The fondness of recent American presidents for Putin remains inexplicable.
On President Trump’s twelve-day Asia trip he visited South Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, met with those nations’ leaders and — at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam — with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Trump and the leaders he met with made a lot of news but it was shoved to the inside pages by the media who are far more interested in Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken.
The president’s first stop was in Japan where he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The only press coverage was of their round of golf and the fact that the president seemed unaware when Abe took a tumble in a sand trap.
Abe has been Trump’s most consistent suitor, the first foreign leader to visit him in the White House after the inauguration. The November 5 meeting was no different. Abe lavished praise on Trump who awkwardly reciprocated, saying that Japan was a valuable partner though its economy was going to always be second to America’s. Abe endured Trump’s comments patiently even after the president criticized Japan for not shooting down North Korean missiles that passed over his nation.
Abe wanted Trump to back off his desire to end the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Trump didn’t do.
Trump’s next stop was South Korea where he visited U.S. troops and met with Prime Minister Moon Jae-in. Moon had delayed deployment of new Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) batteries earlier, but Trump said that America makes the finest defense equipment in the world which South Korea would be purchasing several billion dollars’ worth.
The highlight of Trump’s visit to South Korea — and of the whole trip — was his superb speech to the National Assembly. He spoke of our great sacrifices in the Korean War and of South Korea’s as well. He praised its near-miraculous recovery from that devastation to become one of the world’s leading economies.
His most important words were directed at our mutual enemy, North Korea. He spoke at length of the horrors of life in North Korea where many live, starving, in the cold. Trump spoke of the horrors endured by about one hundred thousand North Koreans imprisoned in that nation’s gulags where they have to endure starvation, torture, rape, and murder. He said, “The horror of life in North Korea is so complete that citizens pay bribes to government officials to have themselves exported abroad as slaves. They would rather be slaves than live in North Korea.” Which nations receive the exported slaves he didn’t say.
Trump restated his desire for peace through strength, saying North Korea shouldn’t doubt our resolve. “History is filled with discarded regimes that have foolishly tested America’s resolve. Anyone who doubts the strength or determination of the United States should look to our past, and you will doubt it no longer.”
Trump said, “The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves.” He called on all nations to deny North Korea aid, mentioning China and Russia specifically.
It wasn’t Reagan, calling on Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, but it was an enormously powerful speech.
Trump’s next stop was China and his meetings with President Xi Jinping focused on trade (about a quarter trillion dollars in deals were announced) and North Korea, to which Xi responded with his stock statement that China is supposedly committed to denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
The one possibly good result came shortly after Trump’s visit when Xi announced that he was sending a special envoy to North Korea. But it’s unlikely to change anything there for two big reasons.
First, China has for years been supporting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in violation of the UN arms embargo. For example, the mobile missile launchers North Korea has mated to its long-range missiles are manufactured in China. I’m told that they are shipped to North Korea as logging trucks.
Second, it’s highly unlikely that China has the total control over North Korea that is usually ascribed to it. Though China can pressure North Korea with reductions in food and oil shipments, a regime such as Xi’s, which is supplying the North Koreans with some of their most important military assets, has no motivation to do that.
From China, Trump went to Vietnam for the APEC summit. His speech was an “America first” address on trade. But his brief encounters with Putin resulted in a joint statement that showed the world he was outsmarted and outmaneuvered by Putin. It wasn’t the first time.
Special reports by my friends at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) have pointed out that the first time Putin ate Trump’s lunch was in May, at the “Astana Summit,” in which the U.S. participated. In the agreement reached then, Iran was given the status of “guarantor” of the plan for deployment of forces fighting ISIS. Iran, and Russia, have taken advantage of this to deploy major Iranian forces in Syria, some close to the Israeli border.
In the joint Trump-Putin statement of November 10, there is no mention of the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria. A map, showing the Iranian positions in Syria, reportedly was attached to the statement but not released to the public. A statement by Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was broadcast from the Russian airbase at Hmeimim in which Peskov said plainly that withdrawal of Iranian troops and armed forces loyal to Iran wasn’t part of the Astana agreement. Peskov’s statement went on to demand that the U.S. stop trying to say that it was.
The Astana agreement, and the joint statement by Putin and Trump, are enormous errors. They enable Iran, a sworn enemy of the United States and our ally Israel, to keep forces close to Israel’s border. Among those forces reportedly is a missile factory supplying Syria and the Lebanese Hizb’allah terrorist force. (I use Hizb’allah, literally the “party of God” rather than the bowdlerized “Hezbollah” because that is the name the terrorists use themselves.)
There is a qualitative difference between Iran and Hizb’allah. The latter, while it can cause great damage to Israel, cannot destroy it. Iran can.
Trump’s last stop, the Philippines, was his occasion to meet its president, Rodrigo Duterte. Though the visit was to another summit, that of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Trump spoke about our great relationship with the Philippines and, implicitly, Duterte. Duterte, who has bragged about his personal role in killing drug traffickers, and is accused by human rights groups of all sorts of acts, is not someone who can be trusted.
That meeting was supposed to be all about anti-terrorism efforts in the Philippines, in which the U.S. has a major role. Though ISIS has a substantial presence in the Philippines, there was apparently no substantive discussion about it.
The question that arises from the president’s trip is what he has learned from the leaders with whom he met. His weakness in dealing with Russia and Putin is inexplicable, as was George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s. Bush said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a man he believed to be trustworthy, which was both risible and anti-historical. Obama courted Putin and gave him a new nuclear weapons treaty that is enormously damaging to our national security.
Given his enormous errors in the Astana agreement and the November 10 joint statement, it’s pretty clear that Trump is following in the footsteps of Bush and Obama. He needs to do a lot better than they did. As Donald Rumsfeld is fond of saying, weakness is provocative.