Trump and Putin at G20 in Hamburg
Credit: Алексей М/Flickr

I don’t want to talk down to someone as intelligent and experienced as YJ Fischer, but she does seem to miss the gorilla in the room. In her column for CNN, she rightfully sounds the alarm about President Trump’s expressed willingness to pull all of our troops out of South Korea, and she notes that this would be a huge boon to China and North Korea as well as a great danger for South Korea and Japan. She might have noted, however, that the Korean War started when Joseph Stalin gave his blessing. Originally, the idea was that tying American troops down in the Far East would give Russia a freer hand in Europe and a stronger alliance with China. That logic has been inoperative for decades, and what Russia, China, and North Korea would like to see now is an American retreat back home across the Pacific Ocean.

As Fischer notes, Trump began questioning America’s presence in the Far East during the campaign. And just prior to the Winter Olympics, there was a flare-up between the president and his chief of staff John Kelly over Trump’s insistence that we unilaterally withdraw from the Korean peninsula without any cause, concessions or consultations with our allies. According to the New York Times, Trump has now ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans for withdrawing our troops, an idea so unsupported in the administration that National Security Adviser John Bolton called it “utter nonsense” and said “the President has not asked the Pentagon to provide options for reducing American forces stationed in South Korea.”

In many ways, this bizarre behavior has been mirrored in Syria. During the campaign, Trump explicitly said that he felt we should leave Syria to the Russians and that Putin’s only concern there was fighting ISIS which seemed like a fine idea. As in South Korea, Trump recently caused an internal uproar when he suddenly called for the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Syria. Much of this history was immediately forgotten after the subsequent chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs, but I wrote about it at the time: As He Promised, Trump Will Gift Syria to Putin.

Here’s a taste of how things went down in the Situation Room:

Trump’s desire for a rapid withdrawal [from Syria] faced unanimous opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence community, all of which argued that keeping the 2,000 U.S. soldiers currently in Syria is key to ensuring the Islamic State does not reconstitute itself.

But as they huddled in the Situation Room, the president was vocal and vehement in insisting that the withdrawal be completed quickly if not immediately, according to five administration officials briefed on Tuesday’s White House meeting of Trump and his top aides…

…Documents presented to the president included several pages of possibilities for staying in, but only a brief description of an option for full withdrawal that emphasized significant risks and downsides, including the likelihood that Iran and Russia would take advantage of a U.S. vacuum.

Ultimately, Trump chose that option anyway.

This decision has been delayed in the aftermath of the chemical attacks, but it shows that Trump is as interested in doing Russia’s bidding in Syria as he is in Korea. It’s consistent with Trump’s approval of and promise to recognize the annexation of Crimea, his attacks on an “obsolete” NATO, his attacks on the European Union, his celebration of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom that the Russians also supported, his refusal to accept the consensus of his intelligence community that Russia was behind the hacks and worked to help him in his election, and his reluctance to issue sanctions against Russia and his fury about their severity.

It’s consistent with his decision recently to countermand Russian sanctions that had been announced by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

President Trump was watching television on Sunday when he saw Nikki R. Haley, his ambassador to the United Nations, announce that he would impose fresh sanctions on Russia. The president grew angry, according to an official informed about the moment. As far as he was concerned, he had decided no such thing.

There’s really nothing subtle about these moves. Trump isn’t about subtlety. The day after he fired James Comey, he invited Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak into the Oval Office and told them that he had been under great pressure in the Russia investigation but that it was now resolved: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Then he showed them sensitive intelligence about Syria that had been provided by the Israelis. It was the exact kind of thing the Israelis had been worried about:

In January [2017], it was reported that Israeli intelligence officials were concerned that the exposure of classified information to their American counterparts in the Trump administration could lead to it being leaked to Russia and onward to Iran. The intelligence concerns, which had been discussed in closed forums, were based on suspicions of ties between Trump, or his associates, and the government of Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Given the cumulative evidence, do we not have the right to suspect that Trump’s motives in wanting to pull our troops out of Korea don’t have anything to do with saving money or enhancing our national security? Does it not seem more likely that Trump is engaged everywhere in actions that will benefit Russia?

Pulling out of the Paris Climate deal helps oil-producing states like Russia while decimating America’s moral standing in the world. Breaking America’s commitment to the Iranian Nuclear Deal creates the worst rift in the Trans-Atlantic alliance in its entire history and leaves Europe isolated and more Russia-dependent than ever. If Vladimir Putin were in the White House instead of Trump, he would make these same decisions but he wouldn’t get away with such obvious sabotage.

And, yet, we have David Brooks telling us that Trump is perhaps governing like a true gangster.

If not for the Trump and [Michael] Cohen peer circle, white-collar prisons would be sitting empty. And this all happened before Trump and Cohen elevated their moral associations even higher by entangling with Russian oligarchs.

And yet I can’t help but wonder if that kind of background has provided a decent education for dealing with the sort of hopped-up mobsters running parts of the world today. There is growing reason to believe that Donald Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.

The first piece of evidence is North Korea. When Trump was trading crude, back-alley swipes with “Little Rocket Man,” Kim Jong-un, about whose nuclear button was bigger, it sounded as if we were heading for a nuclear holocaust led by a pair of overgrown prepubescents.

In fact, Trump’s bellicosity seems to have worked. It’s impossible to know how things will pan out, but the situation with North Korea today is a lot better than it was six months ago. Hostages are being released, talks are being held. There seems to be a chance for progress unfelt in years.

Maybe Trump intuited something about the sorts of people who run the North Korean regime that others missed.

It’s hard to describe the obliviousness of this analysis. Trump had to be shouted down by his chief of staff to prevent him from ordering the removal of our troops from the Korean peninsula prior to us getting any concessions or hostages back from North Korea. Is it any surprise that the North Koreans have responded to this with conciliatory actions? Their fondest hope is within reach and was nearly reached without them having to lift a finger. Why make trouble for the president when he’s trying to surrender?

To be clear, there are arguments that can be made against America having a large military presence around the globe, including in Korea and Syria, but Trump no more articulates these arguments than he understands them. He doesn’t have some informed and accurate rationale for what he says about Brexit or the European Union or NATO or Crimea. What he says is what Vladimir Putin would want him to say. That’s the only thing that is consistent in all of this.

The US elite foreign policy establishment doesn’t have a good record in recent years and just because they think Trump is out of his mind doesn’t mean that they’re the smartest or wisest people to be running our country. I’ve spent most of the last twenty years blasting away at how we have conducted the war on terror, and my critiques of America’s economic imperialism go back much further than that. Trump is sometimes right in the same way that a broken clock is right. For that matter, some of Russia’s critiques and complaints about U.S. policy have some merit to them.

But as dissatisfied as I am with the people who have been running our country, I am completely appalled to see our country taken over by a kleptocratic assassin like Vladimir Putin. His values and his foreign policies can never be our values and our foreign policies.

And, yet, this is exactly what we’re seeing happen right in front of our eyes.

The problem is compounded by the fact that this is so shocking and hard to accept that even knowledgable critics have a hard time facing up to it. So we get critiques like the ones above from YJ Fischer and David Brooks. They have wildly divergent takes on what we’re seeing in North Korea but where they agree is in missing the real story.

Trump isn’t some masterful thug negotiator nor is he ready to give away the store in return of anything of actual value. He’s just anxious to give away the store.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at