Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Trump’s Russian Reset Reset

This time, the aim should be to hold Putin’s hand until he gives up power.

By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
The Wall Street Journal
December 14, 2016

Rex Tillerson’s preferment at the State Department perhaps is Donald Trump’s best answer to the clamor about Russian meddling in the U.S. election.

Mr. Tillerson may not be trained in diplomacy, but he’s had a lot of experience in dealing with Vladimir Putin. He opposed sanctions. He favors rapprochement. He’s one person who can talk to Mr. Putin.

No, this doesn’t mean Mr. Tillerson is a “friend of Vladimir”—a term meaningless in the context of somebody with Mr. Putin’s problems and dilemmas.

Mr. Trump is right to bring up the CIA’s faulty assessment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD, but not for the reason Mr. Trump implies. Think Tonkin Gulf. No president in his right mind lets a single provocation or intelligence judgment determine him on a strategy.

It’s untidy to say so, but presidents use provocations or intelligence judgments to justify deep-laid policies they have already committed themselves to. And whatever his approach to Russia ends up being, Mr. Trump is smart not to get railroaded into a confrontation because Democrats in Washington and certain Republicans want to make a fuss about information that rightly or wrongly—it doesn’t matter—accuses Mr. Putin of trying to assure Mr. Trump’s election.

Now Mr. Trump has to govern, and come up with a policy on Russia, potentially the most dangerous actor on the international scene, preferably without having to engage in any childish exercises to prove his administration isn’t Mr. Putin’s puppet.

Mr. Trump isn’t wrong to sense the panting desire of MSNBC hosts to use Russia to discredit his presidency. Don’t get us started on Paul Krugman’s hallucinogenic conflation of Mr. Putin with FBI director James Comey.

Yet, except for the bias of hindsight (which you would think the CIA had trained itself to avoid), does it not make more sense to suppose that the Kremlin, believing Hillary Clinton would win, actually thought it was using WikiLeaks to weaken her in office?

But then far-off observers are bad enough at “what” and typically terrible at “why.”

Twelve years ago, this column puzzled over Mr. Putin’s seeming ineptitude at making Russia a “gracious and dutiful partner for trade and finance,” and added, “Western imaginations didn’t quite grasp that Saddam Hussein fancied himself a conqueror, an empire builder, a man of destiny.”

Now the Russian regime is entering its rotten phase; Mr. Putin has no retirement plan. He increasingly relies on high-risk foreign interventions he can’t sustain to prop up his domestic legitimacy.

All national leaders have favorites in the elections of their partners and adversaries. Mr. Obama claimed his nuclear deal would help elect pro-Western moderates in Tehran. When Mr. Putin complains about America’s cavalier interventions abroad, however, he really means that America’s leaders have been unacceptably cavalier about the health and welfare of one Vladimir Putin.

Mrs. Clinton’s pointed questioning of his 2011 re-election, amid protests in the Moscow streets, was like the angel of death-by-lamppost fluttering around his ears.

Mr. Obama’s dismissal of Russia as a mere “regional power” undermined all the shirtless he-man posing Mr. Putin does to keep his domestic enemies at bay and the Russian masses on his side.

The U.S. cannot fix Mr. Putin’s problem for him, but it can help him avoid disastrous miscalculation. It could yet have a role in helping him unburden himself of power, escaping into retirement in Monaco or some such gilded refuge. At least it should be open to trying.

Our president-elect himself of course remains something of an unknown quantity. But it’s hard to argue that America’s current Russia policy has been a success.

What’s more, anybody who isn’t committed to the notion of Mr. Trump as a Russian plant will notice that he’s also calling for a big strengthening of America’s military—and his cabinet picks strongly support this change of direction.

One might also observe that Mr. Tillerson is the anti-Trump: an Eagle Scout, a lifelong respecter of protocol, a CEO who actually works for and answers to a board. He is probably the last person to substitute his former employer’s interest in Russian oil for the aims and interests of the country that appointed him, though this is the “narrative” being hastily adopted by his enemies.

The ultimate joke may come when, as with his two most recent predecessors, Mr. Trump discovers his biggest challenge is one he wasn’t thinking about when he ran: Italy. Both sides perhaps should have won in last week’s Italian referendum. Italy needs domestic reform. It also needs to get out of the euro if it’s not to end up like Greece on a more disastrous scale.

An unraveling of the European Union, or at least the euro currency, may be the real threat to all the good things Mr. Trump wants to do for the U.S. economy, by which his presidency will be judged by those who put him there.

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