by Garry Kasparov
President Trump’s body flew to Argentina for the G20 meeting of national leaders on Friday, but his mind was clearly elsewhere. If Trump’s Twitter account is a Fitbit of his mental health, his latest flurry of panicky tweets about the Mueller investigation looked like nervous breakdown.
Trump was so agitated that he first confirmed, then canceled, his planned reunion with Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aires, ostensibly because he disapproved of Russia’s attack on Ukrainian ships in the international waters near Russian-occupied Crimea last week. Trump had previously shrugged off the Russian attack, so it seems unlikely that the Azov Sea is much on his mind these days.
Putin’s turn to piracy cannot compete with the ongoing White House spectacle, which now stars Trump’s long-time personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. His guilty plea is further proof of my assertion that Trump’s team has a far higher crime rate than any of the immigrant or refugee groups he demonizes.
Among other things, Cohen revealed that, despite their many denials, Trump and his family were still heavily involved in a Moscow Trump Tower project in 2016, when his campaign was receiving Russian assistance. This points to new avenues for perjury charges and exposes yet another conflict of interest. During the campaign, the real Trump motto was apparently Trump First, not America First. The open question is if that has changed at all during his two years as President.
A few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, I said in an interview that Trump’s ability to generate attention and chaos was what Putin liked most about him. “There will be a crisis every day” was my assessment, which has turned out to be far too conservative. Every hour brings a new scandalous statement, indictment or revelation about Trump or a member of his administration.
It’s too much for the media and the public to keep up with, and whether that’s by design or not (it’s not), it’s an effective way of keeping the spotlight on Trump all the time. This may not matter in 2020 if the Mueller “witch hunt” continues to collect scalps, but it’s good to remember how Trump exploited this method to dominate his rivals for the Republican primary.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this stream of new crimes and misdemeanors regarding Trump’s Russia connections is that Putin has known it all the entire time. It’s impossible to imagine that the former KGB colonel hasn’t used this damning knowledge of Trump and his family’s many lies for leverage.
Regardless of the motive for the cancellation, I’m glad we have been spared, for now, another Putin-Trump photo-op. What legitimate business do they have to talk about face-to-face at this point? Congress and the White House have applied significant sanctions to Russia for its belligerence against Ukraine and for attacking the U.S. election, but Trump himself has remained steadfast in his refusal to criticize the one man entirely responsible for it all.
Meanwhile, Putin needs these summits to legitimize his status as a big boss, a vital task for any dictator. His supporters don’t like the penalties Putin’s leadership has brought down on them, but they are also convinced that he is the only one who can ever hope to rescue them. They might lose that hope and turn against him should Putin ever be effectively isolated and condemned on the world stage, as he should be. But Putin will never be treated like a pariah while nearly everyone believes he has the U.S. President in his pocket at least until Jan. 20, 2021.
Foreign policy is the traditional siren song of an American President embattled domestically, a chance to wield unmatched prestige and power as global statesman and commander-in-chief. Certainly, there are plenty of areas where American leadership is much needed at the moment, including Putin’s war on Ukraine and the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Instead, Trump has continued to abdicate the fading tradition of American moral leadership on matters large and small. He and his administration have continued to defend the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, despite the CIA’s assessment that he gave the order to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident.
Trump siding with a brutal dictatorship against his own intelligence services should sound quite familiar since it matches exactly how he responded to the news of Russia’s election hacking.
“Who are you going to believe,” Trump tells his followers over and over, “me or the facts?”
The two main beneficiaries of Trump’s endless good faith, Bin Salman and Putin, had good reason to laugh and smile when they shook hands in Buenos Aires on Friday. Their wars are progressing, their critics are dead, and they are welcomed among the leaders of the free world without a care.
That may be changing thanks to the American people, who awoke from their traditional midterm slumber to overwhelmingly deliver the House of Representatives to the Democrats. The Republicans kept narrow control of the Senate thanks to a favorable election slate, but rest assured that everyone up for reelection in 2020 now knows the dangers of being seen as too closely allied with Trump.
I am a member of no party, I hasten to say, although I was especially glad to witness the departure of Putin’s favorite Congressman, Orange County Republican Dana Rohrabacher. He was defending Putin long before Trump made it fashionable in the GOP, and there is no doubt he finally paid a political price for these connections.
Most importantly, some balance has been restored to the U.S. government, and the impact is being felt even before the new blue House has convened. Last Wednesday, the Senate voted to end U.S. military support for the Saudi’s genocidal campaign in Yemen. Despite Trump’s initial waffling, the White House felt obliged to put out a strong statement supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemning Russian aggression, although it was missing the only part Putin cares about — what the consequences will be if he continues.
Ukraine and Yemen are far away from the United States, as are Taiwan, South Korea, Israel and other nations that are threatened by authoritarian regimes or terrorist groups. The U.S. has defended them for decades not just out of the goodness of American hearts — although there is much to be said in favor of that American love of an underdog, especially from this former Soviet citizen.
Aiding Ukraine against Putin’s aggression isn’t charity, it’s an investment in the stability of Europe and all economic benefits stability produces. Standing up to a homicidal Saudi prince isn’t gallantry; it puts his regime and those of his neighbors on notice that their actions will have consequences — and those actions include murdering journalists and sponsoring terrorist groups who always have the U.S. and Israel at the top of their list of targets.
Democracy isn’t just some abstract concept, it’s your own way of life. When the nations of the free world fail to defend and promote democracy and human rights abroad, that indifference inevitably comes home to roost. There is also the pragmatic motive, since democracies, for all their debates and differences, do not make war on one another. As well-understood by past Presidents of both parties, from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, the best long-term security plan for the United States is the global spread of democracy and prosperity.
When the U.S. shrugs its mighty shoulders at the murder of thousands, as in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen, or the assassination of one brave man like Khashoggi, the message to dictators and thugs is to do as they like. The idea that the U.S. should only care, or act, when its own vital interests are directly attacked is based on the perilous delusion that it’s best to wait until the pot boils over before turning off the fire.
Failing to protect innocent lives abroad makes Americans less safe. Failing to defend human rights in other places puts those same rights at risk at home. It’s also a vicious cycle, as autocratic leaders in turn use Trump’s attacks on refugees and journalists to justify their own.
As Truman explained in 1951, when the U.S. was getting involved in Korea, you stand up in small conflicts so you don’t have to fight bigger ones. Making it clear that aggression is unacceptable is not escalation, it’s deterrence, the foundation of Truman’s successful Cold War strategy that saved South Korea from Communist slavery and that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.
Even the humblest leader cares about his legacy, often to a fault, and it’s not necessarily unhealthy for a President to occasionally wonder how the history books will treat him. The strength of the democratic world order is its continuity, the ability to pass principles and policy to the next administration, the next generation. Today’s hyperpartisanship is wrecking that strategic strength as each side pushes further to the extremes, undoing the work of the previous administration and overcompensating toward the other extreme.
Trump not only doesn’t care about the next generation, he doesn’t seem to care about anything other than his personal image in the present day. President Obama fulfilled his mandate to begin America’s retreat from the world after the costly overreach of his predecessor. Both George W. Bush and Obama are decent men who loved their country, even if they had very different views of what America’s role in the world should be.
It is fair to say we are paying the price of both of their views going too far — Bush’s interventionism causing chaos and Obama’s hurried retrenchment creating power vacuums filled by the likes of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Mistakes were made. They were mistakes, however, made with the best interests of the country and the world in mind. Today we are seeing all too well what happens when the world’s most powerful nation is instead led by a man who cares only for his personal interests. Instead of being guided by the values of the Founding Fathers, Trump has the moral compass of a YouTube comments section. America First is bad enough, Trump First is a catastrophe.