The view in the White House was that things were going well until March 1, when Ambassador Donald F. McHenry…
A defeat so overwhelming as that which Governor Reagan inflicted on President Carter soon takes on the air of the inevitable. Before it does it may be useful to record that those who were defeated in no way looked upon the outcome as fated. To the contrary, the view in the White House was that things were going well until March 1, when Ambassador Donald F. McHenry voted in favor of a particularly vicious anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council of the United Nations, followed three weeks later by the appearance of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he refused to disavow the vote. Thereafter, in this view, everything spun out of control. The Carter administration left Washington convinced—and proclaiming—that defeat was brought on by malevolent incompetence at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the inability of the Secretary of State to control the Mission. What they did not proclaim and only dimly understood was that they themselves had put in place the ideas which helped bring them down; that indeed in that sense the outcome was fated.
Set forth by President Carter and others, the sequence of events was as follows. Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s challenge to the President began poorly. On March 18 the two met in Illinois, the first industrial state to hold a primary. The President won handily. If Kennedy could be beaten a week later, in New York, his candidacy would collapse. A private poll conducted by Dresner, Morris & Tortorello Research in late January and early February showed the President leading the Senator 54 percent to 28 percent among probable Democratic primary voters in New York, with only 13 percent undecided. Yet in the end, Kennedy won, 59 percent to 41 percent.
In a gracious gesture, after the results were in, Lieutenant Governor Mario M. Cuomo, who headed Mr. Carter’s campaign in New York, called the President to apologize. “No,” said Mr. Carter as reported in the New York Times, “it was the United Nations vote.” In an interview with Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post on March 27, Mr. Carter, speaking of an incumbent’s problems in running for reelection, repeated the point:
. . . Then to make a mistake like we did on the UN vote and have the Secretary of State testify a few days before the election. . . .
The same theme was sounded, finally, in a postmortem by Steven R. Weisman and Terence Smith of the Times after the national election:
This blunder, in which the administration first voted in favor of a March 1 resolution rebuking Israel on settlements in Arab-claimed territory and then disavowed it, cost the President dearly among Jewish voters in the March 18 [sic] New York primary. Senator Kennedy carried the state and attracted new contributions to his campaign, which carried on through the last batch of primaries on June 3.
“New York was our chance to knock Kennedy out of the box early,” said Mr. [Robert S.] Strauss, the campaign chairman. “We blew it with that vote.”
Jody Powell told the Times reporters that in consequence, “We sure as hell spent a lot of time and money fighting him that would have been better spent against Reagan.”
Now it will be clear that there are many reasons President Carter lost the election, of which the UN vote was only one and scarcely the most important. What is important, however, is that the administration had looked upon its United Nations record as a huge success. Other policies had failed, and that proved costly. But this had succeeded, and proved costly. When the fall of a President is involved, and possibly also the fall of a party, some notice should be taken. For I do not conceal my judgment that so long as the ideas underlying the Carter administration’s UN policy are dominant within the Democratic party, we Democrats will be out of power.
In normal circumstances UN affairs play a marginal role in United States foreign policy, the simple reason being that American foreign policy is normally preoccupied with the Soviet Union, and the UN, with its profusion of small, even mini, states, is the last setting in which two powers would wish to conduct their affairs. But four years ago, to the incoming Carter administration, the main attraction of the UN as a setting in which to conduct foreign policy was precisely the prominent role Third World nations play in UN affairs, and the North-South axis of the place. This was a setting in which the cold war could at last be put behind us. In his first major foreign-policy address, given at Notre Dame on May 22, 1977, President Carter reported that the United States had overcome its “inordinate fear of Communism,” and proposed that the two powers now join in a cooperative effort to improve North-South relations, specifically through economic assistance to the developing nations. In the meantime, the name of the UN Ambassador was promoted to second place on the directory of the State Department building, immediately below that of the Secretary.
In his Notre Dame speech, as in his appointments, President Carter brought together two strains in Democratic thinking on foreign affairs. The first was the old tradition of liberal internationalism—the extension of domestic standards of social justice to the world at large—exemplified by President Harry S. Truman’s Point Four program or President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress.
But there was another and newer strain of thought, one much at odds with the traditions of Truman and Kennedy. This was the view that had emerged in the course of the Vietnam war to the effect that the United States, by virtue of its enormous power, and in consequence of policies and perhaps even national characteristics that were anything but virtuous, had become a principal source of instability and injustice in the world. We were, in short, a status-quo power, and the status quo we were trying to preserve was abominable. By contrast, a more positive future was available to mankind if it could break out of the American dominion. Much has been written of this, and one need not expand. For my part the most evocative and excruciating memory of the onset of this point of view was the day that a group of former Peace Corps volunteers, protesting the war, ran down the American flag at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington and ran up that of the Vietcong.
Through the 1970’s this view grew in strength within the Democratic party. It was most often to be encountered when issues of defense were involved. In an article written in November 1980, R. James Woolsey, who served with distinction as Under Secretary of the Navy in the Carter administration, described how
leaders of many of the interest groups that claim to represent the traditional Democratic constituencies have convinced themselves over the last decade or so that they must be the enemies of increased American military power.
He explained why these constituencies had come to feel this way:
What you spend on tanks you can’t spend on schools or welfare, nor can you keep it. This is, however, an ageless problem of government. . . . Perhaps more important, the agony of Vietnam introduced a new element and led the interest-group spokesmen and many liberal Democratic politicians to attack the existence of American military power as a way to curtail its exercise. Throughout much of the 1970’s, the halls of the Senate Office Buildings, for example, were jammed with young staff members looking for a weapons system to have their Senator oppose. They, and their friends in the executive branch, are now typing up their resumés in no small measure because the voters understood what many of the elected officials did not—that caution in using military power is wise, but unilateral restraint in obtaining it in the face of a massive build-up by a potential enemy is extremely dangerous.
There was a precise corollary to this doctrine of self-denial in defense, and it flowed from the idea that the political hostility which the United States encountered around the world, and especially in the Third World, was, very simply, evidence of American aggression or at least of American wrongdoing. The aggression could be military, but just as often it would be diagnosed as economic (the role of the multinational corporation) or ecological (plundering the planet to sustain an obscenely gross standard of living). Often it would be presented as nothing more specific than not being “on the side of history” or “the side of change.” No matter, the prescription was the same. If the United States denied itself the means of aggression, it would cease to be aggressive. When it ceased to be aggressive, there would be peace—in the halls of the United Nations no less than in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia.
As tanks and missiles were the instrument of military aggression, so ideas were the means of diplomatic aggression—specifically that array of attitudes, judgments, and prejudices which led Americans to suppose they represented on balance a successful society, one model of how developing societies, if fortunate, might turn out, and in the interval a fair standard by which to measure the merits of other societies.
Here, in the interest of what lawyers call full disclosure, let me acknowledge that, from the first, those members of the Carter administration responsible for policy at the UN, and more generally for relations with the developing nations, regarded my own brief tenure as U.S. Permanent Representative at the UN in 1975-76 as the prime example of American diplomatic aggression.
This was notably the view of C. William Maynes, who left the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to become President Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. It was the view of the Ambassadors who came and went at the U.S. Mission beginning with Andrew Young and ending with Donald McHenry. In an interview published in September 1980, contrasting his performance with mine, Ambassador McHenry said:
I don’t believe in confrontation politics, I don’t believe in name-calling. I do believe in communicating with them [i.e., Third World nations], in stating my views, listening to theirs, respecting their views, expecting them to respect mine.
A few weeks later, on October 1, 1980, taking issue with a New York Times Magazine article entitled “How the Third World Runs the UN,” he returned to this theme:
The article was reminiscent of the speeches about the “Tyranny of the Majority” that one of my predecessors used to deliver when he represented our country at what he later called “A Very Dangerous Place.”1
Yet there was a fateful avoidance of reality in the new administration’s view: a denial that there is genuine hostility toward the United States in the world and true conflicts of interest between this nation and others—an illusion that a surface reasonableness and civility are the same as true cooperation.
To be sure, if there are conflicts of interest among states, there are also truly shared interests, and even genuine friendships. The world, alas, is complex, and although the new men of the Carter administration professed to understand complexity where others had missed it, they were in fact great simplifiers. They trivialized the sources of real conflict between the United States and other nations, and they exaggerated our ability to resolve them to everyone’s satisfaction.
Again, one notes a parallel with the approach of the new administration to defense and foreign policy. One of the first (and fateful) decisions of President Carter was to appoint Paul Warnke as negotiator for the strategic-arms-limitations talks with the Soviets. Warnke in his celebrated article “Apes on a Treadmill’ had set forth the thesis that the Soviets essentially imitate American behavior in defense matters. Thus just as the United States could turn enmity into friendship merely by avoiding “confrontation politics” in its dealings with the Third World, so the United States could change Soviet behavior simply by changing its own.
But if these ideas had a parallel structure, they did not prove equally durable. Although President Carter had campaigned in 1976 on a pledge to cut the defense budget, his promise did not survive the first encounters with reality—the reality of conflicting interests and genuine danger. Instead, it was buried, and (admittedly modest) increases in defense spending commenced. The same readiness to retreat from unrealistic approaches was evident in the area of human rights (and indeed, here the administration’s retreat was almost over-eager). But if in these areas reality obliged the administration to think better of the ideas by which it had hoped to guide policy, no such perceptions ever managed to penetrate our approach to the United Nations. We would unilaterally change the whole international atmosphere simply by avoiding “confrontation politics.” The United States would make amends for its past failures by a greater responsiveness, by greater openness, by at last understanding the problems of others and their perspectives. Thus the psychological arrogance that lay behind the seeming humility of our new relations with the Third World—it was we who still determined how others behaved—remained intact.
At the UN the arrogance of this view was particularly risky, for those convinced of the abuse of American power found themselves representing the United States at a time when our power was in fact much reduced. Whether American interests could, even so, be protected would depend on how well this decline was perceived, on the suppleness of the new tactics that would be brought to bear, and above all on the ability to sense failure when it struck one across the face. The new administration was conducting an experiment of a sort; much would depend on whether it could tell the difference between good results and bad.
Before defeat in the 1980 election forced a different conclusion upon them, the Carter people were of the opinion that the experiment had been a brilliant success. From the 1980 Democratic platform—prepared in cooperation with the staff of the National Security Council—one learned that when the administration came to power in 1977,
relations with the Third World were at their nadir. The United States appeared hostile and indifferent to the developing world’s aspirations for greater justice, respect, and dignity. All this has changed.
Testifying before a House Subcommittee on March 27, 1980 (two days, mind, after the New York primary), Assistant Secretary Maynes spoke even more glowingly of changes that had come over the UN:
. . . the UN has become the crossroad of global diplomacy.
. . . [It] now appears to be less unfriendly and dangerous a place than some have led us to believe. It is also possible that we will find there a greater spirit of cooperation than before—not just in condemning the lawless but also in advancing the rule of law. But these promises may come to naught unless we adopt a more mature stance toward the UN itself.
We must remind ourselves that the United States needs the UN at least as much as it needs us.
One might have thought this assessment would be reflected in votes in the General Assembly or the Security Council. But it was not. Worse, the ideas of the new administration stood in the way of seeing opportunities to be seized and understanding problems to be met.
This was perhaps to be expected. The heavy emphasis on North-South relations, after all, was surely a way of coping with, or at least diverting attention from, the difficult realities of the post-Vietnam world. “American imperialism” had been defeated. Our defeat had been caused, to be sure, by overreaching and after a point it could not perhaps have been avoided. But its consequences, all the same, would have to be lived with, and adjusted to; foremost among them would be a major opening for, and stimulus to, Soviet imperialism. Susan Sontag has recently acknowledged how little she and others in the anti-war movement had understood this equation:
It was not so clear to many of us as we talked of American imperialism how few options many of these countries had except for Soviet imperialism, which was maybe worse. When I was in Cuba and North Vietnam, it was not clear to me then that they would become Soviet satellites, but history has been very cruel and the options available to these countries were fewer than we had hoped. It’s become a lot more complicated.
But the perception of such complexity was beyond the powers of the U.S. Mission to the UN under the Carter administration. Its members could not see the signs of a new phase of Soviet policy: military support for Ethiopia in 1977, coups in both Afghanistan and South Yemen in April 1978, the invasion of Cambodia in December 1978. Unable to explain all this or to fit it to the purposes they had set themselves, American diplomats at the UN grew increasingly silent.
It also emerged that our representatives had little sense of the UN Charter as law that had to be upheld, and to be expounded. A superb opportunity came in the fall of 1977 when the Soviets switched sides in the Horn of Africa. Abandoning Somalia, they actively entered the war in the Ogaden, an ethnically Somali territory, on the side of Ethiopia. Of a sudden the Somalis were pounding on our doors begging for help, pleading for us to understand the “nature of the Soviet threat,” Soviet “neocolonialism,” the “Soviet plot to encircle the Gulf,” the “Soviet contempt for human rights and the rights of small nations.”
Now it happens that in 1975 the principal sponsor of the resolution that declared Zionism to be a form of racism was none other than Somalia (acting in its then capacity as an especially fawning satellite of the Soviets). After the resolution was adopted, I rose in the General Assembly and addressed the following words directly to the Somalis:
Today we have drained the word “racism” of its meaning. Tomorrow terms like “national self-determination” and “national honor” will be perverted in the same way to serve the purposes of conquest and exploitation. And when these claims begin to be made . . . it is the small nations of the world whose integrity will suffer. And how will the small nations of the world defend themselves, on what grounds will others be moved to defend and protect them, when the language of human rights, the only language by which the small can be defended, is no longer believed and no longer has a power of its own?
With the Somalis bleating in terror, pleading for help, did the U.S. Mission to the UN make a single reference to their behavior in 1975, and our response? None. This would have been to engage in “confrontation,” a practice of the discredited past.
The United States helped found the UN, mostly wrote the Charter, has largely paid for the place. U.S. representatives have an obligation to insist that there are standards written into that Charter. Occasionally we would stand up for them. In 1978 William J. vanden Heuvel, the U.S. representative to the UN in Geneva, actually objected to the appointment of a KGB officer as director of personnel for UN activities in that city. (The appointment was a clear violation of article 100 of the Charter.) But there were few such instances. Not even when UNESCO, that embodiment of a decent liberal optimism, set about developing an international regime for state control of the press under the insolent euphemism of “A New World Information Order” did we engage in “confrontation.” No, never. And so it went.
But the crucial turning point came with Camp David, which involved an irony worthy to be called tragic. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State had been to cooperate with Anwar Sadat in maneuvering the Soviets out of Egypt Together Sadat and Kissinger had had to stand against the efforts of Soviet policy to scuttle the new pro-American alignment of Egypt and the step-by-step peace negotiations, which had scored a major success with the second disengagement agreement of May 1975. The Zionism-is-racism resolution in November of the same year was itself one part of this sabotage campaign.
That the UN and its Third World majority could be manipulated for the purposes of an assault on American policy was much more poorly apprehended after Kissinger’s departure. In fact, in its desire to dissociate itself from the past, the Carter administration set out to bring the Soviets back. The still startling Soviet-American communiqué (issued jointly but plainly Soviet-drafted) of October 1, 1977 proposed to reconvene the Geneva Conference, a meeting under UN auspices at which the two nations would be co-chairmen and to which all interested parties would be invited. To Sadat the meaning of this was clear: a veto in the hands of the radical forces, immediate stalemate, ultimately perhaps his overthrow. And so to avoid going to Geneva, he went to Jerusalem (where, he had every reason to know, a deal was waiting to be struck with the Begin government). This set in motion the events that ended with the Camp David accords of 1978, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979—Carter’s single greatest achievement, albeit purchased only by a reversal of his original “Geneva” approach and by shifting negotiations over the Middle East away from the UN.
Inevitably forces at the UN would resent this. Thus it is not too much to say that the supreme test of the Carter policy at the United Nations was whether that body would leave him alone to make peace between Israel and its neighbors. Had his diplomats, through their new approach, acquired sufficient influence with the far-flung nations of the Third World to persuade them to stay out of disputes with which most of them had in any event only the remotest connection?
The answer was not long in coming. First, the remaining Arab states, with Iraq only momentarily absent, convened a “confrontation summit” in Damascus to fight the Camp David settlement. Iraq soon was brought in, and before the year was out leaders of all Arab states except Egypt had met in Baghdad to form a “rejection front” against Egypt and Israel. Simultaneously the Soviet Union (returning to the tactics it had used in 1975 to counter its expulsion from Egypt) escalated its campaign to delegitimate Israel by identifying it with the Nazis.
Having been sounded in 1971 with a two-part article in Pravda entitled “Anti-Sovietism is the Profession of Zionists,” this theme was steadily elaborated and diffused. (The original Pravda article, for example, asserted that the massacre at Babi Yar had been a collaboration of Nazis and Zionists.) Once the idea had been set, it proceeded to be popularized on television, in novels, and finally in children’s publications. Thus the October 10, 1980 issue of Pionerskaya Pravda, a tabloid-size weekly for children aged nine to fourteen who belong to the Soviet youth organization, Pioneers:
Zionists try to penetrate all spheres of public life, as well as ideology, science, and trade. Even Levi jeans contribute to their operations: the revenue obtained from the sale of these pants are used by the firm to help the Zionists.
Most of the largest monopolies in the manufacture of arms are controlled by Jewish bankers. Business made on blood brings them enormous profits. Bombs and missiles explode in Lebanon—the bankers Lazars and Leibs are making money. Thugs in Afghanistan torment schoolchildren with gases—the bundles of dollars are multiplying in the safes of the Lehmans and Guggenheims. It is clear that Zionism’s principal enemy—is peace on earth.
. . . The United Nations described Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. More and more people today are beginning to realize that Zionism is present-day fascism.
This propaganda seemed to possess the Soviets internationally as well as at home, and they began to insist that other nations join in the campaign to treat Israel as an outlaw state, indeed a non-state, an entity without the rights of statehood. It began to work. In 1978 Cuba became head of the “nonaligned nations.” A summit meeting of these states in Havana between September 3 and 7, 1979 adopted a resolution that declared:
The heads of state or government reaffirmed that racism, including zionism [sic], racial discrimination, and especially apartheid constituted crimes against humanity and represented violations of the United Nations Charter and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [Paragraph 237, Final Declaration of the Conference].
In June 1980 at the ministerial meeting of the Organization of African Unity, held in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Israel was referred to in official documents merely as the “Zionist entity.” And on October 8, 1980 the Soviets signed a Friendship Treaty with Syria of which Article 3 declared:
The High Contracting Parties, guided by their belief in the equality of all peoples and states, regardless of race and religious beliefs, condemn colonialism, racism and zionism [sic] as one of the forms and manifestations of racism, and reaffirm their resolve to wage relentless struggle against them.
This was perhaps the clearest statement to date of the Soviet Union’s opposition to the very existence of the state of Israel, but its essential purpose had been evident for at least a decade.
No less evident was what the United States Mission to the United Nations should have done. The Arab nations were split; the United States was, in effect, allied with the largest of them, Egypt, and in the cause of peace in the Middle East. The Soviet Union, though it might declare that “thugs in Afghanistan” were “tormenting schoolchildren” for the profit of Zionists, had established itself beyond all question as a brutal conqueror of Third World peoples and as an anti-Semitic regime of near demented proportions. The moment to fragment or silence the opposition was at hand.
Faced with this assault on the UN Charter, on peace, on decency—and, not so incidentally, on the President of the United States—what did our people do? They took the other side.
To persons whose deepest conviction was that Third World nations were hostile to the United States because of our own neocolonial behavior; whose strong disposition was to believe that the Soviet Union in almost all instances supported the true liberationist forces in the former colonial world while the United States, on the wrong side of history, backed brutal but doomed dictatorships—the events from 1977 to 1980 could make no sense. It became ever more difficult for such people to understand and support their own government’s policy. For had not the Camp David framework, its peaceful appearances notwithstanding, called forth a more sustained disagreement between the U.S. and the Third World than even the “confrontationist” policies of the past? To understand this one had to entertain the possibility that the opposition we encountered there was not a matter of long-held grievances against our abuses of power. One had to entertain the possibility that there were those whose great fear was that in seeking peace we might succeed.
Confused, and after a point not altogether straightforward, the strategy of our diplomats in New York, backed up in the Department of State, started to undergo a subtle and disastrous transformation. They had begun with the proposition that if the United States put itself on the “right” side of history, we would find the nations of the world, most of which of course were “new,” coming over to our side in turn. Unaccountably, however, they were still not on our side. To the contrary, some were actively seeking to undo the greatest diplomatic achievement the administration had to its credit, and none—not one—was objecting to or trying to impede such efforts. Evidently, then, we must still be on the wrong side. Reasoning thus, our diplomats prepared themselves to vote for the Security Council Resolution of March 1, 1980 and (though this was certainly not their intention) to help bring down the administration they served.
The chain of resolutions passed in condemnation of Israel by the Security Council in 1979-80 forms a complex story. Yet to follow it only a single point needs to be understood. It is that, as a direct result of American policy, the Security Council was allowed to degenerate to the condition of the General Assembly.
Under the UN Charter the General Assembly reaches decisions by majority vote, but its decisions are purely recommendatory (Article 10). By contrast, the Security Council has power. In situations where it determines that there is a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression,” the Council “shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken. . . .” These include “such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary. . . .” The Security Council, in a word, may make war. And for that reason the Security Council does not operate by majority vote. Any permanent member may veto any action, simply by voting No. However, in the face of the increasingly vicious Soviet-Arab assaults that followed Camp David, the United States began to abstain. I have represented the United States on the Security Council; I have served as President of the Security Council. I state as a matter of plain and universally understood fact that for the United States to abstain on a Security Council resolution concerning Israel is the equivalent of acquiescing.
The first abstention in the sequence we are now tracing occurred on March 22, 1979 when the Council, in a resolution directed against Israel, established a three-member commission “to examine the situation relating to establishments in the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem.” The phrasing here was ominous: “Arab territories . . . including Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. How could its capital be in the territory of others?
Equally ominous, although at this point restrained, was the reaffirmation of earlier Council statements that the Fourth Geneva Convention “is applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem” and the strict injunction upon Israel “as the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention.” Now, the Fourth Geneva Convention on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War is one of a series of treaties designed to codify the behavior of Nazi Germany and make such behavior criminal under international law. This particular convention applied to the Nazi practice of deporting or murdering vast numbers of persons in Western Poland—as at Auschwitz—and plans for settling the territory with Germans. The assertion that the Geneva Convention also applied to the West Bank played, of course, perfectly into the Soviet propaganda position that “Zionism is present-day fascism.”
Within a year the new commission had submitted two reports. In response to these, on March 1, 1980, a resolution (465) was submitted to the Council that was as viciously anti-Israel—and as destructive of the Camp David accords—as any that had ever been encountered or could readily be devised. Israel was found to be in “flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention”: the first nation in history to be found guilty of behaving as the government of Nazi Germany had behaved. It was determined
that all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity. . . .
In a word, according to Resolution 465, Israel is an outlaw state, guilty of war crimes. (Not the Vietnamese invaders of Cambodia, or the Soviets in Afghanistan. Israel!) Its alleged capital is not its capital at all—“Jerusalem or any part thereof”—and it is in illegal occupation of territory now for the first time designated “Palestinian.”
Here, then, was the triumph of everything the Soviets and the “Rejectionists” had stood for: the repudiation of everything Sadat, and for that matter Begin and Carter, had sought. Yet the United States voted in favor of this resolution. Shortly thereafter the administration stated that this had been a “mistake.” It was no mistake at all. Resolution 465 reflected the view of the majority of members of the United Nations, and the U.S. Mission there had simply come to accept that view. Their conception of the world, by now shared in Washington, gave them no alternative.
Once the vote was cast there came the shock of recognition, in Washington at least, that this was what that conception led to. But still they clung to it. The White House, sensing the disaster and the dilemma, did not want any testimony given before Congress. The State Department insisted, and so on March 20 the New York Times reported:
Vance Rebuffs Call for Full Disavowal of UN’s Israel Move
Yet it was more than that. Vance would neither disavow the episode nor acknowledge it. He could not bring himself to admit consequences he could not desire of a policy he could not repudiate.
The operative paragraphs of Resolution 465 began by stating that the Security Council:
- Commends the work done by the Commission in preparing the report. . . .;
- Accepts the conclusions and recommendations contained in the above-mentioned report of the Commission;
Yet Vance in his testimony on March 20 suggested that nothing, really, had happened, that voting for the resolution did not imply support for the commission report which had occasioned it.
Senator Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland went directly to this point:
Senator Sarbanes. Mr. Secretary, the resolution that was passed and for which we voted, accepts the conclusions and recommendations contained in the report of the commission established by Security Council Resolution 446.
Do I take your assertion to be that the word “accepts” there means nothing more than “receives”?
Secretary Vance. You do correctly understand.
Senator Sarbanes. Why wasn’t the word “receives” used? I would understand the word “accepts” to carry with it some element of subscribing to the conclusions in the recommendation.
Secretary Vance. No; it was merely intended to connote receives. Accepts—they hand them to me, they are accepted.
I joined in the questioning:
Senator Moynihan. Very frankly, . . . Mr. Secretary, I am concerned with our reputation for plain dealing.
Did anyone at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations tell you that in a Security Council resolution, the word “accepts” should be read to mean “receives”?
Secretary Vance. Yes: I have been told that.
Senator Moynihan. You have been told that?
Secretary Vance. Yes
Senator Moynihan. Sir, I once served as U.S. Permanent Representative there. I can tell you that I could not conceive telling a Secretary of State that the word “accepts” should be read to mean as in a letter, “Dear Sir, I have received your letter of” so and so.
The first paragraph, the preambular paragraph of a Security Council resolution starts out always, “Taking note of.” This is the paragraph that says, “We have received.”
“Accepts,” on the other hand, is a slight variation on the word “endorse.” It would be the only way it would have been understood in my time there, sir.
I think you have been misinformed, sir, and I think you have been done a disservice.2 . . .
Something quite extraordinary was happening here. It is of course possible that the members of the U.S. Mission had simply not told the truth to the Secretary of State. (They had evidently been less than candid on some other questions concerning the resolutions—informing him, for example, that references to Jerusalem had been excised from the text when they had not.) But how could a lawyer of Cyrus Vance’s ability believe such an untruth save that at high and low levels alike the men of our government were deceiving themselves? The Carter administration had failed in its objectives at the UN; but to admit that failure was to cast in doubt the view of the world that justified the very existence of the administration. And to protect itself from having to face this failure, the administration had begun to undermine Camp David itself—its one great success.
The March 1 vote, then, was a disaster and should have stimulated a reappraisal of the route by which the administration had traveled to it. Israel had been permanently damaged, and (unless their perceptions are perilously dulled) other allies of the United States permanently warned. Yet no more was said than that it was a mistake, and only a partial mistake at that. The administration never thought its way through the matter. Those publicly most identified with these policies had already begun to leave—first Ambassador Young, then Assistant Secretary Maynes, and finally Secretary Vance himself. But the policies persisted. By the end of the Carter administration the pattern had become all but impossible to overcome. One can measure it this way: on nine substantive votes on the Middle East taken in the Security Council between January 1979 and August 1980 the United States abstained seven times.
Just once we cast a veto—striking down a Tunisian resolution of last April 30 which called for the creation of a Palestinian state. This resolution, one might note, unlike the one we voted for on March 1, did refer to “secure and recognized boundaries”—the language of Resolution 242—but only for the Palestinian state. Not for Israel.
To be sure, we occasionally made our unhappiness known. In August 1980, for example, Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie went to New York and defended the American approach to a Middle East peace settlement based on the Camp David accords:
Let me . . . repeat our belief that this constant recourse to debates and resolutions that are not germane to the peace process—and even harmful to it—should stop.
A salutary sentiment, but what must the other members have thought? For Secretary Muskie was asking on behalf of the United States for the end of a process that it was perfectly within our power to end. If we believed such resolutions to be harmful to the peace process, we were free to veto them. We were free to deny them the force of law they acquire when they pass. The same point could be made of such American statements on the March 1 resolution as this one by President Carter:
While our opposition to the establishment of the Israeli settlements is long-standing and well known, we made strenuous efforts to eliminate the language with reference to the dismantling of settlements in the resolution.
Yet when the strenuous efforts failed, the U.S. Permanent Representative had only to raise his hand, to vote No, and the resolution would have failed.
Having committed itself, however, to solidarity with the majority at the UN, the Carter administration could not bring itself to exercise the veto. Thus in our flight from “confrontation” did we end not by understanding the perspectives of others, but by adopting them.
In so doing, we have acquiesced in a very great deal.
After March 1 the application of the Fourth Geneva Convention became a routine of Security Council resolutions. It was invoked in Resolutions 460 (May 8, 1980), 469 (May 20, 1980), and 471 (June 5, 1980), all three of which dealt with Israel’s expulsion of two Palestinian mayors in the wake of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilian settlers. Where once there was the routine affirmation of Resolution 242, we now have routine indictments of Israel for Hitlerian crimes.
The U.S. abstained even when Israel’s sovereignty itself was at issue. The last Security Council resolutions in this cycle of attacks on Israel were adopted in the summer of 1980 and dealt specifically with Jerusalem. Resolution 476 of June 30, 1980 warned Israel about its pending legislation on the annexation of East Jerusalem. One might well question the prudence of this Israeli law—and many have done so—but it was something else again to find that in Resolution 476 (as in its successor Resolution 477 of August 20) Israel had become the “occupying power” of its own capital. Both resolutions, in fact, seemed to include the entire city of Jerusalem within this charge. And Resolution 477 went still further: it declared the Basic Law on Jerusalem, by then passed, to be null and void. It declared in effect that Israel was not entitled to fix the location of its own capital city, and called—in a wholly unprecedented step—on member states to withdraw their embassies from this capital (which all did).
An epilogue of sorts took place in the third week of December 1980, as the Carter administration and the 35th General Assembly began winding down. On Monday, December 15, the General Assembly adopted five resolutions on the Middle East more virulent and anti-Semitic than perhaps anything the UN had yet seen. The debate was obscene. Thus the Ambassador of Jordan speaking of the Ambassador of Israel:
The representative of the Zionist entity is evidently incapable of concealing his deep-seated hatred toward the Arab world for having broken loose from the notorious exploitation of its natural resources, long held in bondage and plundered by his own people’s cabal, which controls and manipulates and exploits the rest of humanity by controlling the money and wealth of the world.
The occasion was the receipt of the most recent Report of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, a body established by General Assembly resolution on November 10, 1975, the same day Zionism was declared to be a form of “racism and racial discrimination.”
The first of the resolutions was breathtaking:
Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 does not provide an adequate basis for a just solution for the question of Palestine.
One of the more dishonest (and debilitating because profoundly misleading) assertions of the U.S. Mission during the Carter years was that the 1975 Zionism resolution was somehow brought about by the United States. Having resisted, America was judged to have provoked. That resolution passed 67 to 55 with 15 abstentions. This resolution, potentially far more destructive, was adopted 98 to 16 with 32 abstentions.
The United States said nothing. No American delegate went to the podium to offer the smallest demur. Next, a resolution denounced the Camp David accords, declaring that the General Assembly
Expresses its strong opposition to all partial agreements and separate treaties which constitute a flagrant violation of the rights of the Palestinian people, the principles of the Charter, . . . [etc].
The United States said nothing. The last of the resolutions reasserted Israeli violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This time the United States, by abstaining, said all there was to say.
There was something of note in the sponsors of the resolutions. The familiar Soviet-leaning or Soviet-dominated nations were present: Afghanistan, Cuba, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. But present also were Nicaragua and Zimbabwe, two Third World nations with which the Carter administration had presumably established relations of friendship and respect.
As for North-South relations, on Wednesday of that week Ambassador McHenry acknowledged that the General Assembly’s Special Session on economic development which had convened in September had come to nothing. Finally, on Friday, December 19, the United States voted for a Security Council resolution condemning Israel for the expulsion of two Arab mayors (an expulsion which followed upon parliamentary debate, trials before an independent judiciary, and the usual processes of a possibly wrongheaded but stubbornly democratic society). Ambassador McHenry explained that the Fourth Geneva Convention “prohibits deportations, whatever the motive of the occupying power.”
In an editorial entitled, “Joining the Jackals,” the Washington Post, which had supported the President for reelection, described this American vote against Israel in the Security Council on that Friday as representative of “the essential Carter.” Now the President himself was being held to account.
American failure was total. And it was squalid. These men, in New York and Washington, helped to destroy the President who appointed them, deeply injured the President’s party, hurt the United States, and hurt nations that have stood with the United States in seeking something like peace in the Middle East. They came to office full of themselves and empty of any steady understanding of the world. The world was a more dangerous place when at last they went away.
Those who now take office must deal with the aftermath of this massive failure of policy. The Security Council resolutions are time bombs. Ticking. The case has all but been made that Israel is an outlaw state, and indeed the General Assembly has now called on the Security Council to consider imposing sanctions against it. It will take the toughest-minded diplomacy to dismantle the indictment now in place—thanks to the Carter administration; thanks to those who brought the Democratic party to such confusions. The new administration will have to deal also with the whole question of the Third World. It should be clearer now that hostility toward the West, toward the United States, is abiding and, it may be, burgeoning.
Yet it remains for the United States to evolve a mode of dealing with the UN majority, and this in some measure turns on what kind of countries we think them to be. Irving Kristol has put the matter at its bleakest:
The radical-nationalist ideologies of these nations, so far from being a prelude to the liberal-constitutionalism we revere, are a kind of epilogue. They—or at least their ruling elites—have seen our present and reject it as their future. So long as we refuse to confront this reality, we do not have a clear vision of the world the U.S. inhabits. And so long as there is no such clear vision, there can be no coherent foreign policy.
My own view is more sanguine: consider India, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica. There are others—many others. Still, with the experience of these four years, we should at least have learned that foreign policy cannot be conducted under the pretense that we have no enemies in the world—or at any rate none whose enmity we have not merited by our own conduct. For it was this idea more than anything else, perhaps, that led the Carter administration into disaster abroad and overwhelming defeat at home.
1 It would be hard to pack more misinformation into a single sentence. It was President Gerald R. Ford, in an address at the opening of the General Assembly in the fall of 1974, who warned the UN against “the tyranny of the majority”; at the close of that session Ambassador John A. Scali repeated the warning. If I ever used the phrase, which I do not recall doing, it was only to cite them. As for “A Very Dangerous Place,” in 1978 I published a memoir about the UN with a passage on the first page: “I had first gone to Washington with John F. Kennedy and then stayed on with Lyndon Johnson. There I learned as an adult what I had known as a child, which is that the world is a dangerous place—and learned also that not everyone knows this.” My editor thought A Dangerous Place would be a good title; but I was not referring to the UN. As seamen are taught of the sea, the UN is not inherently a dangerous element, but is implacably punishing of carelessness.
2 A brief review of UN documents will make clear that “accept” has the everyday meaning of “endorse.” After the first commission report was submitted in July 1979, it became the subject of Security Council Resolution 452, in which the Council voted to “accept” its recommendations. The members of the commission easily understood what this meant. They wrote in their second report (which in turn became the subject of Resolution 465) that they had taken particular steps “bearing in mind that the Security Council, in Resolution 452 (1979), had accepted the recommendations contained in the commission’s first report . . .” (emphasis added).
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“Joining the Jackals”
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The president's blind spot.
You could sense a disturbance in the force on Tuesday, as center-left identitarian social-justice activists awoke to the news that former President Barack Obama had set fire to the exclusionary identity politics at the heart of what it means to be “woke.”
“This is hard,” Obama told the audience at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa. For participatory republican democracy to work, the president added, pluralism was a non-negotiable prerequisite. Toxic identity politics that segregate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic signifier is the enemy of that kind of pluralism. “You can’t do this if you just out-of-hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start,” he said. “You can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
Now, Obama was speaking about the context of political life in South Africa, where ethnic whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. South Africa’s complicated history, persistent racial disparities, and the associated violence render the problem Obama was addressing an urgent one, and it is not directly applicable to civic life in the United States. And yet, stripped of its regional context, you could be forgiven for thinking that Obama was taking a swipe at his compatriots.
Washington State’s Evergreen State College exploded last year when biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to a student-led initiative called the “day of absence,” in which white students were asked to voluntarily leave campus. Weinstein called it a form of racial segregation. In turn, he was called a racist by students, whose ensuing protests managed to close down the school for three days. Weinstein and his wife resigned and later cost the school a half-million dollars in a settlement over their treatment.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, people like Mark Lilla, a Democrat and opponent of identity politics, come under attack from progressive activists who take issue, not with their ideas, but with their race and gender. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” read the graffiti that Bruni recalled seeing deface an advertisement for a campus talk Lilla was prepared to deliver in 2017.
It only seems to become difficult for liberals to find evidence of the left’s efforts to silence those with perceived majoritarian traits when they are called to account for this separatism. It is not hard to substantiate the accusation that liberals have made a habit of demanding that straights, whites, males, or any combination thereof, stifle themselves in favor of women and minorities. The impulse to define individuals by their accidents of birth is by definition exclusionary, and it is one that any pluralist society cannot abide. Obama’s admonishment was as welcome as it was universally applicable. It’s a shame that his commitment to it is entirely cosmetic.
Hours had not passed before Obama was again paying homage to the diktats of liberal identity politics. “Women in particular, by the way, I want you to get more involved,” the former president told an audience in Johannesburg. “Because men have been getting on my nerves lately.” He added that men have been “violent,” “bullying,” and “just not handling our business.” Again, the context of these remarks was supposedly limited to affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are hard to divorce from the abuses uncovered by a handful of men almost exclusively occupying positions of power and status in the United States uncovered as a result of the #MeToo movement.
This contradictory behavior is standard fare for America’s 44th president. He has at times eloquently attacked the “crude” identity politics that pits Americans against one another, but these flashes of brilliance were few and far between. Barack Obama was a politician catering to a constituency, and that constituency took to divisive identitarianism like fish in water.
It was Barack Obama who pledged to “punish” the “enemies” of America’s Latino population, and it was his vice president who insisted that Mitt Romney, of all people, wanted to reinstate black slavery. When the president only called on women at a 2014 press conference, his White House made sure to call around to reporters after the fact to make sure they noticed. It was the Obama administration who spent years promoting the pernicious idea that American employers systematically discriminated against women even though his own Bureau of Labor Statistics insisted that the 77 cents myth was almost entirely the product of individual choices. It was Barack Obama’s attorney general who implied that Republican opposition to Obama (and himself) was a product of their racial animus.
“The Obama family’s tenure in the White House has overlapped a revolution in the way Americans deal with identity,” read an NPR retrospective on the Obama years. “From race to religion, from gender to sexual orientation and beyond, marginalized groups that historically worked and waited for ‘a seat at the table’ increasingly demanded their share of cultural power.” What’s more, demographics that were once the locus of American cultural power “were called on to defend their ideas and ‘check their privilege.’”
Latent hostility toward African Americans even among outwardly non-discriminatory Americans deserves as much blame for this phenomenon as any acts of agitation by Obama and his fellow Democrats. The racial provocateurs and hucksters on the right who leveraged white anxiety to their financial benefits played as much of a role in establishing the sorry state of affairs that typifies our present. But a fair reading of Obama’s time in office must concede that the president liked to condemn the theory of identity politics more than he eschewed it in practice. The aspirations that led a whopping 70 percent to say in 2009 that Obama’s presidency would improve race relations had all but evaporated by 2014, well before Donald Trump descended down the escalator.
Divisive identity politics is now how both political parties approach the electorate. As a tool, it has proven too effective for any competent political operation to abjure. Barack Obama appears to recognize that this is a tragedy, but he is not yet willing to take responsibility for the role he played in our lamentable condition.
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Trumpism is a disposition, not an ideology.
Since Donald Trump took the oath of office, he has vacillated between extremes. One day, he’s running a laudably conventional Republican administration. The next, he’s taking a sledgehammer to the conventions that define America’s national identity. Conservatives who opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 can expect to be regularly berated by their right-of-center compatriots—justifiably on occasion—who cannot understand why they maintain their suspicion of this conventional Republican administration. But those Trump skeptics only have to wait for the inevitable heel-turn, when Donald Trump again acts like Donald Trump and the wisdom of their skepticism is confirmed. The Trump skeptic’s purgatorial torment is without end.
The only real question is whether this dynamic will outlast Donald Trump’s days in the Oval Office. Will Republican voters gravitate toward the Trumpian version of Donald Trump or to his more ordinary persona? Some, like The Daily Beast’s Matt Lewis, claim the question answers itself. The erudite and morally discerning party of Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and William F. Buckley is no more. It’s a cult of personality now, and that personality is uniquely unsavory and corrupting. While it is easy to succumb to despair in moments like these, I think Lewis may be wrong, in part, because he’s asking the wrong question.
In praising her moral authority, Lewis cites Kirkpatrick’s antipathy toward her former comrades in the Democratic Party who “blame America first,” an unattractive trait that the Trumpain GOP has adopted. But the 1979 COMMENTARY essay and subsequent book that propelled Kirkpatrick to the helm of the American Mission to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, “Dictators and Double Standards,” was a case against a rigidly ideological foreign policy. It was an argument in favor of a realist approach to foreign affairs based on a grand strategic commitment to principle and was, therefore, duplicable. Donald Trump, by contrast, has no ideology and his style has proven harder for his disciples to mimic.
Trump’s press conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin stood out not just because he defended Russian attacks on U.S. interests and disparaged his own Cabinet officials—it also reflected his deep obsessions. Perhaps the most notable line from that event occurred when Trump dwelled inexplicably on Hillary Clinton’s email server. “What happened to Hillary Clinton’s emails?” he asked. “33,000 emails gone, just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily.” Implied in these comments is the assumption that an authoritarian nation like Russia would not allow unmonitored channels of communication in the first place.
These comments aren’t pro-Putin so much as they are pro-autocrat. What’s more, they are akin to comments Trump recently made about the increasingly autocratic president of Turkey. According to Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer, Trump expressed frustration over the political process that prevented democratic NATO member states from hiking their defense budgets by decree. “‘Except for [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan over here,” Bremmer recalled Trump saying of the Turkish leader. “He does things the right way.” It’s hardly the first time Trump has heaped praise on Erdoğan even amid his regular crackdowns on Turkish dissenters, and no one has alleged that Trump has any particular affinity for Ankara. Nor has anyone established “collusion” between the Trump campaign and North Korea, but that didn’t stop Trump from praising Kim Jong-un as an “honorable” and adept leader.
What these comments reveal is an affection for illiberalism because it is pragmatic; he does not have an attachment to Putinism per se. That’s important. There is a substantial faction on the right that has convinced itself of the blinkered belief that Putin stands for all that they hold dear. They believe—erroneously, as it happens—the propagandist line that Putin is a savior of Christianity. They see him as a bulwark in defense of Western civilization, primarily or in part because of his government’s hostility toward the LGBTQ community and championing the rights of ethnic Russians.
This Buchananite wing of the GOP really believes all this earnestly, but does Trump? He’s given no indication that he has any ideological opposition to gay rights or religious freedoms. His hostility toward immigrant groups is, ultimately, a problematic proposition for Republicans interested in the long-term electoral health of the party. Authoritarianism, like extremism, is a tool to achieve certain circumspect ends, not an end in itself. The ends of Trumpism remain relatively undefined. If Trump’s primary attachment to Putin isn’t ideological but rooted solely in his affection for undemocratic systems, it is going to be hard for conventional Republicans to mirror what is essentially a disposition, not a doctrine.
And that leads us to the most compelling evidence that Trumpism’s hold over the GOP may end up being ephemeral. The secret of Donald Trump’s presidency is that it receives its highest marks when the president moves in directions preferred by establishmentarian Republicans and traditional conservatives—when Trump sticks to reading from the script, nominating Bush-era judges to the Supreme Court, or aggressively containing Russian revanchism. But when Trump reverts to a form he perfected on the campaign trail—when he’s calling equatorial nations “s***holes,” apologizing for white supremacists, attacking his critics’ physical appearance on Twitter, or blaming America for Russian attacks on U.S. interests—the bottom falls out. Republican lawmakers break ranks to criticize him and, on occasion, force Trump to walk his incitements back. Trump-skeptical Republicans continue to exercise a level of influence over the GOP disproportionate to their relative numbers. That might help explain why this routed, rump caucus of malcontents without a broad constituency haunts the imaginations of so many committed Trump Republicans.
Ultimately, all bets are off if the president wins a second term in office. Two-term presidents have a habit of remaking their parties, regardless of the odor about them when they lift off from the White House lawn in Marine One. And even if Trump’s legacy is limited to one term, it’s possible that his hostility toward free trade and comprehensive solutions to America’s illegal immigrant population may persist as the dominating views in his party. But the evidence today that the GOP has been thoroughly remade in Trump’s image is remarkably superficial. Republican lawmakers talk a game just good enough to boost the president’s ego and flatter his phalanx of defenders in the conservative press, but talk is cheap. And the wall is still unbuilt.
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The man knows his constituency.
President Trump’s joint news conference Monday with Vladimir Putin was a catastrophe. On that, all but the most servile of his apologists agree. Not even latter-day consul Publius Decius Mus, aka Michael Anton, could rouse himself to defend the president on CNN. Here was the putative leader of the free world giving voice to sophomoric nonsense better suited to a Noam Chomsky seminar.
Even before the event itself got underway, Trump went full Chomsky with a pre-conference tweet blaming Washington for the state of U.S.-Russian relations: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity. . . .”
That sent the right’s Trump-whisperers scrambling. They insisted that the “foolishness” Trump had in mind was Obama’s weak posture. But given Trump’s refusal at various points to condemn Russian meddling in elections across the West and illegal annexation of Crimea—not to mention his persistent reluctance to criticize Putin directly—the rest of us can’t be blamed for thinking that by “foolishness” Trump meant “American hawkishness.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s pithy response to Trump’s tweet cleared up any remaining doubt: “We agree.”
Chomsky should be proud. He has won legions of fans over the decades, mainly among the simple and the half-erudite who imagine the MIT professor’s jeremiads offer secret knowledge of the way the world really works. And the key to that secret knowledge is that the U.S. is just as bad, if not worse than, its most vicious adversaries among rogue and revanchist regimes.
Trump has long had a Chomskyite streak, of course. Recall his flirtations with 9/11 trutherism amid the GOP primary campaign; his claim that President Obama quite literally founded ISIS (“ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He is the founder of ISIS, okay? He is the founder”); and the moral parallel he drew between the U.S. and Russia’s thugocracy in an interview with Bill O’Reilly soon after he took office.
But all that paled next to the spectacle of Trump humiliating America’s security apparatus, elevating the Kremlin’s global prestige, and crediting Putin’s incredible denials of election interference—all while standing next to the Russian strongman, who grinned Cheshire-like with a look of ironical amusement in his eyes.
Trump’s comments and the whole Helsinki affair look even worse against the backdrop of his rhetorical assaults on America’s European allies during the earlier NATO summit in Brussels. Not all of his criticisms were wide of the mark. As I wrote last week, the president was right to take Germany to task for a pipeline deal that would enhance Moscow’s energy dominance in Europe. But to describe the EU as a “foe,” as Trump did, and then to follow that comment with the grotesque moral equivalences of Helsinki marked a dismal moment in the history of the American presidency.
The best that can be said for Trump’s performance is that it doesn’t reflect his administration’s policies. The president might babble, but his babble is just that—for now. While he chums it up with Putin, Trump is arming Ukraine, blowing up Russian operatives in Syria, squeezing Moscow’s Iranian clients, and so forth. All this is an improvement over Trump’s predecessor, whose deference and pusillanimity toward the Kremlin took policy form.
But the policy defense only goes so far. For starters, we are already witnessing a rollback on the policy front. Jimmy Quinn notes at National Review that Trump may be rethinking his opposition to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Following his gabfest with Putin, Trump appeared to have changed his mind about the project, telling reporters that he now understands “where they’re all coming from,” and adding: “So I’ll just wish them luck.”
Foreign policy isn’t just about the policies a nation pursues. Statements and symbolism and personal signals matter enormously. As my colleague Noah Rothman has repeatedly argued in these pages, the danger in all this obsequy toward Moscow is that it might cause Putin to miscalculate Trump’s own parameters and trigger American tripwires, which in turn could lead to a rapid military escalation for which neither great power is prepared.
And what are the likes of Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic States, which live under the shadow of Putinist aggression, to make of all this? Whatever their qualms with the European Union and its mandarins, the citizens and leaders of these nations know the difference between the free air of the West and the stultifying, corrupt air that pervades the Kremlin sphere. They can’t afford for the American president to channel Noam Chomsky.