How Weak is America’s President?

He cannot negotiate with Russia when it is needed most

by Stephen Bryen

No matter who you talk to it is pretty clear that President Donald Trump is not a foreign policy genius.  He made a complete mess of abandoning the Kurds in Syria, and then deciding, au contraire, that while he would not protect an American ally, who fought beside our soldiers, he would “protect” some of Syria’s oil by stealing it, because it is worth something (presuming, of course that the Kurds were not). 

Trump likewise made a mess in Korea, where he didn’t properly grasp the dynamics of inter-Korean politics, or Kim Jong-un’s need to remain independent from South Korea and from China.  It was, after all the Chinese who sponsored his half brother rival, Kim Jong-nam, and the Korean dictator was obliged to have him killed or he himself might have been liquidated.  North Korean politics are so opaque and dark, that what is really going on there is anyone’s guess. 

The President has not done much better in Afghanistan, where he said we should leave but instead stayed, extending an 18 year long war that will never end up good.  And he has allowed the Iranians to run amok in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, expanding their power and influence and directly threatening both Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Israel.

But the worst of it is that the President has been unable to engage in the dialogue he really needs to have, and that is with Vladimir Putin.

Let me be absolutely clear.  Putin is not a friend of the United States.  He is a dangerous competitor.  But he is also a gamer.  Looked at from Putin’s angle, he has taken a sow’s ear and turned it into a silk purse (or at least one bristling with missiles).  Russia is not only largely a basket case because of a shaky economy, but because Putin has stayed in power by stealing much of the country’s wealth and distributing it to a narrow, gangsterish elite who provide total loyalty to the boss, the source of their fortune. Even so, what makes Putin rather exceptional is that he has promoted Russia’s image, expanded its territory, turned its Soviet-style army into something approximating how US forces operate (check out how much is copied from precision guided weapons to cruise missiles, enhanced by long range operations over targets in Syria where Putin can show off the latest hardware), and figured out that America’s hold on Europe is faltering, if not on the brink of collapse.

To a degree Trump has also sensed the same weaknesses in US forces.  He wants to get out from under costly and debilitating overseas entanglements that are wrecking America’s military readiness, and he particularly wants the NATO countries to pick up a significant share of the responsibility of keeping the alliance operational. (Unfortunately the President’s policies are inconsistent and contradictory, but that’s another story.)

There is just about zero prospect that the NATO countries will foot the bill, either in manpower, equipment or shekels.  In fact Europe is setting up a NATO rival of its own, keeping the US on the outside.  There is even rumbling to make the new European defense force (EUFOR for European Force) nuclear capable.  With Britain on its way out of the EU the only possible short term supplier of nuclear weapons and delivery systems is France, but if France seriously contemplated committing its nuclear forces to EUFOR it would likely lead to a revolution in France with Le Pen’s National Rally (previously National Front) replacing President Macron and his leadership team (which is organized in what Macron calls La République En Marche!, which is not a party absent Macron himself).
But President Trump’s problem is not just uncooperative Europeans who hate Trump for political, economic and cultural reasons.  

Trump’s problem is that he can’t do deals with anyone right now.  The first blow against Trump, now generally conceded to be somehow linked to a deep state operation strongly linked to the Democratic Party and the Clinton’s, was to accuse Trump of being in bed with the Russians, essentially a Russian agent.  The use of a special prosecutor and endless, erroneous and fabricated stories undermined any chance for Trump to try and solve some of the most urgent problems with Russia.  In fact the only channel to Putin that Trump could rely on was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has managed to developed a workable relationship with Vladimir Putin. 

President Trump and President Putin

But instead of trying to use that channel, because of his blunder with the Kurds, Trump ended up in bed with Turkish President Erdogan and his ethnic cleaning program against the Kurds. It will get more out of kilter because Trump’s friend Erdogan is coming to Washington to meet him in November.  The net result will be to reinforce Erdogan, who is weak at home, and give him even greater license to wreak havoc on Kurdish communities in Syria, perhaps Iraq and certainly at home.  There is a good chance the blunder will be further compounded by a Trump decision to hand the F-35’s back to Turkey as a “good will” gesture.

In a narrow context this is a bit of a blow to the Russians who very much want Turkey to buy its Su-35 aircraft instead of the US F-35.  But they may be saved by Congress which could force Trump to pull back on deals with the Turks.  The jury is still out.

But Trump is now foreclosed with the Russians on another front.  The impeachment process, that will likely occupy many weeks in the House and thereafter in the Senate (as it is a foregone conclusion that the House will vote to impeach, a decision reached well before there was any evidence whatever of any so-called high crimes and misdemeanors) is focused on the Ukraine, and specifically on Trump’s interest in getting the current Ukrainian president to investigate what former Vice President Joe Biden and his son were up to in that country.

Doing a deal on Ukraine is the sine qua non of working out some kind of rapprochement with Russia. The Russians have a number of reasons why Ukraine is central to their overseas policies: (1) Ukraine is in Russia’s backyard and has long been thought of as a kind of Russian province; (2) Ukraine has significant manufacturing, mineral and agricultural riches that interest Russia; (3) Ukraine is strategic for Russia because if it is not “controlled” it won’t be long before there are NATO or US bases on its territory, which Russia sees as a threat; and (4) Russia will not back down on keeping the Crimea.  Most of all, Putin’s prestige and even his ability to remain in power turns on how Ukraine sorts out.

The Russian problem for the United States is that Putin is probably more reliable and more pragmatic than what will follow him in power.   If he falls, there is a better than equal chance that the next set of Russian leaders will be far more nationalistic, xenophobic and expansionist and more dangerous in the sense they could take risks to cement their power and leadership that Putin can better avoid. Facing that kind of future danger has to concern policy makers and is a huge national security problem.

Some practical deals with Russia today would seem to be in the US interest –in fact in the interest of Europe too.  It is rather ironic that the Europeans, like their left wing counterparts in the Democratic Party in the United States, are making a dangerous error in trying to knock out Trump, weaken NATO and divorce themselves from the United States.  But whatever they do matters less than what is being done to the President in the United States.  President Trump is not able, under current circumstances and even with the most astutely developed plan, to negotiate with Putin or work out agreements that might protect world peace.