WATCH: Trump Speaks At Arab Islamic American Summit

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De-Demonizing Vladimir The Hateable

Last week a meeting was held between President Trump and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov, requested by President Putin, to discuss a new plan for ending the slaughter in Syria and dealing with Bashar al-Assad. A number of members of the foreign policy establishment were opposed to the meeting on the grounds that it was merely a PR ploy by Putin to show that he was as important as Trump in the global scheme of things. For these Kremlinologists and other foreign ?experts,? it is difficult to imagine what might count as evidence that Putin might genuinely want a lasting peace. The negative spin makes sense only against a background of intense hostility to things Russian, as described, for example, by Steve Hall, former CIA Director of Russian Operations: Putin?s ?major goal is to undermine Western liberal democracies.?

The current hysteria about Russia from our Congress, pundits and standard media is not new: Russophobia has been the basic assumption underlying our dealings with that country ever since the Bolshevik Revolution a century ago, differing now only in its intensity and shrillness. Trump has been denounced far and wide for several statements implying President Putin is a full member of the human race, as are the Russian peoples he serves, and that it would be ?nice if we all got along better with the Russians.?

But how do people concerned with morality and justice negotiate with someone like Putin? He has variously been described as someone who ?thinks like Hitler? at times (Hillary Clinton); or who ?cannot be trusted? (Barack Obama); is a ?thug? (ditto); who leads a nation whose citizens ?are not our friends? (Mitch McConnell); who is very probably a ?war criminal? (Marco Rubio and other senators); and who ?poses a serious threat to our country?s democracy? (Patrick Leahy).

These are strong condemnations, but we find relatively little evidence of evildoing on the part of Putin and his government to support them, or others of the same ilk. The standard media describes Russia?s entry into Crimea/Ukraine as an ?invasion,? whereas the preponderance of the evidence gathered thus far seems to suggest nothing of the kind. Other evidence is conflicting, and still other evidence provides accounts of actions the U.S. has also engaged in with great frequency. If Putin and his minions are moral monsters, don?t we, too, have to suffer equally the wrath of the righteous?  

This latter question goes far beyond a charge of hypocrisy. The U.S. has interfered in the democratic affairs of other sovereign nations dozens of times just since World War II, beginning early on in Greece and Italy, thence to other areas of Europe and extending to the middle East, Asia and Latin America, continuing to the plotting of the Ukrainian coup in 2014 (as the now-public telephone call from the State Department?s Victoria Nuland makes clear).

Thus, absent a great deal more evidence, it is not any sense of Realpolitik but ideology that insists the Russians are not just more or less tawdry versions of ourselves when it comes to foreign policy. We must believe Putin and his minions are up to no good, as is obvious from considering what we would think if the DNC was really hacked by the Germans; wouldn?t the whole affair fade from our screens fairly quickly? (Think also of U.S. support for Boris Yeltsin).

The importance of this Russophobia must be emphasized. It underlies much of our sclerotic foreign policy. How much of it is due simply to a residual anti-communism, how much to justifying an obscene defense budget, and/or how much to the financial drooling that must accompany contemplating the vast natural resources of the world?s largest land mass, we do not know and perhaps never will. Probably some of the Russophobes really did mean well by their words and deeds. But whatever the reasons, this ideology does not serve our country well, and should be abandoned in favor of a more productive background for our negotiating efforts, with more attention given to trust-building. No longer should we begin gathering, analyzing and evaluating Russian materials believing that they pose a major ?threat to our democracy,? to quote Leahy again.

Perhaps all of the charges raised against Putin by our establishment will turn out to be true, and we must therefore continue to take a hard line in our diplomacy. If so, so be it. But in the absence of such evidence, we might want to contemplate the advice of Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. When writing his memoirs, he thought long and hard of how Roosevelt and Churchill had dealt with Stalin. Stimson had no illusions about the latter ? claiming that he broke many of his promises made during the several summit negotiations ? but also noted that Stalin had kept many of his promises, too, and following the recent horrors of the Nazi invasion had good reason to fear Western encroachment of any kind on or near the Motherland. In the end, Stimson went along with the two leaders and took a hard line on Stalin. But he later had regrets and the regrets remained, encapsulated in Stimson?s well-known quote qua folk wisdom: ?The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust.?

And the first Cold War began.

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Under Fire At Home, Trump Arrives In Saudi Arabia On First Foreign Trip

RIYADH, May 20 (Reuters) – Dogged by controversy at home, Donald Trump opened his first presidential foreign trip in Saudi Arabia on Saturday and won a warm reception as he looked to shift attention from a political firestorm over his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz greeted him on a red carpet as he stepped off Air Force One, shaking the hand of his wife, Melania, and riding in the U.S. presidential limousine.

It was a warmer welcome than had been granted to Trump?s predecessor, Barack Obama, who was seen in the Arab kingdom as soft on Iran and hesitant on Syria.

Trump?s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, the Vatican and Belgium has been billed by the White House as a chance to visit places sacred to three of the world?s major religions, while giving Trump time to meet with Arab, Israeli and European leaders.

But uproar in Washington cast a long shadow over the trip. The president?s firing of Comey and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign?s ties to Russia last year have triggered a stream of bad headlines.

The New York Times reported Trump had called Comey a ?nut job? in a private meeting last week in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak.

The White House did not deny the report, but said ?the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.?

In another development, the Washington Post said a current White House official close to Trump was a significant ?person of interest? in the investigation into possible ties between Trump?s presidential campaign last year and Russia.

Trump and King Salman seemed at ease with each other, chatting through an interpreter. At the royal al-Yamama palace, the king decorated Trump with the King Abdulaziz medal, the country?s top civilian honor.

The two leaders exchanged tweets, Trump saying it was great to be in Riyadh and King Salman welcoming him.

?Mr. President, your visit will strengthen our strategic cooperation, lead to global security and stability,? King Salman said in a message on his official Twitter account in Arabic and English.

Trump?s decision to make his first official trip abroad to Saudi Arabia, followed by Israel, countries which both share his antagonism towards Iran, marks a contrast with Obama?s approach.

Trump?s criticism of the nuclear deal Iran reached with the U.S. and five other world powers in 2015 pleases both Saudi Arabia and Israel, who accused Obama on ?going soft? on Tehran.

Poll results showed on Saturday that Iranians had emphatically re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, architect of Iran?s still-fragile detente with the West.

ARMS DEAL

After a royal banquet, Trump and the king were to have private talks and participate in a signing ceremony for a number of U.S.-Saudi agreements, including a $100 billion deal for Saudi Arabia to buy American arms.

National oil giant Saudi Aramco was expected to sign $50 billion of deals with U.S. companies on Saturday, part of a drive to diversify the kingdom?s economy beyond oil exports, Aramco?s chief executive Amin Nasser said.

Trump is to deliver a speech in Riyadh on Sunday aimed at rallying Muslims in the fight against Islamist militants. He will also attend a summit of Gulf leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.

A senior Saudi official said a digital center to monitor the activities of Islamic State and other militant groups online would be opened on Sunday, to coincide with the visit.

Ahead of Trump?s trip, the White House said the president expected tangible results from SaudiArabia in countering Islamic extremism.

Shortly after taking office, Trump sought to block people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, but the travel ban has been blocked by federal courts.

The 70-year-old president?s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium will be Trump?s longest time away from the White House since he took office four months ago.

Even his hand gestures may draw scrutiny in the Middle East, where the thumbs-up sign, a Trump trademark, is considered taboo.

The uproar over Comey?s firing looked unlikely to go away.

Trump, who has expressed a desire for friendlier relations with Moscow, drew a storm of criticism this week when it emerged that he had shared sensitive national security information with Russia?s foreign minister during a meeting last week in the White House.

The president was already under attack for firing Comey in the midst of an FBI probe into Russia?s role in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump campaign members.

Moscow has denied any such interference. Trump has denied collusion and denounced the appointment of a special counsel as a ?witch hunt.?

His fellow Republicans in Congress have expressed frustration that Trump?s pro-business economic agenda, featuring a plan to cut corporate and individual taxes, has been pushed to the backburner by the turmoil.

 

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Steak and ketchup

A reluctant traveller who misses his own bed, the president faces a gruelling challenge on a nine-day, five country tour.