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June 28th, 2017

Insight

An about face in a world of fright and fear

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published April 13, 2017

An about face in a world of fright and fear

 
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson / Matt McClain for The Washington Post

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 of further American missile strikes in Syria. A Russian politician warns that North Korea could strike at any moment.

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 to arrange a sell-out to the Russians.

Mr. Putin and Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, relieved themselves of a joint communiqué 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 out 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 one and all to close ranks and support the president, whoever he was, and all his men, whoever they were. 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 Basher 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 in 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-be-friends 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 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.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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