Here's a thought exercise: What do you suppose would happen if Russian strongman Vladimir Putin decided to clarify remarks he reportedly made about Donald Trump during the election campaign?
"I never said Trump was 'brilliant,' " he might say. "That was a poor translation. I said he was 'colorful,' which nobody denies. Unfortunately, he is also an ignorant buffoon with no greater understanding of international relations than the average Moscow prostitute, of which he has known many."
Would Trump confine himself to mocking Putin's short stature and bare-chested TV appearances on his Twitter account? Or would the United States and Russia go to war footing overnight?
Fortunately, we can all relax. Everybody understands that Trump lives so deep in Putin's pocket that no such exchange seems possible. When it comes to foreign affairs, the only constant in our new president's pronouncements is that he has never yet said anything — not one single thing — that the Russian dictator would find objectionable.
It's really remarkable. On everything from the invasion of Crimea to the obsolescence of NATO and the breakup of the European Union, Trump's remarks may as well have been crafted in the Kremlin. Trump's Secretary of State designee had a medal pinned on his chest by Putin himself; his national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, had a paid gig on the Russia Today TV network and has dined publicly with the Russian leader.
Weakening NATO, the military alliance that has brought stability and prosperity to the west since 1945, is the No. 1 priority of Putin's foreign policy, exposing Eastern Europe to the tender mercies of the Russian army. One needn't yearn for a new Cold War to realize what a terrible thing that would be.
As for the European Union, here are some relevant numbers: In 2016, total U.S. trade with the EU was roughly $650 billion. It's our most important economic partnership by far. Total trade with Russia totaled $20 billion.
Economically speaking, the EU is more than 30 times more valuable to the United States than is Russia. Any questions? Russia occupies a vast landmass and has a formidable military, but its economy is smaller than Italy's.
The Russians are a great, long-suffering people; we couldn't have won World War II without them. But does anybody want to buy Russian cars, computers or TVs? No, they do not.
The last thing the world needs is Russia looming over once-captive nations such as Poland and Lithuania like a bear at a picnic table. A Democrat who proposed such things would be accused of treason.
So anyway, here's what it's come to: In the course of defending Trump from scurrilous accusations in Buzzfeed, Putin also praised the beauty and skill of Moscow prostitutes, who he proclaimed "the best in the world."
Back in 2013 when the president-elect visited Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant, Putin alibied, "He wasn't a politician, we didn't even know about his political ambitions. Do they think that our special services are hunting for every U.S. billionaire?"
Actually, Vladimir, yes, they do. Even Trump knows that. During his recent press conference, he said he warned friends to behave themselves, "Because you don't want to see yourself on television. Cameras all over the place."
In Moscow, they even have a word for it: "kompromat," a combination of the Russian words for "compromising" and "information." Luring public figures into proverbial "honey traps" or manufacturing scandal against troublesome individuals is a common practice of authoritarian regimes everywhere — but nowhere more than in Russia.
It's well known that Putin got his big break in politics when, as a young intelligence officer, he affirmed that a murky videotape of a man cavorting with hookers was indeed a foe of Boris Yeltsin's. Today, sleazy videos of public figures are a regular feature on Russian TV. The sheer coarseness of political dialogue can be hard to believe.
I got a small taste of it last summer after unmasking a pair of Russian trolls that I called "Boris" and "Natasha" after the cartoon characters: all scatology, sexual insults and veiled threats clearly based upon internet misinformation. Some foreign journalists have had kiddie porn installed on their computers.
That said, apart from one lurid detail I won't repeat, none of the naughty bits in the dodgy Trump dossier struck me as shocking. Trump has long boasted to radio shock jock Howard Stern and others about barging into beauty contestants' dressing rooms, copping feels, etc. He's also on record about the supposedly loose morals of Russian women.
That said, whatever Putin has on Trump, I doubt it's sexual — everybody's favorite distraction. The real purpose of kompromat isn't necessarily blackmail, but the promotion of discord, cynicism and widespread disbelief in such "liberal" values as the distinction between truth and make-believe.
And when people come to believe that everybody's crooked and nobody can be believed, the strongman always wins.