President Trump demonstrated once again he’s willing to punch Russia if it punches us or our friends. Despite tough actions like this one, for those who are already convinced Trump colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election, every time Trump declines an opportunity to clobber Putin, or even when Trump makes so much as a personnel change, they view it as further evidence of a conspiracy related to Russia. For the rest of us, well, we do not.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t an occasional Russia-related incident worth criticizing. Trump’s congratulatory call with Russia’s Vladimir Putin was a misfire. Russia’s elections are notoriously fraudulent. Even so, Russia’s propaganda machine is effective, and Putin is popular. But it’s unseemly for an American president to congratulate an authoritarian for a sham election win. After receiving widespread criticism for the call, Trump fired back on Twitter:
I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing…….— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
…..They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
The president is wise to reject perceived pressure to “excoriate” Putin. Russia is a formative nuclear power and is trying to undermine U.S. interests in just about every area of the globe. The last thing we need is for Trump and Putin to exchange personal insults in public.
Here’s another issue the president’s harshest critics miss: Trump has made it clear that as long as he is president, the United States is not on a mission to reshape countries into liberal democracies. This does not mean Trump is unwilling to criticize dictators for their abuse. Clearly, he has done so quite effectively with North Korea and with Cuba. But publicly criticizing those nations for their human rights abuses was done so as part of an overarching campaign to affect a specific result in the security interests of the United States.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to criticize Russia’s election just as she declined to criticize Xi Jinping when he scrapped China’s term limits. It is no secret that the United States of America believes a democratic republic is the best way to “establish justice and insure domestic tranquility” and, it remains true, even with Trump at the helm, that the United States will stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies against shared enemies. The best example of this is in Trump’s remarkable speech to the Polish people.
But whereas President George W. Bush argued “Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul,” Trump recognizes that there are an awful lot of people who happen to like Xi and Putin and Kim Jong Un. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that deep down inside every Russian, North Korean, or Chinese person there’s a trapped Patrick Henry waiting for Uncle Sam to release him.
Trump is also right to specifically call out President Obama’s failed Russia “reset.” Obama tried to get along with Putin, and did so by trading in key U.S. interests in an effort to please Russia. And every time it failed. Putin respects clarity and strength. Give him an inch, he will take a mile, claim he was owed it, and look for the next opportunity to chip away at U.S. power and influence.
It is also true that Obama congratulated President Putin in 2012. (Reportedly, Bush congratulated then-Russian President Medvedev’s election win in 2008.) Embarrassingly, although not surprisingly, some came to Obama’s defense, including former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who insisted Obama didn’t offer a full-throated congratulation. Oh, but he did. It’s almost as if Obama received muted criticism from the news media so it’s more easily forgettable. Indeed, even when some admitted Obama did the same thing, they often offered a defense by providing the “context” that it was before Russia invaded Ukraine and before Russia violated U.S. sovereignty by meddling in the presidential election.
But that’s not the whole picture, either. While Obama’s congrats was offered in the midst of a season of U.S. capitulation toward Russia, Trump’s was offered in the midst of a recalibration of U.S. foreign policy, which includes rebuilding the military, identifying Russia as a threat to the United States, and competing with Russia.
Just take a look at the Trump administration’s view of Russia in its major policy documents: the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Nuclear Posture Review.
These documents reflect the president’s outlook that the United States must seek the strategic advantage over Russia and China, and that it should engage its adversaries from a position of strength. Peace is not achieved by the United States giving in to bullies, it is achieved by the United States recapitalizing its military, shoring up the areas where China and Russia are eating our lunch, and then behaving like the superpower it is. Diplomacy will be far more effective when we are confident in our military strength and are prepared to use it. As David French penned:
“As the most powerful nation on the face of the earth, we should not conduct our diplomacy as if we fear war more than our potential foes do.”
Trump’s brand new superb picks for secretary of State and National Security advisor, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, certainly seem to agree with this outlook and neither shy away from outlining Russia’s acts of aggression against the United States and our allies. There is little sign the United States, during the Trump presidency, is going soft on Russia.
But it’s time Trump give up on looking for “chemistry” with Putin. Trump offers something the previous recent presidents did not, and that is his willingness to pursue U.S. interests over the objections of other nations, which requires clarity of mind and a good amount of courage. For example, pulling out of the Paris Accord and initiating moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, delegating more authorities down to the warfighters to execute the annihilation campaign against ISIS, allowing the use of force against those fighting for Syria’s Assad (including Russian fighters), and implementing the maximum pressure campaign against North Korea.
Trump can and should exercise that same kind of clarity and courage in private conversations with Putin. No excoriating for issues the president considers “none of our business” and no flattering where Putin doesn’t deserve it. Instead, Trump should lay out clear expectations and unambiguous, measured condemnations when appropriate.
With Putin, Trump doesn’t need him to love him or even like him. The only shot we have at deterring conflict and significantly regaining the advantage in areas squandered due to Obama’s Russia “reset” is exactly what Trump wrote in his tweet: Peace through strength. And the Trump administration’s policies have that well underway. It’s time Putin respect and fear Trump.