Friday, July 20, 2018

After Helsinki's Trump-Putin Summit, The Russia Card is Still America's Trump Card

The recent Helsinki Summit between Presidents Trump and Putin, and subsequent media controversy, reminds me that it is still the case that the Russia Card is America's Trump Card, as I wrote in a 2017 post for this blog. For Russia has been a constant factor in American electoral politics for the last few decades. 

I thought of this background as I watched the Helsinki press conference.

However, what I saw in the video did not match most media reports in the United States. 

Instead of Putin besting Trump, as pundits declared, I saw a strong and confident President Trump towering head and shoulders over a shorter and suppliant President Putin.

This reality is reflected in the official Kremlin photo to the left. Trump is much taller, and much bigger, than Putin. Indeed, even his tie is bigger than Putin's.

In my opinion, in Helsinki Russia seemed to be asking for a "reset" of its own, a counterpoint to Hillary Clinton's failed initiative in the Obama administration.

Given the correlation of forces, it would be a mistake of historic proportions, in my opinion, to not to "give peace a chance" by attempting one more time to negotiate a "New Deal" between Moscow and Washington. If anyone can negotiate such an agreement, it would be the author of "The Art of the Deal." America has no better negotiator in our bullpen.

Indeed, the election of President Trump provides an opportunity for improved relations which in many ways mirrors the election of President Yeltsin in 1991, for in many ways Trump is America's Yeltsin.

At the time of Yeltsin's accession to power, there was bipartisan support from both Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican Leader Bob Dole for improving relations with Russia to help Yeltsin move the country into the modern world. 

Although the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and subsequent breakup of the formerly "nonaligned" state, provided a thorn in the side to mutual relations, both the United States and Russia made great progress on many fronts, from nuclear non-proliferation to our joint space launches. 

President Yeltsin toured the USA to great applause, and American firms were welcomed into the former Soviet Space. Yeltsin even visited farms in Kansas with Senator Dole.

That this Golden Age of sorts turned sour, was perhaps inevitable, based on mutual misunderstandings and miscalculations. At the time, the balance of power was so unfavorable to Russia, that resentful accommodation by Moscow replaced negotiated mutually beneficial agreements --which could probably have been worked out, had Washington not labored under ideological delusions of "The End of History" and "The Unipolar Moment." 

If Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" had been the guidebook instead, President Clinton might have worked out a Yalta 2.0 which favored American interests such that NATO might have become unnecessary--for Russia could have served as an American ally to balance the rise of China.

Unfortunately, NATO expansion, pressures from the EU, the Arab world, and domestic American political calculations made that deal un-doable in the 1990s. By 2001, relations were raw once again.

The 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks presented another opportunity for a new deal. President Putin, convinced that Al Qaeda was the same enemy he had fought in Chechnya, assisted President Bush with American anti-terrorism efforts, opened Russian supply routes to Afghanistan, sold Russian helicopters, and invited President Bush to V-E Day ceremonies in Moscow--which he willingly attended no doubt to send a signal of resolve to Osama Bin Laden. 

Yet again, obstacles surfaced, as disputes over former Warsaw Pact states appeared impervious to negotiation, flared into violence in Georgia and Ukraine, as "color revolutions" began to dash renewed hopes of a rapprochement. Russia was stronger than in the 1990s, but had not rebuilt her military or economy. Another opportunity for a deal more favorable to the United States had been missed.

The election of Barack Obama, twice over more anti-Russian candidates McCain and Romney, opened yet another opportunity to make a deal.

By 2008, Russia was stronger than at the turn of the millennium, but still not in full form. Once again, there was a chance for a "reset," symbolized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's  now infamous button gift to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

As many remember, Obama had mocked Romney's anti-Russian attitude, with a memorably dismissive zinger in a 2012 debate:

Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat. Because a few months ago, when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia. Not al-Qaida. You said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back. Because, y’know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

However, Obama's "Arab Spring," overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yankuovych, and support for anti-Putin protests by "Pussy Riot" and Alex Navalny in Moscow did little to improve relations, much less reset them. Russian annexation of Crimea and American passage of the Magnitsky Act added fuel to the fire, which erupted into hot proxy wars in Syria and Ukraine, eventually leading to relations so unfriendly they were immortalized in a Putin-Obama "stare down" at the 2016 G20 Summit.

Sadly,  in the aftermath of the Helsinki Summit, opponents of President Trump have made the Russia Card an obstacle once more... by accusing him of everything from "failing to stand up to Putin" to "treason." 

Perhaps, though, this third time may prove a charm for President Trump, for the Russia Card cannot be understood out of context. For the Russia Card is about a great deal more than Russia--it is the flip side of the "Muslim Card" which Trump deployed very successfully against Hillary Clinton and President Obama during the 2016 election. Attacks on Russia are often diversionary tactics designed to steer attention away from Islamic terrorism.

This pattern seems to be repeating itself in media coverage of the Helsinki Summit. Buried in the noise about pledging faith in the intelligence community is news that President Trump and Putin discussed joint efforts to fight Islamic terrorism. President Trump mentioned cooperation in this regard at the July 16th joint press conference:
The President (Putin) and I also discussed the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism.  Both Russia and the United States have suffered horrific terrorist attacks, and we have agreed to maintain open communication between our security agencies to protect our citizens from this global menace.
Last year, we told Russia about a planned attack in St. Petersburg, and they were able to stop it cold.  They found them.  They stopped them.  There was no doubt about it.  I appreciated President Putin’s phone call afterwards to thank me.
I also emphasized the importance of placing pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear ambitions and to stop its campaign of violence throughout the area, throughout the Middle East.
As we discussed at length, the crisis in Syria is a complex one.  Cooperation between our two countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  I also made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS.  We have just about eradicated ISIS in the area.
We also agreed that representatives from our national security councils will meet to follow up on all of the issues we addressed today and to continue the progress we have started right here in Helsinki.
Today’s meeting is only the beginning of a longer process.  But we have taken the first steps toward a brighter future and one with a strong dialogue and a lot of thought.  Our expectations are grounded in realism but our hopes are grounded in America’s desire for friendship, cooperation, and peace.  And I think I can speak on behalf of Russia when I say that also.
Interestingly, Russophobes who hated the Trump-Putin summit also tend to oppose fighting Islamic terrorism, or even calling it "Islamic terrorism." 

Among them are Trump critics like former CIA Director John Brennan, reportedly a convert to Islam when he served in Saudi Arabia, as well as a declared supporter of Communist  Presidential candidate Gus Hall in 1976.

People like Brennan, or Hillary or Obama, tend also to oppose President Trump's travel ban, "extreme vetting," or efforts to add the Muslim Brotherhood to the list of terrorist organizations. 

Likewise, they expressed little public objection to the foreign connections Huma Abedin, whose parents were active in the Muslim Brotherhood, and had alleged links to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, serving as a top aide to Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, nor to the Clinton Foundations ties to repressive Islamist regimes. Nor did they object when the so-called "Arab Spring" installed Islamist governments in the Middle East.

They take advantage of lingering resentments among Republicans who are still anti-Russian because Russia was once Communist. When these Republicans see Putin, they see him a Communist commissar, a former KGB officer,  a "thug." When they see Russia, they see it as if it were still the Soviet Union--even though Russia voluntarily withdrew from its former Soviet satellites, allowed some of them to join the EU, and dissolved the USSR.

On the other side, leftist Democrats have lingering resentments that Russia rejected Communism. They are as strongly hostile to Putin as Stalin was anti-Trotsky. When they look at Putin, they see a turncoat KGB agent who sold out to capitalism, suppresses LGBT causes on behalf of Russian Orthodoxy, and who encourages the very Russian nationalism that the USSR suppressed with its "Friendship of Peoples" doctrine (Soviet multiculturalism), therefore another kind of "thug" (like Cuba calls its refugees from Communism "gusanos"--worms).

Compounding the problem has been the taboo on public discussion of Islamist terrorism in both Europe and the United States (there is no such taboo in Russia). Since discussion of the actual enemy has been repressed, it is my belief that anti-Russian sentiments have actually been symptoms of psychological displacement--unable to criticize the actual enemies of the United States, the public has been licensed to oppose imaginary enemies, such as Russia, "Global Climate Change," Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and "White Privilege."

Yet good relations with Russia could change the dynamic of international relations in our favor, given the manifest failures of America's pro-Islamist foreign policy. With Russia as a full and equal partner in American foreign policy, the West could make short work of Islamic terror. Russia has a proven track record of success, little discussed in the USA--in Chechnya, of all places, where Putin ground Islamists to dust on the orders of Boris Yeltsin. The same sort of Russian tactics are working in Syria...just as they worked against Hitler during World War II.

It is clear from the failure of American policies since 9/11 that only an alliance with Russia can defeat Islamic terrorism. 

Helsinki presents America with that opportunityan opportunity which supporters of Islamic Terror are apparently desperate to torpedo by any means necessary. For almost two decades the United States has struggled and failed to respond to 9/11 while simultaneously fighting Russia in Ukraine and Syria. All President Trump is doing is prioritizing the struggle against Islamic Terrorism as the most important fight of our times. It is common sense, which is why Putin and Trump can agree to work together. 

They realize that past policies have failed, and want to try something new that might work—given the record of Russian-American cooperation in the past, which includes Nunn-Lugar de-nuclearization, joint space missions, the peaceful transition of the USSR from Communism, and victory over the Nazis during World War II. 

If one looks clearly at what is happening in Great Britain or the European Union today,  the lesson is clear:

We must accept Russia as an ally in the struggle against Islamic terrorism, or surrender to an Islamic Caliphate.