Trump shows that he hasn't folded to the anti-Russia war hawks just yet
Trump and Lavrov in the Oval Office
Within the Neoconservative ideology that holds sway over the American political establishment, it is axiomatic that democratic countries are peace-loving because they truly reflect in policy the peaceful and business-like mentality of the broad population. By contrast, authoritarian regimes are warlike because they are inherently unstable, lacking as they do genuine grass-roots support, and must resort to external aggression or threats of violence abroad to keep their people in line. Authoritarian regimes should be brought down one way or another if we are to enjoy global peace. So the story goes.
The actions of the Trump administration over the past several weeks show beyond any doubt that democracies can and do use external aggression or threats of violence abroad precisely to resolve domestic political wrangling. This is all the more true when policy is being advised by the master Realist, Henry Kissinger, who has great depth of experience in the trade-offs we will now examine.
The U.S. Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian air base at Shayrat on 6 April shocked and surprised the world, as was intended. To be sure, its scope was limited, the damage in military infrastructure inflicted was minimal whether by intent or due to Russian electronic counter-measures, and loss of lives on the ground, especially Russian lives, was averted by pre-warning to the Kremlin, in accordance with an existing Memorandum between the sides on rules of engagement within Syrian air space.
But it was, nonetheless, an act of aggression by the United States against a country with which it is not at war. It demonstrated U.S. readiness to violate international law and its capability to literally ‘take out’ Assad at any time of its choosing by bombing his palace with unstoppable missiles fired from the middle of the Mediterranean. Moreover, the attack was justified in the most brazen way as a response to alleged Syrian government use of chemical weapons against a town in Idlib province.
No neutral, professional outside investigation had been called or would be called for by the American side. All of this constituted yet another exercise in America’s acting as the world’s judge, jury and policeman, the very approach to international affairs that Donald Trump rejected in his run for the presidency.
The disorienting impact of this sudden use of deadly military force abroad without sanction of Congress, thus in theoretical violation of the U.S. Constitution for those of us who still believe in rule of law, was then compounded by what followed next: Washington’s dire warnings to North Korea to stop its missile and nuclear arms testing or face severe consequences. The Trump administration announced the dispatch of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier Vinson and its escorting flotilla to Korean waters, and hinted it was weighing options of dealing a preventive strike to take down the Pyongyang regime.
The result of these two initiatives – in Syria and in Korea – was instant rapturous support from U.S. mainstream media and from politicians in both parties who had been among Trump’s most vocal critics. For a brief period even the witch hunt over “Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections” was put on hold.
At the same time, the rest of us were left in shock and dismay over how this President and his administration had caved in completely to the Neocon/Liberal Interventionist mafia that has been running our country ever since the second term of Bill Clinton. Moreover, the claims of his rivals from the election campaign that Donald Trump is a thin-skinned narcissist who is potentially unstable, volatile and a dangerous person to let near the nuclear button – these claims began to appear substantiated.
There was even more reason for concern now given that Trump had surrounded himself with a national security advisor and Pentagon chief with sobriquets like “mad dog” that they earned among the tough crowd in which they rose to command.
Against this background of growing dismay and fear for our country and the world by those of us in the pro-détente camp, it was quite remarkable to see that two days ago, on 10 May, Donald Trump held meetings in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, who otherwise is at the center of the storms over “Russiagate.”
Trump with Kissinger in the Oval Office
Still more remarkable that these talks were described by all sides as “constructive” and as setting the agenda for the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 in Germany in July. In its front page coverage, the Russophobe Financial Times spoke of a ‘new re-set’ in the offing.
I suggest that the correlation between the 6 April bombing and the cordial meeting with Lavrov in the Oval Office is linear. The bombing, the huffing and puffing over North Korea had one primary objective: to shut up the opponents to Trump in the media and on Capitol Hill, and to give him breathing room to finally achieve something significant on his domestic agenda.
In fact the breathing room was sufficient for Trump to win passage in the House of the bill to repeal/replace Obamacare. This was one of the two most important legislative changes the candidate Trump had proposed in his electoral campaign, alongside tax reform, but it was hotly contested within his own party and failed on the first try. The winning vote on 4 May was a purely partisan victory, with all of the Democratic Congressmen voting against. But Trump and House Majority leader Ryan got the numbers needed and declared victory.
With this show of strength among Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, Trump set back Democratic hopes for eventually putting through impeachment proceedings. And now the President has gone on the offensive: within two days this past week he fired FBI Director James Comey, who was heading the fishing expedition investigation into alleged collusion of members of his campaign with the Russians.
And he convened the “constructive talks” with Foreign Minister Lavrov, raising hopes that his wished-for reconciliation with the Russians may yet actually take place, taking us back from the brink of nuclear war.
The correlation between the 6 April cruise missile strike in Syria and the latest developments in U.S.-Russian dialogue at the highest levels is not something you might expect from a President and an administration that has come in from the business world and has no hands-on experience in government, not to mention in the very special environment of international relations. Here is where we have to take very seriously the mention in the same FinancialTimes coverage cited above that Henry Kissinger is frequently consulted by the President these days. And pointedly, at the meeting with the press two days ago in which Trump responded to questions about the firing of Comey, Henry K. was ensconced comfortably in an armchair just next to the President.
I believe that the bombing of the Shayrat air base, under any pretext, real or manufactured, was precisely the kind of policy that Kissinger would have supported, and possibly would have authored to drive back the hyena-like press and political enemies who had formed a circle around Trump in the period immediately preceding the strike. Trump’s sending out his subordinates – whether UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, or Secretary of State Tillerson, or Secretary of Defense James Mattis, or Vice President Mike Pence – to make anti-Russian statements in direct continuation of their Obama administration predecessors at home and abroad in the weeks following his inauguration had not mollified his opponents and he appeared to be politically hobbled. The bombing of Shayrat did the trick at home. America was indeed a rogue nation again with a President our hawks could respect.
All of this is a page out of the Nixon presidency, in particular, the so-called Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong harbor in 1972. It was ferocious, it was unnecessary militarily, it cost vast damage in lives and property on the ground, and it cost the lives of a good many American airmen who were shot down by the Vietnamese air defense. It was meant to show that Richard Nixon was unbalanced, volatile, a dangerous man with whom you’d better do a deal. And a deal was struck within a month of the bombings.
Of course, if a deal with Russia comes about in the newly “constructive” atmosphere, it will not be the result of Trump administration efforts alone. In the past few weeks, and in particular in the period from 2 to 7 May, President Putin and his team of negotiators were working flat out to find a compromise solution in the Syrian civil war that would allow all sides to the conflict to save face and to let the Syrians move on to a political settlement while also liquidating ISIS forces in their country.
The visit of Angela Merkel to Putin’s residence in Sochi on 2 May was a warm-up exercise. Merkel had her own domestic political reasons for coming, to counter the accusations of her political opponents in the coming federal elections that she was responsible for ruining relations with Russia. But surely the visit was also used to clue-in Merkel, and the European Union behind her, to Russian initiatives under way among the participants in the Syrian conflict.
That same evening, Putin had a phone call with Donald Trump which focused on Syria. Still more importantly, the next day President Erdogan arrived in Sochi for agreement of the common Russian-Turkish positions at the direct talks in Astana, Kazakhstan between the warring parties in Syria that have been far more substantial and results-oriented than the US and EU sponsored talks in Geneva that get all of the attention of Western media. Failure to agree positions at the previously scheduled Astana round had resulted in Turkish-backed combatants in Syria not attending.
Trump with Lavrov (left) and Kislyak (right)
However, this time the Turks and Russians saw eye to eye on the contours of a deal. At the conclusion of the Astana negotiations, on 7 May, a Memorandum was signed on creation of 6 “de-escalation zones” in Syria with the 3 powers standing as its guarantors of implementation: Russia, Turkey and Iran.
This framework also may be described by the Americans and European Union as the long-demanded “safe zones” or “no-flight zones” because once established on the ground, the deal ensures cessation of all air attacks by Syrian, Russian, and US-allied forces over the zones in question. Within those zones, the Russia-brokered decommissioning of armed opposition to Assad under terms of amnesty will proceed. These forces will have the option of joining the continuing Syrian Army attack on Islamic State and related Islamist extremist combatants or sitting by quietly while Assad’s forces do the job.
The de-escalation zones are instated for an initial period of six months and will be renewed if they succeed. They can have the effect of bringing peace to large swathes of the Syrian countryside and prepare the way for refugees to return.
In a sense, what Vladimir Putin has achieved now in combination with Turkey, Iran and Assad’s government is as significant, possibly more significant than what he did for Obama in 2013 to remove and destroy the Syrian government’s stock of chemical weapons and equipment for their manufacture.
The solution that has been hammered out in Astana is being put to the UN Security Council for approval. We will see how the U.S. votes to better understand the future direction of U.S.-Russian relations. Removal of the contentious issue of Syria from the agenda of the two great powers will be a good down payment on solution of the equally thorny issue of Ukraine, Donbas and the Crimean peninsula.
Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future?was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.