An about face in a world of fright and fear

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - BY WES­LEY PRUDEN Wes­ley Pruden is editor in chief emer­i­tus of the Times.

The peas­ants are ex­cused if they think no­body knows what’s he’s do­ing. Mr. No­body can’t help noticing that the world seems to be ca­reen­ing to a des­ti­na­tion we know not where. It’s enough to make a peas­ant quit read­ing the news­pa­per. Rus­sia and Iran say they will re­spond to fur­ther Amer­i­can mis­sile strikes in Syria. A Rus­sian politi­cian warns that North Korea could strike at any mo­ment. Chi­nese war­ships on the move.

Pres­i­dent Trump scorns claims that some of his 59 mis­siles missed their tar­gets on a Syr­ian air force base, and a 7-year-old Syr­ian girl cap­tures the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion with a tweet that she sup­ports the Amer­i­can mis­sile at­tack. A tweet, no mat­ter where from and where and to whom it goes, is the new au­thor­i­ta­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Don­ald Trump, how­ever, has dis­posed of one per­ni­cious no­tion, widely held in the sa­lons of the West, that he’s in secret ca­hoots with Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin and Has­san Rouhani, the pres­i­dent of Iran, re­lieved them­selves of a joint com­mu­nique dar­ing Pres­i­dent Trump to strike Syria again, and promis­ing a “re­sponse” — just what kind they did not say — to any fur­ther ag­gres­sion.

“What Amer­ica waged in an ag­gres­sion on Syria is a cross­ing of red lines. From now on we will re­spond with force to any ag­gres­sor or any breach of red lines from whomever it is and Amer­ica knows our abil­ity to re­spond well.”

Red lines are the new black. Mr. Putin clearly prefers Barack Obama’s red lines, be­cause the for­mer pres­i­dent drew his red line in in­vis­i­ble ink, and in­vis­i­ble ink that fades quickly. Pres­i­dent Rouhani, like a lit­tle boy boast­ing that his daddy can lick ev­ery­one else’s daddy, even called Bashar As­sad in Da­m­as­cus to tell him, one rogue to an­other, that the Amer­i­can mis­sile bar­rage was “just a pre­text to dis­rupt the Syr­ian peace process.” (An­other peace process in the Mid­dle East? Who knew?)

That brief burst of bi­par­ti­san sol­i­dar­ity that fol­lowed the mis­sile strike, with Chuck Schumer and even Nancy Pelosi of­fer­ing praise and prom­ises of support, grudg­ing though they were, evap­o­rated quickly. Once upon a time in an Amer­ica now re­ced­ing into the past, a mo­ment of na­tional cri­sis in­vited all to close ranks and support the pres­i­dent, who­ever he was. We don’t do sol­i­dar­ity in Amer­ica any more. De­stroy­ing Don­ald Trump and chop­ping a hole in the bot­tom of the ship of state is the only le­git­i­mate task at hand.

The quib­ble that the mis­siles were overkill, that Amer­ica was not threat­ened, misses the cru­cial point. A mes­sage to Bashar As­sad is a mes­sage to Kim Jong-un, a mes­sage to the mul­lahs in Tehran is a mes­sage from the White House to the old KGB hand in Moscow that Barack Obama does not live here any­more.

Secretary of State Rex Tiller­son had a not-so-sub­tle mes­sage for the Rus­sian pres­i­dent on the eve of de­par­ture to Moscow. Mr. Tiller­son, once a fa­vorite guest of the Krem­lin when he was just an oil man from Texas, is some­thing else now, the pres­i­dent’s mouth­piece abroad. He has told his staff, friends, im­por­tant mem­bers of Congress and most im­por­tant of all, the pres­i­dent him­self, that the Amer­i­can re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia has re­verted to what a pres­i­dent of a pre­vi­ous cen­tury might call “re­vert­ing to nor­malcy.” Dis­trust, fear, sus­pi­cion, fric­tion, doubt and dis­trac­tion are the words to live by again. This should sat­isfy all those crit­ics who said the Don­ald was soft on old KGB hands.

It’s one of the greater ironies of our time that the in­tel­lec­tual class that is so skep­ti­cal of the Rus­sians, and of ev­ery­body who doesn’t share that skep­ti­cism, was once upon a time trust­ing of ev­ery­thing about the old Soviet Union. “This was in­evitable,” Philip Gor­don, once a co­or­di­na­tor of Mid­dle East in­tel­li­gence at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, tells The New York Times. “[Mr.] Trump’s early let’s-be­friends ini­tia­tive was in­com­pat­i­ble with our in­ter­ests, and you knew it would end with tears.”

Rus­sian ide­ol­ogy has changed, since lots of Rus­sians have dis­cov­ered the value of a buck, but be­hav­ior has not. “They are us­ing ev­ery means they can,” Mr. Gor­don says. “Cy­ber, eco­nomic ar­range­ments, in­tim­i­da­tion, to re-in­sert them­selves in the Mid­dle East and Europe.”

The Trump crit­ics are cor­rect that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is sing­ing a very dif­fer­ent tune than it was even a week ago, but cir­cum­stances, af­ter all, al­ter cases. The pres­i­dent was clearly moved by the pho­to­graphs of Syr­ian chil­dren gasp­ing piti­fully for their last dy­ing breaths, but who among us — sen­ti­men­tal or not — wouldn’t be over­come with pity for the “beau­ti­ful ba­bies,” as the pres­i­dent de­scribed them in words now widely mocked.

“He seen his op­por­tu­nity,” as a fa­mous Louisiana pol once said, “and he took it.” That’s how the world turns.


Secretary of State Rex Tiller­son

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