A deadly U.S.-led raidin northwestern Syria has killed the world’s most wanted terrorist, Islamic State founder and leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who reportedly detonated a suicide vest. On Twitter and during an eye-popping Sunday morning press conference, President Donald Trump practically crowed.
No doubt the president will use this moment to trumpet what he believes are his foreign policy triumphs, for as long as possible. It was only last Wednesday, if we recall, that the president stood at the White House and declared his Syria policy a great success. On that podium and on Twitter, he boasted and bragged and claimed his tacit enabling of a Turkish invasion of Syria — a massacre of America's Kurdish allies — had been averted and a permanent cease-fire achieved. Given this alleged peace, the U.S. would be lifting all sanctions on Turkey, he said.
But despite Trump’s grandstanding, and despite even this latest, legitimately positive news regarding Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the past few weeks have not been a collective success. Rather, they have been a boon for America’s adversaries and a catastrophe for its friends.
Importantly, whether deliberately or not, Trump just can’t seem to stop sending valuable gifts to Russian President Vladimir Putin. At this point, even the Russians can’t believe Putin’s good fortune. Because the developments roiling the United States and the Middle East this month all benefit the Kremlin and Russian power. Even better, at least from Putin’s perspective, they were obtained at minimal cost.
Putin’s backers could not imagine it would all turn out so beautifully, but they had a hunch. On the day Trump won the 2016 elections, the Putin-dominated parliament erupted into applause; euphoric lawmakers toasted (literally) with champagne. Three years later, the celebrations look increasingly prescient.
Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and his apparent extortion of Ukraine are only the latest in a conveyor belt of actions that advance Putin’s geopolitical goals. Moscow, which has worked with Trump for many years, wants the U.S. to relinquish its global influence so that Russia can rise, altering the global balance of power. Putin wants to see the West divided and thus weakened for the same purpose; something Trump has achieved. And Putin really wants democracy, in the U.S. and elsewhere, to look chaotic and unappealing so that his autocratic methods look trustworthy and wise by comparison, thus strengthening his hold on power.
When Trump plunged the Middle East into turmoil with his announcement that the U.S. would clear the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military ambitionsin Syria, even his fiercest supporters in the U.S. were alarmed. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “the worst mistake of his presidency.” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-K.Y., said "a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime."
The Russians agreed wholeheartedly.
Writing in the Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, columnist Mikhail Rostovsky declared that “Trump’s totally misjudged, reckless and contradictory actions” amounted to “an unexpected lottery win” for Russia, which “automatically raises Russia’s influence in the world.” As for the U.S., he noted in bafflement, it was unclear what exactly Washington accomplished. “America lost its way in broad daylight,” he said, according to a translation published by the BBC.
Trump’s decision to open a path favorable to both Turkey and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally, simply makes no sense for the United States. I, for one, believe it demands more explanation.
But with the U.S. mostly out of the picture in Syria, Russia becomes the main power broker. Putin is the man to see, and the one whose favor Turkey, Iran, Assad and the Kurds will all seek. Putin has been trying to turn Moscow into a major international player, involving the Kremlin in Venezuela and Sudan as he seeks footholds in Latin America and Africa. And these interventions consistently favor tyrants — Putin has recently backed Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Sudan’s deposed ruler Omar al-Bashir, among others.
The Syria crisis exploded in the midst of Trump’s other giant mess in Ukraine. There, too, Trump’s exploitation of his presidential powers aligns with Putin’s goals.
Russia has fought to prevent Ukraine from becoming a fully independent nation ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and has supported corrupt regimes there for years. Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort got millions helping a corrupt Kremlin-backed president stay in office — until Ukrainian protests drove him to exile in Russia. After Ukrainians threw off those shackles, Putin invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and prodded pro-Russian insurgents into a separatist war along the Russia-Ukraine border.
For years, the U.S. has backed Ukrainian reformers yearning to clean up corruption and stand up to Russia’s brutality. But Trump’s actions have once again harmed U.S. interests while serving Russia’s.
For one, part of the scandal includes Trump’s attempt to promote an unfounded theory that suggests it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Russia’s interference on behalf of Trump is thoroughly established. But Trump has repeatedly jumped at the chance to cast doubt on this intelligence. First he sided with Putin and against U.S. intelligence in denying that Russia interfered. Then he bought into a wild conspiracy theory that claims it was Ukraine that hacked the election, working against Trump to help Democrats.
Withholding military aid helped bolster pro-Russian fighters in Ukraine’s east and hampered a young government seeking to tackle Russia’s corrupt influence and Ukraine’s own chronic graft problem.
Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has opened up the U.S. to more influence from Russia. Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, now jailed, allegedly helped launder political cash from Kremlin-linked figures and have ties to the Russia mafia (which itself has alleged tiesto the Kremlin.) It’s not unreasonable to believe that Putin has had a hand in Trump’s Ukraine policy.
The Republican Party, a traditional watchdog against Moscow’s designs, has recently turned into a Trumpian lapdog, with its leaders routinely defending Moscow by parroting Trump’s “Russia Hoax” meme. This in itself is a gift to Putin.
In an iconic photo taken earlier this week, Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are seen arguing in the White House. When asked what was happening at the moment the photo was taken, Pelosi said, “I was probably saying ‘all roads lead to Putin.’” That’s what the evidence suggests, and the reason Putin and his friends likely will have a lot more champagne toasts in their future. And we must not allow Trump to use the death of a terrorist — however good news it may be — try to distract us from his true record abroad.
- Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she has worked in more than 60 countries. She is a weekly columnist for World Politics Review, a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, a regular contributor to CNN and frequent contributor and on-air commentator for major news organizations around the world.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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