Putin Looked Trump in the Eye and Lied to Him
Before Donald Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G20, media speculation approached hysterical levels. Would it be like the Reagan-Gorbachev get-together at Reykjavik in 1986, or Chamberlain meeting Hitler in Munich in 1938?
Of course, it was like neither. Instead, the encounter was primarily for the leaders to take each other's measure. This was especially important for Trump, given his opponents' charges, with no evidence to date, that his campaign colluded with Russia to rig the 2016 election.
Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, reported afterwards that Trump opened the meeting by expressing "the concerns of Americans" about Russian election interference. Tillerson emphasized that the discussion was "robust and lengthy", with Trump returning several times to Russia's meddling.
Although we do not have Trump's exact words, US critics immediately attacked him for not referring to his concerns about the intrusions. If Trump did speak broadly about Americans' worries, he struck the right note. The US is essentially unanimous that no foreign intervention in our constitutional process is acceptable.
But there was an even more important outcome: Trump got to experience Putin looking him in the eyes and lying to him, denying Russian interference in the election. It was predictable Putin would say just that, as he has before (offering the gratuitous, nearly insulting suggestion that individual hackers might have been responsible). Commentators were quick to observe that governments almost never straightforwardly acknowledge their intelligence activities.
But attempting to undermine America's constitution is far more than just a quotidian covert operation. It is in fact a casus belli, a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate. For Trump, it should be a highly salutary lesson about the character of Russia's leadership to watch Putin lie to him. And it should be a fire-bell-in-the-night warning about the value Moscow places on honesty, whether regarding election interference, nuclear proliferation, arms control or the Middle East: negotiate with today's Russia at your peril.
On specific issues, the meeting's outcome was also problematic. A ceasefire agreement in southwestern Syria is a clear victory for Russia, Assad's regime, Hizbollah terrorists and Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Although humanitarian in intention, this deal substantially legitimizes Russia's participation in the Syrian struggle, thereby keeping Assad's dictatorship alive.
Any ceasefire necessarily relieves pressure on Assad on one front, which he can exploit on another. Even more troubling were Tillerson's references to the regime's future, implying discussions with Russia about a post-Assad Syria. If so, this would simply be a continuation of the Obama administration's delusion that Moscow shared our interest in removing Assad. Russia would acquiesce only if another Russian stooge were to fill his shoes.
Moreover, on North Korea, Tillerson said that Washington wanted to return Pyongyang to the table to discuss rolling back its nuclear weapons program. This too is a continuation of Obama policies, which brought us to the point where the North is dangerously close to delivering nuclear weapons on targets in the US.
For both Syria and North Korea, such comments reflect the influence of America's permanent bureaucracy, which has been implementing Obama policies for eight years, and which Trump has yet to redirect.
There was undoubtedly much more to the Trump-Putin meeting. But its major consequence – what Trump learnt from observing Putin in action, lying with the benefit of the best KGB training – will be important for years to come.
John R. Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is Chairman of Gatestone Institute, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and author of "Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad".