative stance against Mr. Putin, especially when we have far greater threats such as a rising China and a resilient ISIS to contend against, seems needlessly provocative and reckless. The “Is Putin a Killer?” ploy is already passing away in the newsfeeds, but the underlying intent—to ensure continued confrontation with Russia—will manifest itself over and over again as the Trump Administration tries to restore some balance and perspective to that bilateral relationship.

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