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Trump story

For all the ire levied against him, Donald Trump is succeeding in making his mark on US foreign policy, overturning traditional doctrine in the process

Abdel-Moneim Said , Wednesday 1 Aug 2018

What is amazing about Donald Trump is that whenever his adversaries think his popularity has plunged due something he said or did, opinion polls prove the reverse: that his “base” is as rock solid as ever.

The most recent example is the Helsinki summit and the ongoing commotion since. Republican and Democratic congressmen agree that his behaviour there was unprecedented in the history of the meetings between US presidents and their Russian counterparts whether during the Soviet era or since the establishment of the Russian Federation.

The shock did not have to do with the announcement that the US attorney-general had issued indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officials for conspiring to rig the US presidential elections.

There was nothing new about the allegation of Russian meddling in the polls. Indeed, the subject is a permanent feature of the current presidential term.

Rather, the shock came from the latest revelations concerning the Trump’s personal behaviour following the confiscation of material from the office of his former lawyer, which included a secretly recorded tape in which Trump tells his lawyer to pay $130,000 to silence an American Playboy model who claimed to have had an extramarital affair with him.

The revelation made no dent whatsoever in the president’s popularity among his base. The same applied to the attorney general’s indictments against the Russians and, perhaps more amazingly, to Trump’s remarks in Helsinki in which he made it clear that he preferred to believe Vladimir Putin over the US intelligence agencies on the matter of Moscow’s electoral tampering.

The only possible explanation for this is that Trump represents a current of American opinion that is not concerned with his private life and that is indifferent to whether or whether not there was electoral fraud as long as their candidate made it into the White House.

Surveys taken among the Trump electoral base indicate that they believe everything he says and that he is right to attack the “Eastern establishment’s” media such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post in retaliation for their attacks against him.

They also cheer his tweeted barbs and ripostes which, apparently, are more effective than pro-Trump media such as Fox News.

In all events, Trump never pretended to be a saint in his personal life. But he does claim that he comes true on his promises, that he is a better bargainer and dealmaker than his rivals, and that he is more committed that they are to the advancement of American interests.

More perplexing, perhaps, than Trump’s behaviour is that of his liberal critics, whether in the media or among US political and intellectual elites. These have traditionally been keen to promote dialogue, cooperation and concord with Moscow.

They have always advocated arms reductions, working together with Russia to solve global problems, and assimilating Russia into the global order. They applauded Nixon when he initiated dialogue with the Kremlin and encouraged the progress towards the Helsinki Accords in 1974.

They cringed when Ronald Reagan dubbed Moscow the capital of the “empire of evil” and they rejoiced when Russia joined the G7, making it the G8.

Even when Russia annexed Crimea, they seemed more hostile toward Ukraine, and Obama moved to ease tensions with Russia so as to avert a spiralling hostility.

So why is it that what the liberals and Democrats met with approval and praise in the past elicits their scorn and condemnation when it comes from Trump?

A certain form of hypocrisy has caused American liberals and their media to ignore two important phenomena.

The first is the glimpse the world caught of Russia during the entire month of the World Cup finals.

Russia seemed modern, technologically sophisticated, capable and secure. There were no signs of economic collapse, or political or moral dictatorship.

Russia is not a second edition of the Soviet Union, but a new phenomenon in the scene of international relations in which competence and discipline marched side-by-side.

Secondly, so intense was the focus on Russian intervention in the US presidential elections that the major world issues discussed in the summit were totally ignored.

No attention was paid to the questions of Syria, Ukraine or Iran, or even to the future of US-Russia relations, which is so crucial to setting the form and tenor of international relations and determining the fate of war and peace in the world.

Despite the ongoing war between him and his political adversaries, including those within the Republican Party, Trump has begun to leave his mark on US foreign policy, often over the objections of his critics in the US establishment, even within the institutions that shape US policy, such as the State Department and the CIA.

Although he fires heavy barrages of provocations and threats in which he appears ready to set the world ablaze if his adversaries do not do as he wishes, he seems to get what he wants in the end.

The first and most dramatic instance was North Korea. His main aim was to get Pyongyang to concede to dismantling its nuclear arms programme.

This was achieved in the Singapore summit, even though the price was to reduce the US military presence in South Korea, halt joint military exercises with Seoul, lift sanctions from North Korea and increase investments there.

It was a deal representative of the core Trump philosophy, which is commercially oriented and not big on expanding US military presence abroad.

Putting that deal into effect will take time and many rounds of negotiations. But the strategic framework has been established.

Another instance was the Helsinki summit with Russia, for which Trump has prepared since his election campaign. He was frank with his supporters when he told them that he admired Putin as a strong leader and that Russia was a country that the US could work with.

This was put into practice in Syria, where the two sides were in frequent communication at the very least in order to avert a clash between US-led coalition forces and the Russians there.

Perhaps the Russian proposal that Iran withdraw to a distance of 100 kilometres from northern Israel tells more about the direction of negotiations between the two sides than the results.

Even if the US rejected the Russian proposal, the proposal, itself, underscored the fact that the Iranian presence in Syria is the crux of the problem and that the distance to which Iranian forces withdraw is merely a detail.

It also tells us that Russia does not object to acknowledging that Iran’s regional behaviour is aggressive and that it recognises that this a question that can be a subject of negotiations in the framework of a new agreement that brings on board the US.

Of course, we still do not know the whole story of Helsinki and what took place there. When we see all the actual results play out, we may be in for some real surprises.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump story

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