Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Trump Outflanks His Media Enemies in Remarks About NATO


Over the weekend, following the ruling by a New York State Supreme Court judge requiring Donald Trump and his family’s real estate organization to pay more than $354 million in fines, the former president again demonstrated his remarkable ability to hijack the headlines and redirect the nation’s attention to an issue that is sure to help him politically.

Trump took advantage of growing U.S. voter fatigue and disappointment with the recent news of Russian advances from the battlefields in Ukraine to remind them that when he was president, he talked tough to America’s NATO allies in Europe. Speaking at a campaign event in South Carolina, Trump said that he had warned the leader of one of those NATO countries that if it continued to refuse to pay its fair share (at least 2% of its GNP) of the cost of defending their countries against the threat of Russian aggression, he would not lift a finger to protect them from a Ukraine-style invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin. He said that he had told that leader, “You gotta pay!” Otherwise, Trump said, “I would encourage them [the Russians] to do whatever. . . they want.”

And because he is Donald Trump, the heads of many of those NATO countries believed him. They reacted by beginning the process of ramping up their national defense budgets to assure themselves of U.S. support if Putin does decide that their country will be his next target for Russian expansion.

Similarly, Trump reminded voters that when he was president, Putin did not yet dare to launch his all-out invasion of Ukraine, because, thanks to Trump’s tough talk, he saw that NATO was finally growing militarily stronger rather than weaker. When Trump was in the White House, Iran was also not yet urging its proxies in Gaza and Lebanon to attack Israel, as it did on October 7, or to launch more than 160 missile attacks on thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed in Syria and Iraq, or to encourage the Houthi rebels in Yemen to close the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to commercial shipping and tankers carrying oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world.


Meanwhile, President Biden claims that he has been unable to keep his public promises to provide more military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan because Trump has convinced Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson to refuse to bring up Biden’s request for more than $90 billion in new U.S. military aid to those countries to a House vote, unless the president also agrees to close the southern border with Mexico that he has opened to as many as 10 million illegal foreign immigrants who are now impacting the quality of life in cities around the country.

But even though Biden has repeatedly claimed that continued U.S. military support for Ukraine is essential to the security of America’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe, he has refused to close the southern border, even though rising voter concern over the illegal immigration surge has also become a major political problem for Biden and his fellow Democrats as the November presidential election approaches.

Nevertheless, Biden is now trying to blame Russia’s recent advances on the Ukrainian battlefields on Trump for convincing congressional Republicans to refuse to bring Biden’s military funding proposal to a House vote. The Democrats have claimed that Trump opposed passage of the emergency military funding bill because he wants Putin to win the war in Ukraine, ignoring the fact that the original Senate version of that bill contained a “bipartisan compromise” that would have effectively perpetuated the immigration crisis at the southern border.

Because previous congressional military funding for Ukraine has now been exhausted, the Biden administration claims that it had no other choice when it cut off Ukraine’s supply of ammunition for its Western-made artillery pieces at the same time that the Russians in Ukraine have been ramping up their first major offensive push on the ground in more than a year.


However, according to the Wall Street Journal, the refusal of House Republicans to pass $14 billion in military funding for Israel included in the same bill as the Ukraine funding has not prevented the Biden administration from authorizing a massive new arms shipment for the Israeli military, including thousands of high precision bombs and smart munitions, as it prepares to launch a crucial offensive against Rafah, to wipe out the last remaining Hamas strongholds in Gaza.

Even though Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, continue to criticize Israel publicly for the civilian casualties in Gaza and insist that Israel must accept the creation of a Palestinian state when the war in Gaza ends, the administration is continuing to quietly provide Israel with the weapons it needs to finish the job of eliminating the threat from Hamas, while at the same time denying Ukraine the same level of support in its fight for survival against Putin.

According to Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn, the reason behind the apparent contradiction in U.S. military aid policy toward Ukraine compared to Israel is the fact that Biden has never really wanted Ukraine to defeat the Russian army in Ukraine. McGurn argues that Biden much prefers the continuation of the current stalemate on the battlefield there. It permits him to pose as the protector of Ukraine’s democracy and independence by providing it with just enough superior Western-made weapons to prevent an outright defeat by the invading Russian army. But at the same time, Biden has been withholding the more capable, longer-range American weapons Ukraine needed, including F-16 fighter jets and ATACMS ballistic missiles, when it had the opportunity early last year to push the Russian army out of its eastern Donbas provinces and Crimea.


McGurn rejects “the dominant narrative today [which] holds that Joe Biden and Donald Trump are opposites on Ukraine [because] the president supports the Senate bill that includes about $60 billion for Kyiv, mostly in military aid [while] the former president attacks it.” McGurn says this serves the political purpose of both parties, by enabling “Democrats [to] sound like hawks [and] Republicans [to] sound like doves, [as] U.S. policy slides into strategic incoherence.”

McGurn also notes that “Trump has always been skeptical about what we get for our alliances and treaties, especially NATO… Not that Mr. Trump is uncomfortable with American forces overseas. But he prefers short, one-off interventions, such as the drone strike that killed Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Longer-term commitments, especially multilateral ones, he tends to view solely as an expense that ropes [the U.S.] into fights that aren’t our own.”

Democrats and the anti-Trump major media outlets have pounced on Trump’s recent restatement of his demands while he was president that all NATO countries pay a fair share of the cost of their own defense. They treat it as proof that Trump is a supporter of Vladimir Putin, and confirmation of the original Trump-Russia collusion hoax that was, in fact, never anything more than a political dirty trick, secretly invented and widely promoted by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and her supporters.

While Democrats and the mainstream media claim that Trump’s pay-as-you-go attitude towards the defense costs of the NATO alliance is at “the root of Republican incoherence on Ukraine,” McGurn reminds us that while “supporting Ukraine has allowed Mr. Biden to attack Mr. Trump as a Putin apologist at the same time. . . Mr. Biden is incoherent too — no matter how reluctant the press may be to cover it.”


“Remember how Mr. Biden’s support for Ukraine started: He was backed into it. A month before Russia’s 2022 invasion, Mr. Biden predicted Russia would ‘move in’ to Ukraine, but the NATO response might be divided if it were only a ‘minor incursion.’”

McGurn also recalled that “Putin’s invasion also came six months after Mr. Biden’s botched retreat from Afghanistan,” implying a cause-and-effect relationship.

The columnist reminds us that while “The risks of supporting Ukraine are real, so too are the risks of failing to do so. As expensive as aid might be, the Ukrainians are inflicting enormous damage to a U.S. adversary with a history of aggression toward its neighbors. In addition, frustrating Mr. Putin in Ukraine gives other unfriendly powers second thoughts about their own plans — especially China, with its threats to invade Taiwan.”

But that does not explain why Biden has failed so far to use his “bully pulpit” in the White House to do a better job of selling more support for Ukraine to the American people by presenting them with a winning exit strategy.


The short answer, according to McGurn, is that Biden doesn’t have such a strategy. Instead, Biden administration’s policy towards arming Ukraine, from the beginning, has been a series of belated concessions to pressure from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as well as those Eastern European NATO allies, such as Poland, and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which have good reason to fear that they are next on Putin’s target list after Ukraine is turned once again into a province of Putin’s Russia.

That is why shipments of advanced U.S. weapons and ammunition to Ukraine have consistently arrived too little and too late, first to prevent Putin from launching the initial invasion two years ago, and last year, when the delay enabled the Russians enough time to shore up their lines of defensive fortifications on the battlefield in time to block the long-anticipated Ukrainian spring offensive.

According to McGurn, Biden has also found the Russian threat to overwhelm Ukraine due to the interruption of U.S. military aid to be politically convenient, because it has forced those liberal Democrats, who have been loudly complaining about the president’s continued support for Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza, to unite behind his combined $90 billion emergency military support bill.


But the underlying problem with all of this partisan political maneuvering in Washington over that bill is that it has delayed and obscured the necessary foreign policy debate over the long-term U.S. goals in helping Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression; developing a new post-Gaza war strategy in the Middle East that will replace the obsolete two-state solution with a broad alliance that will protect Israel and America’s other allies in the region from Iranian-supported terrorism; and mounting an effective response to the growing economic and military challenge from communist China to U.S. regional and global leadership.

One example of the need for such a debate is the fact that until three U.S. reserve soldiers from Georgia were recently killed in Jordan by a missile launched by an Iranian-backed militia, most Americans were unaware that thousands of U.S. troops were stationed in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan or why they were there, or that they had previously been subjected to more than 160 such attacks without provoking an effective U.S. military response from the Biden administration.

The current U.S. military presence in those countries is a remnant of a previous U.S. foreign policy failure. In 2009, at the start of the Obama administration, then-vice president Joe Biden was put in charge of negotiating an agreement on the extension of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, but failed to do so. The 2010 forced departure of the remaining U.S. troops in Iraq created a power vacuum in the region which, combined with the disruptive effects of the extended Syrian Civil War, the result of another Obama-era foreign policy failure, contributed to the subsequent rise of ISIS.

Characteristically, the Obama administration’s military response to the threat from ISIS to the stability of the region was too limited to make victory possible. That enabled Trump to run for president in 2016 on a promise to defeat ISIS by unleashing the U.S. military and its allies, which he rapidly fulfilled after taking office.


Trump, as president, also did not hesitate to strike back effectively after Iranian-backed Iraqi militias attacked U.S. troops based in Iraq. He ordered an air strike by an American drone on a car outside the Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020. The attack killed Qasem Soleimani, the senior commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was in charge of Iran’s efforts to spread its Shiite Islamic revolution via terrorism and warfare throughout the Middle East, and who had just arrived to meet with the local militia commanders to plan further attacks on U.S. forces.

Iran complained that the assassination of its IRGC commander was itself an act of terrorism by the United States, but it also sent an unmistakable message to Iran’s leaders that Trump would not tolerate continued attacks on U.S. troops in the region, as Biden has since taking office.

After taking considerable criticism for his failure to respond to the Iranian proxy forces which have repeatedly attacked U.S. forces in the region and international shipping traffic headed for the Red Sea and the Suez Canal following Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, Biden finally did authorize a few significant U.S. retaliatory strikes. But Iran and its proxies recognized them for what they were — a politically motivated gesture rather than a serious military effort by the Biden administration to protect U.S. interests and allies in the region to deter further attacks.

There is also a need for the U.S. to, at last, clarify the aims and purpose of post-Cold War NATO, whose eastward expansion, by inviting several former Iron Curtain countries to join the alliance since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, has given Vladimir Putin a credible national security excuse to mount a Russian military takeover of the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949 as a defensive alliance between the U.S. and its Western European allies to prevent the Soviet Union from militarily overrunning or subverting the recovering European countries that had been devastated by World War II. NATO initially extended the U.S. nuclear weapons security umbrella over France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Iceland, and Canada. Three years later, Turkey and Greece joined. In 1955, West Germany became a member. Spain joined in 1982. But when the Iron Curtain dividing Europe came down, followed quickly by the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, NATO’s original mission, and its primary excuse as a military alliance for being, came to an end.

But instead of simply disappearing, and transferring its remaining functions to the largely overlapping European Union, NATO officials sought other reasons to continue its existence and its expansion. When civil war broke out between the former provinces of communist Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration led the NATO intervention to restore peace in the Balkan states. Similarly, after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attacks against the United States, NATO joined in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and lingered there to fight terrorists and the Taliban for the next 20 years. NATO also intervened in Libya to overthrow the Qaddafi regime in 2011.

During the post-Cold War years, NATO has more than doubled in size by adding 16 more countries to the alliance, even though the last of the Soviet leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev, well aware that the Communist empire in Eastern Europe was collapsing, had repeatedly sought assurances from U.S. and other Western leaders that the alliance would not become a military threat to Russia’s border security. But NATO leaders ignored those concerns as the expanding alliance approached Russia’s exposed border with the rest of Europe, in what veteran diplomat George F. Kennan called, “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” As Keenan had foreseen, NATO’s expansion triggered a revival of imperialistic Russian nationalism in the hearts of former Soviet officials such as Vladimir Putin, who convinced themselves that Russia had to push back, in self-defense, against the steady encroachment by the U.S.-led NATO alliance into Russia’s historic sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.


Some foreign policy analysts, who share Keenan’s views on the dangers of NATO, have expressed the belief that the Biden administration’s moves in late 2021, which seemed to prepare Ukraine for full-fledged NATO membership, convinced Putin to invade Ukraine several months later to prevent that eventuality.

Over the past two decades, Putin has used the perceived security threat to Russia from the expanding NATO alliance to justify his efforts to rebuild the former Russian empire in Eastern Europe by using a combination of economic coercion, political subversion, and military force. At the same time, Putin consolidated his political power to rule Russia increasingly as a czarist-style strongman, in part by using the perceived threat from the expansion of NATO as an excuse to undermine the efforts during the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to turn Russia into a Western-style democracy.

Putin’s latest effort to consolidate his power and authority over Russia has been the silencing of his most outspoken and influential domestic critic, Alexei Navalny. His highly suspicious death at the age of 47 in a gulag-style prison north of the Arctic Circle was announced last week by Russian officials with no further explanation. Navalny was the latest in a long series of Russian advocates for democracy, critics of Putin’s policies, and potential challengers to his rule, who have been ruthlessly killed or forced into exile, or both.

Fellow Russian pro-democracy advocate and former world chess champion Gary Kasparov declared in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Navalny had been murdered. Kasparov argued that “there is no need for semantic blame games when a political prisoner dies. There are no natural causes or accidents in the gulag. It’s murder by dictatorship. . . as if Vladimir Putin pulled the trigger himself.

“Mr. Putin tried and failed to kill Navalny quickly and secretly with poison in 2020, and now he has murdered him slowly and publicly in prison,” Kasparov continued. “Navalny’s only crime was to expose Mr. Putin and his mafia as the bandits they are and to do it with charisma and humor.”


“Now Alexei is dead, and with him, the last gasp of Russian society that failed him, failed Russia, and failed the world with its apathy. He was a man of optimism and action in a country of nihilism and inaction, a tragic condition he shared with me and our colleague Boris Nemtsov, who returned to Russia only to be gunned down in the street in front of the Kremlin in 2015.”

But Kasparov also believes that, in addition to Putin, there is blame enough for Navalny’s death to go around. That includes “we Russians who failed to match Navalny’s courage,” when he spoke out against rigged elections at the last large protest demonstration that Putin allowed in Moscow, on December 24, 2011. And it includes “the Western politicians who treated Navalny’s poisoning in 2020 and jailing the following year as just another negotiating point with Mr. Putin.”

When Navalny chose to return to Russia in early 2021, knowing that he would probably be arrested immediately upon his arrival in Moscow, he did so anyway, because he was determined to carry on his fight for freedom from inside Russia, even from prison, and regardless of the consequences to his safety.

Navalny drew younger supporters through a savvy use of social media that circumvented the Kremlin’s monopoly over radio and TV broadcasts, and by exposing the corruption and chicanery of high Russian government officials.

Now that Navalny is dead, Kasparov writes, “After decades of crimes and aggression, Mr. Putin has crossed another bloody red line. . . [and] President Biden’s threat in 2021 of ‘devastating’ consequences should anything happen to Navalny in prison will now be put to the excruciating test…”


“[Putin] feels confident there will be no repercussions. If he’s proved correct,” Kasparov predicts, “his murderous confidence will increase.”

“Why murder Navalny now?” Kasparov asks. “Mr. Putin obviously felt safe to finish the job,” he answers. “And, as a coward and bully, he is always most dangerous when he feels safe and triumphant. Consider why he feels that way, with American aid for Ukraine paralyzed by the GOP House, Mr. Biden feigning helplessness, and Mr. Trump leading the polls.”

Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Putin is probably not worried by foreign fallout over Navalny’s death, since relations between Russia and the West are already so low due to the invasion of Ukraine, and because he has already found ways to effectively neutralize the impact of the Western sanctions that have been imposed on Russia’s oil exports.

“Meanwhile, the most charismatic opposition figure in Russia has died,” said Graham. “It’s going to be very difficult to find a replacement because the conditions that led to Navalny don’t prevail today. There are no demonstrations, there are no elections where opposition candidates run. So how does anyone demonstrate that they have these leadership qualities that Navalny developed during a decade in his rise to prominence?”


While Russia under Putin’s autocratic rule does pose a real threat to the independence of other former Soviet states, in addition to Ukraine, and some of the former Iron Curtain countries in Eastern Europe which have joined NATO, unlike the situation during the Cold War, Russia is not a direct threat today to the security of the United States or its main allies in Western Europe, such as Britain France, Italy, Germany, Norway, and the Benelux nations.

Instead, as many American foreign policy experts have recognized, today’s most serious long-term threat to vital U.S. interests comes from Communist China, and its aggressive, expansionist policies which threaten U.S. allies in the Western Pacific region, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

While Biden has made some preliminary moves to beef up U.S. military capabilities in the Asian-Pacific region, the additional U.S. commitments that the president has made to Ukraine and to U.S. allies in the Middle East, who are now under direct attack from Iran’s proxies, has left the U.S. military short of the capabilities needed to counter China’s aggressive military buildup. This has intimidated U.S. allies in the region and includes a credible threat to challenge the will of the U.S. to keep its promises to defend Taiwan militarily in the event of an invasion from mainland China.





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