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Red Herring

Andrew Cockburn’s article was entertaining in a creaky, retro kind of way [“The New Red Scare,” Letter from Washington, December]. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Vladimir Putin’s regime is filled with KGB siloviki who murder journalists and political opponents, invade neighboring countries, interfere in Western elections, and routinely threaten other nations with nuclear annihilation. The siloviki fear democracy, human rights, and other ideas that jeopardize the regime. Misinterpreting American hubris for coherent policy, they believe that the United States has a grand strategy for world domination, which includes the destruction of Russia. Cockburn ignores all that. Instead, he relies on technological mumbo jumbo to dismiss the threat of Russian hostility, quoting a source as saying that “it’s almost impossible to confirm attribution in cyberspace.” Almost impossible, yes, if your understanding of espionage comes from spy novels.

Why would the Obama Administration, timid and legalistic as it was, make up fictions about Russia? There was no need. Russia may be a revanchist basket case, but the country is exceptionally skilled at cybersabotage. Since Putin assumed power, he has worked to find tools and tactics that can compensate for his country’s military weakness. Under his doctrine of New Generation Warfare, Russia has sought to weaken opponents and reshape Western opinion in the battle for “information space,” using online trolls, bribery, and hacking, as well as the government-controlled news network, Russia Today. Analysts in the intelligence industry call this hybrid warfare — a blend of covert action, propaganda, and technology — intended to circumvent a lumbering United States.

Many politicians and journalists don’t want to accept that Putin is innately hostile and determined to fight us online. Instead, Cockburn and others argue that we are facing a new Red Scare — that the threat of Russian antagonism has been inflated to justify spending on F-35 fighter planes. This is nonsense. We should reject conspiracy theories and work to develop new strategies for a new kind of conflict.

James Lewis
Center for Strategic and International Studies

Cockburn is right that American intelligence agencies have, at times, deliberately overstated the threat Russia poses to the national security and democratic institutions of the United States. What he calls the “art of threat inflation” has created a dangerous Russophobia within the American political system that could cause a military miscalculation or, worse, a full-blown war. Just because we don’t want to exaggerate the threat, however, doesn’t mean we should ignore it altogether. We should be very clear that Putin is trying to “erode the principled international order,” and that tanks and missiles are not his main weapons in this fight.

Putin has already demonstrated his ability to cripple the liberal-democratic project. Under his leadership, Russia has strengthened authoritarian regimes, supported nationalist movements in Europe, and launched a sophisticated war of information, which includes global surveillance, counter-communications, and media manipulation. It’s true that the Kremlin’s involvement in the recent cyberattacks against the D.N.C. will be impossible to prove, but we know that Russian hackers have perpetrated similar attacks before, and they fit with what we know of Moscow’s cyberwarfare strategy.

I worry that this threat, though real, has been misunderstood. Some in the intelligence community claim that Russia cannot be trusted because its policies escape any rational interpretation; they imagine that Putin’s muscular foreign policy is designed to relaunch the Cold War. Such thinking is counterproductive. As of now, Russia is a normal state driven by practical considerations and clamoring for the world to respect its values and interests, especially in Eurasia. But that could change. I fear that Russophobia in the United States may push Putin to embrace an explicitly anti-Western ideology. If that happens, we will have created a real Red Scare.

Mariya Y. Omelicheva
Department of Political Science, University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kan.

Birth Patrol

Kiera Feldman’s portrait of Ashley shows the real-world consequences of antichoice legislation [“With Child,” Letter from South Dakota, December]. As Feldman notes, the catalyst for such legislation was the Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), which upheld the right to abortion but permitted states to pass laws — within limits — in the interest of “fetal life.”

Relying on that ruling, South Dakota and other states have created a gauntlet of harmful restrictions going far beyond what the Court meant to allow. Women are now required to visit crisis pregnancy centers run by antichoice activists with no medical training, to listen to biased scripts about gestational development, and to wait several days for the procedure in order to “reflect” on their decision. Measures like these would seem bizarre and inappropriate in any other medical context, yet legislators keep trying to stretch the law beyond its current boundaries and are hoping the courts will follow their lead.

Last June, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which pushed back against another type of abortion restriction: laws that purport to protect women’s health but instead force safe, high-quality clinics to close. Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, declared such laws unconstitutional because they far exceed any kind of legitimate health regulation while burdening women who are trying to exercise their constitutional rights. In Whole Woman’s Health, the Court demonstrated its willingness to prevent states from enacting regulations that are too restrictive. Feldman’s article makes clear what that means for millions of women who could otherwise be denied access to abortion.

Erica Smock
Director of Judicial Strategy, Center for Reproductive Rights
New York City

Ashley’s story is not unique to South Dakota. In Texas, for example, the number of reproductive-aged women living more than 100 miles from an in-state abortion clinic more than doubled — from about 400,000 to more than 1 million — when a restrictive abortion law known as H.B. 2 was passed, in 2013. As part of my research with the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, I interviewed women like Ashley, who had been left with few options when their nearest clinic closed. Traveling to a more distant clinic required both time and money, so women were forced to delay the procedure — sometimes into the second trimester — or to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Many journalists have observed that the total number of abortions performed in Texas declined after the passage of H.B. 2, but it’s also true that the number of second-trimester procedures actually increased.

As an obstetrician-gynecologist, I know that unplanned pregnancies are part of life. About a third of American women choose to have an abortion at some point in their reproductive years. For that reason, safe, legal abortion must remain an option for women across the country; banning abortion does not make it go away — it just makes the procedure less safe.

Daniel Grossman, M.D.
Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, University of California, San Francisco
San Francisco

Aging Out

Daniel Asa Rose describes one of his birth mates, Nicole Parry, in a way I found disappointing [“Separated at Birth,” Essay, December]. Although Rose introduces the other characters in his article without reference to skin color, he quickly makes it clear to the reader that Parry is black. Even before mentioning it explicitly, Rose communicates her race through his choice of words. He quotes Parry as saying “Hm, hm, hmmm, I’m telling you,” in a “singsong” voice, which I correctly interpreted as a white man signaling that he is conversing with a black woman.

When Rose arrives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Parry lives, he is afraid to walk alone, and asks a passerby whether it’s safe. The passerby begins his reply with a vernacular “Aw, man,” even though speech fillers are dropped for other interviewees in the article.

On his way, Rose comments on the “African hair-braiding salons, an old synagogue that had been converted into a pawnshop, and a derelict arcade” — undoubtedly omitting scores of buildings that are neither ethnically marked nor ramshackle. Rose’s choices are telling because they show the neighborhood as he perceives it.

Rose goes on to portray Parry in a harshly negative light. He writes that she is “whippet-thin” and seems to “withdraw into herself” as they talk. We are told that she “often played hooky” from school, dropped out in the eleventh grade, and had a son “out of wedlock.” Her birth at Brooklyn Jewish, he assumes, was a result of the hospital’s charity policy.

Perhaps Parry’s life has not been as easy or successful as those of the other birth mates, but Rose surely could have found hopeful elements in her story — if he had been looking for them. Descriptions such as those in the article omit the core substance of lives, ignoring accomplishments and celebrations and joy, flattening people and places to fit the stereotypical narrative of black life in America. It is upsetting that an otherwise admirable essay would rely on these reductive tropes.

Henry Shull
Cambridge, Mass.

As a Brooklyn native, born at the former Madison Park Hospital in 1949, I certainly feel that I am part of a lucky generation, although recent events have called our legacy into question. This year has reminded me of 1968, when we were faced with two despised candidates, our heroes were murdered, our cities were on fire, and thousands were being killed and maimed in a senseless war. Nearly half a century later, we are still fighting for equality and justice. But our generation has always had a sense of optimism, which could be heard in the love songs that topped the charts in the Fifties and Sixties. Despite decades of disappointment, I’m still moved when I hear the Rascals: “All the world over, so easy to see! / People everywhere just wanna be free.”

Mike Rosenberg
Bedford, Mass.


Because of an editing error, “Standing Rock Speaks” [Easy Chair, December], by Walter Kirn, misstated the year of the American Indian Movement’s occupation of Wounded Knee. This event occurred in 1973, not 1972. We regret the error.

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February 2017

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