A few days ago, Katrina vanden Heuvel, senior editor and publisher of The Nation, wrote an op-ed for that magazine, in which she makes the case for "parsing the inane from the sensible in what the president said" at the Helsinki summit last week.
I should point out I have been a fan of vanden Heuvel for years and consider her to be a very lucid and thoughtful, if somewhat provocative, writer. She has a nasty habit of making progressives look before they leap to judgment; a trait I wish more progressive writers would adopt. But referring to anything that came out of this summit as "sensible" strains the bounds of credibility.
To be fair, vanden Heuvel starts off by acknowledging Trump's "manic defensiveness about the legitimacy of his election" and the "serial lying" that has come to define his administration. Indeed, she is not blind to what he and his fellow Republicans have done and continue to do to the country. But it's not her critique of Trump that I take issue with; it's her implication - shared by more than just a few progressives and an overwhelming majority of libertarians - that the United States must share the blame for the current state of relations between both countries that is most troubling. She writes,
Although he was widely reviled for it, Trump is also not wrong to say that both powers have contributed to the deteriorating relations. Leaders of the US national-security establishment protest our country’s innocence regarding the tensions in Georgia and Ukraine. But it was perhaps the wisest of them, the eminent diplomat George Kennan, who warned in 1998 that the decision to extend NATO to Russia’s borders was a “tragic mistake” that would eventually provoke a hostile response. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war,” Kennan said presciently. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.”First off, the jury is still out as to whether NATO's expansion eastward was the motivating factor for Russian aggression. In an interview she did for 60 Minutes back in January, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-cheif of RT, said it was the decision to bomb then Yugoslavia in 1999 that was the turning point in U.S. - Russian relations. According to her, "That was when you lost us."
Now there's no way of knowing whether even that is accurate. Simonyan is, after all, 38 years old. That would've made her 19 at the time of the U.S. intervention. I seriously doubt that she was as plugged into events happening just outside her country as she is now. What is more likely is that she has been conditioned to accept that narrative as fact, like a majority of her fellow citizens and, sadly, many progressives in this country. They still hold on to the notion that it was Western expansion that provoked Eastern retaliatory responses, when in fact history shows the exact opposite.
The truth, I suspect, has more to do with Vladimir Putin's desire to reconstruct the old Soviet empire he knew as a KGB agent than with any increased influence of NATO or our intervention into what was widely and rightly viewed by the global community as a war of genocide. And that is why both George W. Bush and Barack Obama badly misread and greatly underestimated him in their negotiations. And also why Trump is foolishly following in their footsteps.
Let's set aside for the moment the discussion of whether you believe Trump is guilty of treason - as I wrote in my last piece, he is. Let's also set aside his insistence that the whole Russia investigation is a witch hunt. For an American president to stand on the same stage as a Russian president and even hint that both sides are equally to blame - stupid was the word Trump used - is insulting and belies the facts, whether you're a progressive, conservative, libertarian or Romulan.
As to the other point vanden Heuvel makes in her piece - the "common stakes" both countries have in "reducing tensions" - I would agree with her, to a point. However, the manner in which Trump broached the subject - from weakness rather than strength - is anathema to any successful discussion along those lines. It would be analogous to the victim of a house burglary reaching out to the burglar to help him design a home security system.
God help me for saying this, but in the last 70 years of dealing with the Russians, only one American president has had the right approach. That was Ronald Reagan. As much as it kills me to admit, Reagan's tough stance on what he called the "Evil Empire," forced Moscow to the negotiating table. His meetings with then Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev helped paved the way for the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. While the Left was critical of Reagan's rhetoric - many calling it reckless and hyperbolic - in hindsight he was proven right.
The simple fact is that the only way to negotiate with Russia historically has been through strength. Anything less than that is viewed by them as capitulation. Right now in Moscow, Putin and his supporters must be grinning from ear to ear. They could scarcely have imagined a better outcome than what transpired in Helsinki. Think about it: Putin got the satisfaction of being able to paint his country as the moral equivalent of the United States. Like Kim Jong Un earlier in the year, a dictator went toe to toe with our president and came out the clear winner. Reagan must be spinning in his grave at the mere spectacle.
Look, I am not against the idea of both countries working together to reduce global tensions. No sane person wants a scenario in which the two countries that possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear arsenal find themselves in another Cuban Missile Crisis. But what happened in Helsinki was a hostage takeover, pure and simple. Putin barked and Trump bowed. Just look at the body language of both men and you tell me who you think had the better day.
International diplomacy is one of the essential job requirements of any world leader. It demands rigorous discipline and intense preparation; the exact opposite of what we saw last Monday. What we got instead was one president who was at the top of his game while the other was clearly in over his head.
I'll give you one guess which one Trump was.