What is Washington's policy toward Russia? During normal times, the question would elicit a relatively straightforward answer. But, to state the obvious, these are not normal times. When the State Department announced new US sanctions against Russia earlier this week, in response to the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian double agent in the UK, you might have done a double-take. The Russians did. After all, isn't the Trump administration trying to improve relations with Russia?
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The sanctions surprised and angered the Kremlin. A Russian UN representative tweeted, "The theater of the absurd continues," maintaining Russian innocence in the case.
Russia was calling the accusations absurd, but what really deserves that label is US foreign policy in the era of Trump; a tangle of contradictions, incoherence and mixed messages.
Under Trump, the Unjted States has at least two separate foreign policies: The President's and everybody else's. That's no way to run any country, much less the world's only superpower.
Nowhere is that lack of consensus more apparent than on Russia. This week's sanctions were the result of a 1991 law that obligates the government to punish any country that uses chemical or biological weapons. Essentially, the administration had no choice but to put the law in motion.
Separately, the President seems nothing but eager to draw closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin and set aside the issues that divide the two countries. Trump likes to talk about how good it is to get along, but the problems are substantive, not social.
Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, said the US digital infrastructure "is literally under attack," pointing to Russia. But Trump continues to equivocate, casting doubt on whether Russia attacked our presidential election in 2016 and continues to pose a threat to our democracy. The US and its allies have sanctioned Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine. But when Trump met with Putin in Helsinki last month, he failed to denounce these actions.
That's why when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified in Congress shortly thereafter, he had to open with reassurances that the US "does not and will not recognize the Kremlin's purported annexation of Crimea."
Under normal circumstances, there would have been no question about an issue with bipartisan consensus. But, again, these are not normal circumstances.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker and other members of the committee blasted Pompeo over the chaotic conduct of foreign policy in the Trump administration.
The policies are a tangled mess, and Pompeo did his best to try to make sense of them without sounding disloyal to the President. But it's no easy feat. In fact, Trump's rambunctious style has spawned a pattern: The President speaks, meets, declares, and then foreign policy figures rush to clean up, often finding excuses for Trump's statements.
Trump treats Russia with soft gloves, even if US policy has been on average very firm. With most other countries, he spends at least part of the time making threats and spewing insults.
He threatened North Korea with "fire and fury," but after he met with Kim Jung Un, he sounded drunk with excitement after the Singapore lovefest. "Just landed," he tweeted, "a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea. Meeting with Kim Jong Un was an interesting and very positive experience. North Korea has great potential for the future!
It wasn't clear what he had accomplished, which became embarrassingly clear when Pompeo followed up with a visit to North Korea. If Trump was happy to accept Kim's vague promises and declare victory, Pompeo, who has a more, shall we say, traditional approach to foreign policy, wanted concrete answers. North Korea was furious, accusing the US of a "gangster-like" attitude.
You could say Trump is playing good guy and letting his staff play bad guy. Or maybe he plays bad guy and then switches to good guy. But the truth is that there is no method to Trumpism, just a convoluted policy that makes the whole world dizzy and America's message muddled.
After Trump cast doubt on the US commitment to NATO's mutual defense during a NATO summit in Brussels, the Pentagon rushed a damage control team, reassuring members that Washington is still committed to its most important alliance.
On the same trip, just before heading to his meeting with Putin, a reporter asked Trump who his "biggest foe globally" is right now. You could hear a transatlantic gasp when Trump said, "I think the European Union is a foe." A flabbergasted EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeted "American and the EU are best friends. Whosever says we are foes is spreading fake news."
The fact is that Russia is America's foe, not Trump's. Trump and Putin want to dismantle the existing geopolitical order. They are allies in that task.
After Trump's embarrassing multi-stop trip, the parallel foreign policy track went to work. A group of senators, Republicans and Democrats, met with diplomats from NATO and other European countries. They vowed that the US still stands by its alliances, the bedrock of American security and prosperity for seven decades in the view of just about everyone who has been paying attention -- with the notable exception of Donald Trump and a small number of Republicans.
On the whole, the US now has two foreign policies. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes they intersect. Often, the two clash and contradict one another. Then the president may change his mind, making it all even more confusing.
Russians were taken by surprise by the new sanctions that showed America working at cross-purposes with its president. It didn't seem normal. But then, these are not normal times.
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