Perception Matters: Why Didn’t Putin Invade Under Trump? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Perception Matters: Why Didn’t Putin Invade Under Trump?

The date was November 4, 1980. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. Ironically, it was exactly one year to the day that over 50 Americans were taken hostage by Iranian zealots under Jimmy Carter. For the likes of Col. Charles W. Scott, it marked a full year in captivity at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

Scott later recalled the frightened reaction of his Islamist captors to Reagan’s landslide victory: “I remember specifically when one of the guards came in and said, ‘Reagan is now the new president. What do you think will happen when he comes into office?’ I didn’t say a word, I just went ‘BOOM.’ And they said, ‘Really?’ And I said ‘Yeah, the first day he’s in office after the inaugural ceremony, he’ll go back to the White House and say ‘OK, tell the Iranians if they don’t let those hostages go by midnight tomorrow night, its war.’”

A few weeks later, on January 20, 1981, quite literally as Reagan was being inaugurated, every single hostage was released. The double headline across the top of the New York Times the next day said it all: “Reagan Takes Oath as 40th President; Promises An ‘Era of National Renewal’; Minutes Later, 52 U.S. Hostages in Iran Fly to Freedom After 444-Day Ordeal.”

President Jimmy Carter had worked exhaustingly to gain the hostages’ release, but he failed. What was crucial was Reagan. Or, better put, the threat of Reagan. It was a threat, oddly, magnified to great unintended effectiveness by liberals and their ridiculous hyperbole about Reagan.

Throughout the 1980 campaign, liberals portrayed Ronald Reagan as a trigger-happy cowboy itching to shoot something — no, to blow up something. Liberals screamed that foreign policy under a President Reagan was a terrifying prospect. Reagan was a warmonger. Nuclear war was a real possibility.

While this achieved for liberals its intent of scaring many voters away from Reagan, it also had the effect of scaring the daylights out of enemies abroad. One such group of enemies held American hostages in Tehran. When Reagan won election that day in November 1980, the first question that crossed many Iranian minds was a rather primordial one: Does this mean we’ll be bombed back to the Stone Age?

That perception of Reagan mattered.

Richard V. Allen was Reagan’s foreign policy adviser during the campaign and his first national security adviser. I interviewed Allen on this subject. He noted that Reagan had “sought to be very careful not to inflame” or undercut the Carter administration’s diplomatic work, refraining “from doing or saying anything that would jeopardize whatever the [Carter] administration was doing to secure the release of the hostages.” But, said Allen, “we … never discouraged any journalist from thinking that, better yet, writing or saying, in effect, ‘the Iranians had better watch out, make their deal with Carter now, because once Reagan is in office, things will be radically different.’”

The outgoing Carter administration enhanced the Reagan threat through a high-level team engaged in negotiations with Iran. In the words of one Carter official, the team was ordered to communicate that “it will be a whole new ball game after January 20.”

The Iranians were convinced. The hostages were released on January 20 — the very moment that Reagan was being sworn in as 40th president of the United States.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that the release, coming at the precise timing of the inauguration itself, was both a slap at Carter and fear of what would come next,” judged Richard Allen.

Allen is hardly alone. Among scholars, Steven Hook of Kent State University and John Spanier of the University of Florida noted: “The Iranians expected harsher measures from Reagan, including military action.”

Why mention this lesson now? Well, fast forward to the Trump years, and Joe Biden.

The same thing happened with liberals and Donald Trump. They portrayed Trump as a trigger-happy madman with his itchy finger dangerously near the nuclear button — like Reagan, a reckless cowboy. And yet, Trump rarely used military power as president. He actually got along with crazy Kim in North Korea, so much so that some of his gushing statements about the little dictator were outrageously embarrassing. What Trump achieved in the Middle East, with the president and his team getting multiple Arab nations to recognize Israel (the first Arab recognitions since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994), was tremendous. It would have earned a Democrat the Nobel Peace Prize. But no awards for Trump, as liberals were too busy framing him as a wild man.

Well, that liberal caricature probably had a positive effect in deterring someone like a Vladimir Putin.

The last time that Vlad the assailer (as Dan Flynn calls him) took a bite out of Ukraine was in 2014, when Barack Obama was president and Joe Biden was vice president. Now, in 2022, Putin is at it again, but far worse. I never thought the man would actually invade Kiev, but he has, relentlessly and brutally. He wants all of Ukraine.

So, 2014 and 2022. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius or Henry Kissinger to figure out that Vlad refrained from invasions during the Trump presidency. And as someone who is hardly a Trump apologist, I think I have some credibility on this. In fact, I warned in 2015-16 that electing Trump would be bad for NATO, for Poland, and good for Putin. My conservative Polish friends, who adored Reagan, were very worried about Trump’s early statements. My warnings infuriated Trump supporters.

And yet, Putin largely behaved himself under Trump. Why?

We don’t know all the reasons, of course. Putin is not going to sit down on a couch and sob a pile of psychobabble to Oprah Winfrey. But generally speaking, and I say this as a literal student of international relations, perception matters in foreign policy. Perception, perception, perception.

Everyone knows this. It’s why even liberals at CNN had a cow over Joe Biden’s debacle in Afghanistan last July-August. Everyone knew at the time that Biden’s disaster not only sent a signal to the Taliban and ISIS but to the likes of Putin in Russia and Xi in China. Eyes quickly turned to Ukraine (Putin) and Taiwan (Xi). Was this a greenlight to Putin and Xi to make their moves?

Going back to 2014, recall that Putin plowed into the Crimea a year into Obama’s second term, and that Obama had infamously in an open-mic moment told Putin lap-dog Dmitri Medvedev in 2012 that he would have “more flexibility after the election.” A grinning Medvedev ghoulishly and greedily replied, “Yes, I tell Vladimir!”

Vlad listened. Putin, nurtured in the KGB, learned to respect strength and prey on weakness.

Again, a president who understood this was Ronald Reagan. “If you were going to approach the Russians with a dove of peace in one hand, you had to have a sword in the other,” said Reagan. “We had to bargain with them from strength, not weakness.” Reagan’s motto toward the USSR was dovorey no provorey, Russian for “trust but verify.”

And yet, that was not what Barack Obama did. Obama had approached Putin with a dove in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other. Obama showed weakness, and the Russians exploited it. Putin abused it.

Reagan took pride in the fact that the Soviets didn’t gain “one inch of ground” while he was president. Indeed, they did not — and that was so after they picked up nearly a dozen satellite states in the immediate years before Reagan, under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

Joe Biden is bringing us back to the Obama years and even the Carter years, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan (seven weeks after the Iranians seized Americans as hostages in Iran) and picked up client states left and right.

Whatever Putin’s reasoning, it is undeniably striking that he didn’t seek to annihilate Ukraine under President Donald Trump. For four years, he hit the pause button. Now, his troops are everywhere in Ukraine. It happened under Joe Biden. That is a fact that cannot be shrugged off by Trump haters. In fact, fair-minded liberals get it: “OK, but if Putin thought Trump was really that supportive of him, why didn’t he invade when Trump was in office?” Bill Maher recently asked. “It’s at least worth asking that question if you’re not locked into one intransigent thought.”

It sure is.

In foreign policy, perception matters. How a leader is viewed by adversaries is vital. Liberals promoted a perception of Donald Trump as a belligerent jackass. The Russians heard their wailing. Did liberals’ hysteria give Putin caution over Trump?

Again, Putin hasn’t told us. But his actions, unfortunately, speak loud enough.

Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is Editor of The American Spectator. Dr. Kengor is also a professor of political science at Grove City College, a senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values, and the author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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