Washington Watch: Ménage à trois

While Trump was bragging what a great statesman and dealmaker he was and Bibi was kvelling about how he manipulated two super-powers, Putin quietly whispered spasebo, “thank you.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and US President Donald Trump (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and US President Donald Trump (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Donald Trump just went through the worst week of his presidency, but it was a great week for Vladimir Putin.
Trump spent the week walking back the walk-backs from his blunder- strewn path through Europe, where he undermined the NATO alliance, insulted the British prime minister on the eve of his visit, dissed the Queen and held a secret session with Putin and a press conference that provoked bipartisan condemnations. A very happy Russian president was savoring a victory that eluded Russia for more than half a century.
Barack Obama began America’s pivot away from the Middle East to Asia.
And Trump – despite his obsession with reversing everything his predecessor ever did – has taken it to the next level. In Helsinki he effectively surrendered American leadership in the Middle East to Putin.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played a critical role. He shared Trump’s deep animosity toward Obama, with his talk about peacemaking, ending the occupation, opposition to settlement expansion and criticism of Israel’s move away from liberal democracy toward apartheid.
Trump, for his grandiose talk about making the peace deal of the century, doesn’t really care about any of that stuff, as he demonstrated by relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem without preparing the political groundwork with the Palestinians.
Granted, chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace are bupkes at best under the current leadership in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Washington. And the United States is no longer dependent on Middle East oil.
Putin announced in Helsinki that he and Trump had reached an agreement to “bring peace to Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also to provide security of the State of Israel.”
But apparently that deal will remain a secret between the autocrat and the president who gets along best with authoritarian leaders.
Trump abandoned the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad and will withdraw the remaining 2,000 or so American troops as he has wanted to do, despite objections of his top defense and intelligence advisers. He also has dropped US demands that Assad must go.
He and Netanyahu say they want Iran and its proxies out of Syria, but Putin won’t and probably can’t deliver on that. The Russian president is offering to keep the Iranians 62 miles (100 km.) from Israel’s Golan Heights border and continue to give Israel freedom of the skies to go after Iranian threats so long as no Russians are attacked and the Assad regime is not threatened.
Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, doubts Russia “has the will or the capability” to honor its commitment to Israel to “fully implement and counter Iranian decision and influence.”
ISRAEL HAS BEEN pushing back against Iran, hitting missile sites, drone bases, weapons factories and other threatening targets. Netanyahu has told the Russians that Israel also wants these facilities removed from Syria – as long-range weapons could strike the Jewish state – and wants Syria’s borders with Iraq and Lebanon sealed to prevent arms smuggling.
Iran played a valuable role in saving Assad, who doesn’t object to Tehran’s desire for a permanent presence to train fighters, manufacture weapons and threaten Israel.
Trump is happy to be out and seems content to fire verbal barrages at Iran.
Many in Washington compare his latest Twitter threats against the Islamic Republic with his war of words with North Korean “rocket man” Kim Jong Un. Journalist Julia Ioffe predicted Trump will have a summit with his Iranian counterpart within a year and then “claim that he averted war with Iran.”
Veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller tweeted that Trump’s tirade “reflect(s) reality that US has no Iran policy.”
Putin gets to be the dominant foreign power in the region, Assad keeps his job, Iran gets to stay, Israel has Russian help enforcing the buffer zone and Trump gets to go home.
An American exit from active Mideast involvement has been a Russian goal since the Cold War began. Trump just handed Putin a major victory.
Israel will be testing Russian reliability and tolerance of its strikes against Syria and Iran, Iran can be expected to keep testing Israeli resolve and the United States will be watching from the distant sidelines.
Netanyahu helped broker the deal. He flew to Moscow to discuss it with Putin – he’s had more meetings in Moscow than he’s had in Washington as he watches the center of power shift – and then phoned Trump before the president left his Scottish golf club for Helsinki.
The president endorsed the deal on the phone with Bibi and then in his private meeting with Putin and later at their joint press conference, The Washington Post reported.
A major element of the deal Netanyahu helped arrange, according to Israeli media reports, involved Trump tacitly accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its presence in eastern Ukraine. Another report said Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE pressed Trump to offer to drop sanctions on Russia in exchange for pushing Iran out of Syria.
We may never really know what deals were made in the two-hour, one-onone meeting in Helsinki, because both presidents are known for their lack of truthfulness and no witnesses were present. Already conflicting versions are leaking out. It will be a matter of he-said-he-said or, more likely, he-lied-helied.
An article on Russia’s Tsagrad.tv portrayed the summit as a great victory for Putin. “With his arrival to Helsinki, Trump in fact recognized Crimea’s repatriation to Russia.” The director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, Andrei Kortunov, said Trump would like to turn Putin into a major partner but the Russian leader sees the American president as “an insecure political investment” not worth the risks of major concessions on key foreign policy issues, according to Memri, a reliable translation service.
Another Russian analyst said the summit was a defeat for the United States because it served to “provoke a schism” among “American ruling elites” and that Trump looked “modest” and “timid” alongside Putin. That could be the only time Trump has ever been called modest.
While Trump was bragging what a great statesman and dealmaker he was and Bibi was kvelling about how he manipulated two super-powers, Putin quietly whispered spasebo, “thank you.”
The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant who spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.