A specter is haunting Russia. The specter of... an apoplectic Morgan Freeman informing America that “we have been attacked” and “we are at war.”
The 80-year-old actor’s latest gig is a strange two-minute video for the recently founded “non-partisan, non-profit” Committee to Investigate Russia, and it has kicked off a veritable media firestorm both here and abroad. The aggressive, bombastic patriotism exhibited by Freeman in the clip may seem alarming, but given a quick glimpse behind CIR’s veil, it ought to come as no huge shock. So what is this project, and how afraid should we be of WWIII?
Spearheaded by actor and director Rob Reiner and Atlantic senior editor David Frum, CIR’s advisory committee — which includes war-hungry neoconservative scholar Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations (and author of an upcoming book promising to “reframe” the Vietnam War), political scientist Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, and former National Intelligence director James Clapper — veers sharply right and offers no experts on Russia or even anywhere in the former Soviet bloc. It also remains unclear who is funding the operation. In many respects, it’s a product of our fear-filled times: temerarious and irrational, yet pocked by Cold-War rhetoric adapted for a post-Communist Russia, and produced by deep-pocketed men with distinct agendas.
CIR’s advisory committee veers sharply right and offers no experts on Russia or even anywhere in the former Soviet bloc.
Although Reiner, whose previous directorial work includes the The Princess Bride and This Is Spinal Tap, promises a “one-stop shop where people can come and be made aware” of Russia’s goals and be kept up-to-date on the various congressional investigations concerning the country, CIR offers a little more than the same tired and hyper-simplistic reading of Russian politics that’s come to buttress the mainstream media narrative regarding its electoral interference. You could even say, to borrow Reiner’s words from an interview with Variety, it’s a half-assed exercise meant to uncover a grand narrative that’ll shed light on what this darned “cyberwarfare is all about.”
CIR’s launch was rightfully received with a dose of condemnation and derision. Journalists and analysts from the U.S. and abroad were quick to note that the committee’s website had opted to play fast and loose with the facts — for instance, it couldn’t even be bothered to use the correct photo for General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces in Russia, whom it credits with laying the theoretical groundwork for Russian cyber interference abroad. (This has since been corrected.) Within Russia itself, Freeman’s call to arms has already inspired a bevy of memes, statements from Russian directors, and an outpouring of social-media mockery. Even the Kremlin weighed in: spokesman Dmitry Peskov wondered during a conference call with reporters whether Freeman had “fall[en] prey to emotional stress” and decried the campaign as “a continuation of a form of McCarthyism.” Naturally, some self-appointed anti-dezinformatsiya warriors were eager to point out that this reaction demonstrates CIR’s tactics work.
Russian meme about ridiculous Morgan Freeman video: "Why did you take my pot of shit? Why are you eating it Winnie?! Please stop!" pic.twitter.com/ZzUekzE6h2— Bradley Jardine (@Jardine_bradley) September 20, 2017
It seems details and complexities are of little import for CIR, as Russia’s post-1991 political history has been quite linear. President Vladimir Putin has always been on the road to become Russia’s oligarch-in-chief and has been plotting since his early years in the KGB to climb into the upper echelons of the Russian political system in order to better undermine the U.S. And because Putin’s power over America is limited, the Russians, as Frum said on CNN, have resorted to “judo” — that is, they want to turn America against itself.
What’s most impressive about CIR’s emergence, as Kevin Rothrock of Meduza wryly observed, is how the organization has made “a mockery of the U.S. government’s legitimate investigation into Russian election interference.” CIR’s ability to do so is all the more awe-inspiring given that this week there were, between The New York Times and CNN, not one—but three—scoops regarding former FBI director Bob Mueller’s ongoing investigation, two of which concerned one of the sketchiest figures involved in the Trump campaign: the political adviser Paul Manafort, who apparently offered to give a Russian billionaire “private briefings” on the election last July.
Star-studded but otherwise utterly useless, nonprofits like CIR that run political-charged grifts are hardly an anomaly. Indeed, CIR’s reception mirrors that of another widely mocked internationally-focused nonprofit: Invisible Children, the U.S.-based nonprofit meant to raise awareness of the Ugandan guerilla leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. Founded in 2004, it emerged into public consciousness after its short documentary Kony 2012 and the corresponding “Stop Kony” initiative were launched in 2012. While mindless pundits and feel-good clickbait sites threw their weight behind the endeavor, experts blasted the documentary for comparing Kony to Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler, as well as for its aggressively consumerist and “slacktivist” approach to activism. Others noted that Invisible Children had effectively elevated Kony to the point of possessing “supernatural powers.” But above all, it was the “white savior” overtones — that Kony could only be stopped if America stepped in — that were its most noxious trait.
CIR is a product of our fear-filled times: temerarious and irrational, yet pocked by Cold-War rhetoric adapted for a post-Communist Russia, and produced by deep-pocketed men with distinct agendas.
Much like Invisible Children, CIR’s emotionally-charged appeals are crafted by pundits and backed by Hollywood without any real regional grounding — indeed, as Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky wrote this week of CIR, “perhaps its most striking feature is that no Russia experts are involved.” And despite promising an outlet for uncovering the facts about Russia’s new breed of information warfare, CIR throws nuance to the wolves and seizes upon simplistic interventionist rhetoric in order to push its own inane foreign policy agenda. “These people’s Russia strategy is identical to how my four-year-old approaches my movie suggestions,” Jesse Heath, a D.C.-based attorney specializing in the former Soviet Union, noted on Twitter. Their anti-Trump strategy, on the other hand, is spot on: tar the president in any way possible, even if it means throwing relations with an entire country under the bus.
Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election — the extent to which remain largely unknown and/or classified — is indeed worrisome and Mueller’s efforts to uncover the Trump administration’s connections to these events are crucial. Yet efforts like CIR’s are of benefit to no one — least of all the U.S. Plus, let’s be honest: there’s only one group of actors prepared to “investigate Russia,” and that’s the good folks at Canada’s SCTV.