Friday, July 7, 2017

Little Donny and Big Vlad



PHOTO-ILLUSTRATIONS can be a wonderful thing, in this digital era a fine and helpful way of distilling myriad, wieldy concepts into a visual snapshot that clarifies at a glance. Case in point: Sarah Rogers’ photo-illo of President* Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, published Thursday in The Daily Beast. The image of a seriously downsized Trump next to an oversized shot of Putin tells more than one story without a word.

It visually describes Trump’s comparative position in any head-to-head matchups with Putin at the G-20 summit now underway in Hamburg, Germany, regardless of the headline achievements emerging from their meeting Friday.

The Russian hacking scandal — the collective of events that, according to a plurality of sources in a position to know, almost certainly affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential election — has been the gift that keeps on giving the American people real reason to worry. That won’t begin to change until the denier-in-chief accepts the role of Russia in that scandal, despite Putin’s denial that Russia played any part in hacking our election. That hasn’t happened yet.

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It’s of course welcome news that Trump and Putin reached agreement on a cease-fire in Syria. The accord the two arrived at on Friday goes into effect on Sunday, and anything that dials back the deadly hostilities in that six-year-long conflict can only be a positive thing.

But that’s resolving a problem both Russia and the United States had a direct role in cultivating to begin with. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is an ally of Moscow; helping him maintain his grip on power is to Russia’s advantage (which is why Russia started airstrikes against the rebels seeking Assad’s overthrow in 2015). In 2014, the United States started airstrikes against the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria, and supports the rebels in their battle with the Syrian military.

But Russia has no control over Syrian forces — certainly not compared to Assad himself, anyway — and the United States has no direct control over (or military participation with) the rebels. So to some extent, the cease-fire declared on Friday will be between the proxies in the conflict. Therefore, any such cease-fire could fall apart. Previous cease-fires have done just that.

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FOR AMERICANS, the big concerning issue remains the Russia hacking scandal. Trump’s steadfast refusal to admit that anything happened in the run-up of the U.S. vote last year — despite the best informed and researched evidence of the U.S. intelligence community — is deeply problematical.

To the extent that hackers did intervene in the U.S. election, the United States remains at a disadvantage: With the weight of available proof, it’s difficult to believe something didn’t take place.

It’s impossible to think another such event won’t happen again if our national leadership refuses to believe it happened the first time. Such undying denial makes a Next Time almost inevitable.

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None of this stopped Trump and Putin from informally agreeing to forget about the past in an effort to move ahead — a lot like two belligerents making peace without addressing what made them belligerents in the first place. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who’s at the summit and who was a witness to the Trump-Putin dialogue, said their meeting was “rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point.”

“There was not a lot of re-litigating things from the past,” Tillerson said, blowing right past the fact that nothing’s been litigated at all. It’s especially ironic since Trump and Putin actually discussed cybersecurity matters at the summit. “I had a very lengthy conversation with the President of the United States, there were a lot of issues such as Ukraine, Syria, other problems, some bilateral issues,” Putin said. “We again returned to the issues of fighting terrorism and cybersecurity.”

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was plenary about the whole thing. “President Trump said that he heard the clear declarations of President Putin that this is not true, and that Russian leadership did not interfere with these elections. And that he accepts these declarations.”

Trump’s blind faith in the assertions of an adversary isn’t so different (or any less na├»ve) than that of President George W. Bush, who said in June 2001 that he looked into Putin “in the eye” and got “a sense of his soul.” This is worse than whistling on a walk through a graveyard; this is whistling on a walk through a graveyard that's known to be dangerous.

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PUTIN’S DOMINANCE in that Daily Beast image also serves as a proxy for other dignitaries who stand head and shoulders above Trump on the world stage. We saw a glimpse of this changing of the geopolitical guard at and after the G-7 summit in May.

At that summit, Merkel took issue with Trump’s unwillingness to sign on to the Paris Accords, the first globally binding agreement on dealing with climate change — a pact signed by 195 countries. “The entire discussion about climate was very difficult, if not to say very dissatisfying,” she said. “There are no indications whether the United States will stay in the Paris Agreement or not.”

After the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was as blunt as possible about prospects for the U.S. role in European affairs. “'The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days,” she said.

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Since then, Merkel and, more recently, French president Emmanuel Macron (whose physical snub of Trump at the G-7 made headlines) have imparted a fresh dimension of world leadership — leadership that has less to do with arms and bluster and military strength, and more to do with social, environmental and emotional stewardship of a fractious and chaotic world.

The tensions at the G-7 in Italy seemed to be imported to the G-20 in Hamburg. Look at the latest so-called family photo of world leaders. If cosmetics and stagecraft count for anything at these events, and they do, it was a big deal that Trump, ostensible leader of the free world, stood at far stage left, while Merkel stood front row center — next to Chinese president Xi Jinping and ... Putin.



Nothing confirms the veracity of Rogers’ photo-illustration more than that.

The G-20 summit ends Saturday.

Image credits: Trump-Putin photo-illustration: Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast. Assad: Source unknown. Trump sworn in: Pool. Merkel: AFP/Getty Images.

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