Thursday, July 6, 2017

Perils of a Putin-Trump meeting

In a New York Times article on July 5th, reporters Julie Davis and Glenn Thrush discuss the perils of President Trump's upcoming trip to Poland, to Germany for the G-20 meeting, and a one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin.

They say that Trump's aides see the meeting with Putin as the biggest risk of the trip.  His advisers have briefed him repeatedly and alerted him to the "potential risks, complex issues and diplomatic snags."  They continue:

"But even his top aides do not know precisely what Mr. Trump will decide to say or do . . . .  And that is what most worries his advisers and officials across his administration. . . .  The air of uncertainty about the meeting is only heightened by the president's tendency for unpredictable utterances and awkward topics."

In addition, there is Putin himself -- former head of the KGB spy agency and a trained master at reading people's vulnerabilities and taking advantage of them.  He once brought a labrador retriever to a sensitive meeting with Angela Merkel, knowing that she is afraid of dogs.

The Trump team says that he himself is not troubled by meeting Putin.   Instead, he is more concerned by "the prospect of being scolded by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and other leaders for pulling out of the Paris climate accords and for his hard line on immigration."

Although the meeting with Putin is being billed as a "one-on-one," it doesn't mean that the two leaders will be in a room alone.    The White House says the meeting will be a "formal bilateral discussion," rather than "a quick pull-aside at the economic summit meeting."   This will give the meeting more structure, with an agenda and aides present.   That format offers a bit more opportunity for expert advisers to help clarify or amend Trump's statements.

On the other hand, David Rothkopf, a renowned professor of international affairs at Columbia, recently conducted a panel on national security at the Aspen Ideas Festival which included Retired General David Petraeus.   Rothkopf says that he asked Petraeus if he thought Trump was fit to serve in this capacity.

Petraeus' response was, "It's immaterial."   He went on to explain that Trump's national security team is the strongest he has ever seen;  and that, where President Obama was "indecisive to the point of paralysis," Trump is "decisive."

I find myself in agreement with Rothkopf, whose response was:  "I was floored.   It was a stunningly weak defense."  He went on to write in an article titled, "The Greatest Threat Facing the United States is Donald Trump," which includes the following (, July 4):

"Later this week, [Trump] will sit down with Russian President Vladimir Putin. . . . [T]he summit reveals why it is so dangerous to have an erratic president.  Much of U.S. foreign policy comes down to personal diplomacy conducted by the president and his actions in the wake of such meetings.   If a dedicated enemy of the United States and opportunist such as Putin determines to take advantage of Trump's narcissism, ignorance, paranoia, business interests or brewing scandals, he will do just that.  If he sees Trump's behavior as a tacit endorsement of his own thuggishness, he will seize the opportunity.

"Could Trump enter the meeting with good advice from the team that Petraeus and others admire so much?  Yes.   But they can't undo Trump's record, nor can they, we have learned, always shape the behavior of a man who has shown repeated propensity for ignoring the advice of his best allies.   That is one reason, according to reports, that European officials are deeply concerned about the outcomes of the meeting that will take place in Hamburg this week. . . ."

So what gives Petraeus such confidence that most of us can't summon when it comes to Donald Trump?   Petraeus himself is a complex man:  a brilliant four-star general, with a PhD in international relations from Princeton, serving with distinction at the highest level command posts before being made head of the CIA.   But then he had to resign in disgrace for having allowed his biographer (and secret lover) to use classified documents.   So -- great in some ways but flawed with poor judgment in others.

I think Petraeus' mistake in this instance is assuming that Trump would take advice -- or, for that matter, that he would even have the background to understand the basis for the advice.  Without that, in the give and take of negotiation, he would simply not be equipped to reason with a full deck.  And someone as clever and manipulative as Putin would leap to take advantage.

So, unlike Petraeus and in agreement with Rothkopf, Trump could have the best military tutors possible;   but, in turn, even if Trump were willing to be their puppet, he's simply not temperamentally fit to pull that off.
 We should be very worried.


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