Eric Edelman–a former undersecretary of defense in the Bush administration, an aide to Vice President Cheney, and one of the most respected foreign policy hands in Washington–wrote that the July 7 meeting in Hamburg between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin was the most disastrous superpower summit since John F. Kennedy met Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. That Cold War-era summit emboldened the Soviets to put up the Berlin Wall and send missiles to Cuba, thus bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. It’s a harsh judgment, but its essential accuracy is being confirmed by what we have learned since July 7.
Trump appears proud of the fact that he actually raised with Putin the issue of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. But the way he did so engenders no confidence. According to Edelman, “Tillerson is reported to have told associates privately that he was stunned that the president opened the discussion by saying ‘I’m going to get this out of the way,’ in effect signaling his lack of seriousness about the issue.”
Trump’s own account is hardly more reassuring. On July 12, on his way back to Europe, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One: “I said to [Putin], were you involved with the meddling in the election? He said, absolutely not. I was not involved. He was very strong on it. I then said to him again, in a totally different way, were you involved with the meddling. He said, I was not–absolutely not.” Having failed to extract a confession from Putin, Trump then moved on to talking about Syria. What else can you do, he told reporters—“end up in a fist fight”?
What Trump should have done—what any other president would have done—was not ask Putin whether he did something that the U.S. intelligence community knows he did. The president should have said, “We know you did this—and here are the consequences.” Only Trump himself won’t publicly accept that Russia was the sole hacker, and he’s not interested in meting out any consequences. Indeed, his administration is lobbying to water down in the House a Russia-sanctions bill approved by the Senate.
One of the summit achievements that Trump trumpeted initially was an agreement to form with Russia an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, [and] many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.” This fox-guarding-the-hen-house proposal was met with such universal derision that within hours Trump disowned the idea, shortly after his Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin had loyally praised it on TV.
But Trump is still standing by the other summit take away, which was the announcement of a limited ceasefire in southwestern Syria. “We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives,” Trump tweeted. “Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”
In point of fact, the agreement between the U.S. and Russia did nothing more than ratify a unilateral truce announced the previous week by the Syrian government in this area so that Bashar Assad could focus his hard-pressed forces on other parts of the country. The truce is unlikely to hold for long, but it is already being met with considerable concern in Israel, since the territory in question borders the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and the land of Israel’s ally, Jordan.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out in stark terms against the ceasefire on Sunday, breaking with Trump to do so, because the Israeli security establishment is worried that the ceasefire will allow Iran and its Hezbollah proxies to consolidate their control of this strategically important land.
This development highlights the tension between Trump’s anti-Iran policy (his national security adviser at the time, Mike Flynn, put Iran “on notice” in February) and his more accommodating stance toward Iran’s ally, Russia. Contrary to what Rex Tillerson naively says, Russia does not have the same interests in Syria as the U.S. does. Russia is in Syria to consolidate Bashar Assad’s rule—not to fight ISIS or other Sunni terrorist groups, except insofar as they pose a danger to Assad’s rule.
To achieve its aims in Syria, Russia is working hand-in-glove with Iran, which remains Assad’s most important sponsor. Iran’s goal is to create a new Iranian sphere of influence stretching from Tehran to Beirut, and it is well on its way toward achieving that objective. The expansion of Iranian power is a mortal threat to Israel and a serious danger for other U.S. allies in the region.
Given the way that Moscow is collaborating with Tehran, Trump cannot be anti-Iran and pro-Russia. It’s a package deal—choose one or the other. The worry is that at Hamburg Trump may have chosen Russia.