President Trump took a risk by meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. My friend and sometimes colleague, Angelo Codevilla, with whom I often agree, gave the meeting and the press conference an A+. In the end, however, I believe Trump took an unnecessary risk. He did himself no favors during the press conference. Of course, we will have to wait and see what, if anything, actually comes of the meeting.
That said, the over-the-top reaction of his critics may minimize the danger to him. The worst summit ever? Really?
It seems to me that the president made three unforced errors in Helsinki.
First, Trump violated an important rule: a president never criticizes his own country and never throws his intelligence services under the bus on foreign soil. Second, Trump seemed unnecessarily deferential to Putin. Third, he mistakenly conflated “meddling” with “colluding” and seemed to accept his critics’ argument that such meddling affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Of course Russia meddled, but there is no evidence of collusion and no evidence that Russia’s meddling had an effect on the outcome of the 2016 election.
But the reaction of his critics was over the top, especially the insane yelps of “treason!” As usual, the overreaction of his critics will benefit Trump. And as Andrew Bacevich argues in the Boston Globe, it will also harm the United States itself. Bacevich writes:
I am increasingly persuaded that Trump’s election has induced a paranoid response, one that, unless curbed, may well pose a greater danger to the country than Trump himself. This paranoid response finds expression in obsessive attention given to just about anything Trump says, along with equally obsessive speculation about what he might do next—this despite the fact that most of what he says is nonsense and much of what he does is reversed, contradicted, or watered down within the span of a single news cycle . . . Yet today the G-7 still exists (and won’t be readmitting Russia anytime soon). The United States remains committed to NATO. And international sanctions imposed on the Kremlin for offenses real and alleged are still firmly in place. For all of Trump’s bluster, insults, and diplomatic gaffes, in other words, nothing much has changed.
The fundamental mistake that Trump’s critics make is to focus on his words and not his policies. As Danielle Pletka, senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute just observed in The Atlantic,
[I]t’s Trump’s words that are terrible. His policies are, in the main, not. The United States has crushed Russia beneath escalating sanctions, pulled out of the dreadful Iran deal, armed the Ukrainian opposition to Putin, stood up to China’s theft of American intellectual property, actually bombed Syrian chemical-weapons sites, and increased defense spending. Sure, there’s plenty to dislike in Trump’s foreign policy, including his trade wars, his dismissal of allies, his toying with NATO, and his Obama-esque desire to skip out of Syria. But his stupid rhetoric masks a mostly normal, if not always sensible or desirable, foreign policy. And Trump’s national-security strategy is at least coherent when compared with the incoherent global retreat embraced by the last administration.
She might also have added that on Trump’s watch we have seen the actual construction of ballistic missile defense (BMD) sites in Poland; browbeating NATO to spend more on defense while actually deploying U.S. forces into NATO bases in Central Europe; killing Russian mercenaries in Syria, expanding sanctions against Putin’s inner circles, enforcing penalties against U.S. and foreign companies that violate those sanctions; the expelling Russian diplomats; and most importantly for a geopolitical standpoint, unleashing American energy production, which hurts the Russian economy. These steps are all much tougher and impose much more cost on Russia than anything Obama did, or Hillary Clinton might have done.
Nonetheless, the president needs to understand that words matter. We only have to look to the 1961 Vienna summit between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviet premier, believing Kennedy was weak, took provocative steps designed to test the president, including actions that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Certainly, circumstances are different today. For one thing, Russia today is a declining state. The United States is playing from a position of strength. I hope President Trump realizes this.
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