Donald Trump came home from his first G20 meeting as president with U.S. policy towards Russia, Syria, and Europe in the same state of confusion as when he left. On issues from election interference, Syria’s ongoing civil war, and defense of its allies, the administration made contradictory statements and lacked credibility.
Start with his big Warsaw speech the day before the G20 started: He spoke of values threatened by terrorism, violence, and tyranny, but he didn’t define those values or the threats. Since his first foreign trip, he has been vague as to what he thinks constitutes terrorism. In Saudi Arabia, a country that is funding militants and spreading Wahhabism, he called for nations of the world to “drive out the terrorists and extremists.” As one might have expected, he took the opportunity in Warsaw to emphasize the fact that he made a speech in Saudi Arabia.
But who was he referring to when he said “drive out the terrorists?” Are the groups fighting to overthrow Assad terrorists? Clearly some of them are affiliated with terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and even those that are not are engaging in anti-government violence to achieve political goals, which falls under the definition of terrorism. Yet Trump has appeared to have good chemistry with the Saudis, bragging (and vasty exaggerating) about the prospect of selling them millions of dollars of weapons. He even appeared to side with Saudi Arabia in its geopolitical conflict with Qatar, before he even knew what was happening. (Read Blatt and Maitra’s piece on the Qatar situation in The National Interest.)
It wasn’t but three paragraphs later that Trump’s call for states to stop supporting terrorism ran up against the reality of Syria. He said, “We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran.” By implication, this policy would help the militants and terrorists fighting in Syria; without Russia’s support, the Syrian regime would be much weaker.
The call for Russia to stop supporting Iran and the labeling of Iran as a “hostile regime” also plays into Saudi Arabia’s goal for domination of the Middle East. Rather than opposing terrorism, Trump is simply buying the Saudi framing of “terrorism” as an excuse to push Saudi self-interest—even at the expense of U.S. interests.
This follows months of confused policy from the Trump administration on Syria. As Bombs + Dollars has documented, the Trump administration has vacillated between withdrawing American opposition to Assad and calling for Assad’s overthrow. In the span of one week in April, the White House went from saying U.S. policy was not focused on getting Assad out to calling for Assad’s ouster and then bombing an airfield.
Now in a press conference after Trump’s meeting with Putin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “And I would tell you that, by and large, our objectives are exactly the same. How we get there, we each have a view. But there’s a lot more commonality to that than there are differences.”
What does it mean that he said the U.S. and Russian objectives are “exactly the same”? Russia is fighting for Assad to stay in power; Obama and Trump have both been supporting the fight against Assad.
Trump’s team was also emphasizing what they called a “de-escalation agreement and memorandum” (in the words of Tillerson) between the U.S., Russia, and Jordan. News outlets are calling this a “ceasefire” or a “partial ceasefire” in their headlines, but it’s far from it. There cannot be a ceasefire in Syria that doesn’t include the menagerie of opposition groups, with competing interests, fighting against Assad. There have been attempts at ceasefires multiple times before, and there’s no reason to think this one will be any more successful.
In fact, the so-called de-escalation agreement isn’t even finished. Tillerson said one question later:
And we are — we have a very clear picture of who will provide the security forces, but we have a few more details to work out. And if I could, I’d like to defer on that until that is completed. I expect that will be completed within the next — less than a week. The talks are very active and ongoing.
It seems like another one of Trump’s press conferences with folders full of blank papers, an announcement of an arms deal that later turns out to be unfinished, a signing ceremony for a memorandum that merely calls on Congress to produce a bill, or a one-page long “tax proposal.”
And if the U.S. “position continues to be that we see no long-term role for the Assad family or the Assad regime,” as Tillerson also said, then there’s no way for the U.S. to reach long-term accommodation with Russia on that. Russia has itself in a strong position on Assad, and they won’t give it up for nothing. They want a pro-Russia government in charge there.
At the same time, Trump and his administration offered a very weak rebuke to Russia for its interference in the U.S. election. There was no discussion of consequences. Putin said that Trump “accepted” his answer on hacking, and Sergey Lavron said Trump told Putin “certain circles still inflate subject of Russian meddling in elections, even though they have no proof.” While those statements come from Russia’s officials with their own bias, it is striking that American officials didn’t dispute Putin’s account. While at least one unnamed official disputed Putin, neither Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin nor H.R. McMaster disputed him when asked directly about it on the record.
In fact, Lavrov’s account lines up very much with what Trump has been saying in public—to American audiences—about Russian hacking:
Trump has been saying the same thing to American public in statements and interviews. Entirely plausible he might have said it to Putin. https://t.co/Ld53cx5Wlf
— Mitchell Blatt (@MitchBlatt) July 8, 2017
The day before the meeting, Trump said, “Well, I think it was Russia and I think it was other people in other countries who also interfere. I wont be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere.”
Trump is no paradigm of “Western values”
The other focal point of Trump’s Warsaw speech was his emphasis on defending “Western values.” It was a fine speech as far as it went, but Trump lacks credibility when it comes to defending Russian values, which, again, were defined loosely or undefined.
“We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success,” he said. One week before, he was attacking a female journalist for “bleeding,” a recurring trope he has used on the campaign trail as well.
“We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.” When judges have ruled against Trump, he has attacked their legitimacy, calling them “so-called judges” and preemptively blaming them for future terrorist attacks.
He has constantly attacked the idea of freedom of the press and used the office of the presidency to attack those who critique him. He has called the press “enemies of the American people.” He has constantly threatened to sue news outlets for accurate but negative stories they report about him, and this past month he raised the specter of using the tax code to punish Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos for coverage Trump doesn’t like from the paper. Both the conservative Daily Caller and the New York Times have administration sources telling them that Trump might consider using its anti-trust oversight power as leverage over CNN, whose parent company is considering a merger with AT&T.
On almost any value associated with freedom, individual rights, and Enlightenment, Trump is antagonistic, skeptical, or apathetic. He can’t even credibly deliver the message about “family” and “God,” considering his own family situation—although he does apparently love his children enough to put them into government positions where they can rub shoulders with Xi Jinping even as they do business manufacturing and selling jewelry in China.
The main theme of the first half of the speech, Poland’s historic resistance to border encroachments by the Nazis and the Soviets, was undercut by the fact that Trump hasn’t stood strongly against Russia’s encroachment on borders. He refused to endorse Article 5 at his NATO speech in Brussels. And despite Tillerson emphasizing the fact that the Senate has passed a sanctions bill, at the time the Senate voted for it, Trump’s administration issued took a soft-oppositional position on the amendment.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated the Trump administration had a confused policy towards Russia, which may be true, but in that particular context it was meant to say “Syria,” where the policy does touch on Russia policy. It has been corrected.