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Trump’s shockingly honest approach to Putin

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The 2016 election was not rigged by Moscow. Rex Tillerson, tipped to be the next secretary of state, is not a KGB agent.

Donald Trump is, however, trying to reset US policy toward Russia to begin a constructive dialogue. For this, he ought to be applauded. Instead, he is almost accused of treachery.

The situation is surreal. Let’s analyze those two allegations separately. First, the CIA reportedly believes that Russia likes Trump, hacked the Democrats during the election, and leaked information via WikiLeaks to assist their preferred candidate.

If the CIA’s claims are true, and doubts exist, then this is very bad news and must be investigated.

Trump is wrong to criticize the CIA without having all the facts at his disposal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is right to lend his support to a congressional hearing into Russian activities. Conservative David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic and the chairman of Policy Exchange, lays out five critical questions that the public needs answers to: who did they hack, when did it happen, was it coordinated, are there financial ties involved and are the Russians doing this elsewhere, too?

But let’s keep the Trump hack story in perspective. Messing about in other people’s elections is — however awful — not unheard of. Trump supporters are sharing a Los Angeles Times article from 1996 in which American political strategists boast about their role in helping re-elect President Yeltsin in the recent Russian presidential election, and foreign governments have had a hand in various aspects of the US electoral process for decades.

The question that Forum omits from his list is “did the Russians change the outcome of the 2016 election?” The answer is almost certainty “nyet.” After all, WikiLeaks had a very small role in the campaign; the Trump people complained that its revelations were overshadowed by the infamous “grabbing women” tape.

The FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s emails certainly had a much, much bigger impact than anything done by the KGB. Who were they working for? The North Koreans?

If I sound cynical then it’s because I am. The core of senators demanding an investigation of Russian involvement — Chuck Schumer, Jack Reed, John McCain and Lindsey Graham — are two Democrats who have votes to win on this issue and two Republicans who are prominent neoconservatives.

McCain and Graham opposed Trump throughout the primaries in part because he threatens the hawkish consensus that has dominated Washington for a very long time. A consensus that sees Russia as a perpetual and imminent threat to Western security.

Trump’s people see things differently. Peter Beinart of The Atlantic suggests they are informed by a view of history at odds with the Russophobic neocons. For Trumpites, the Cold War was a struggle with an atheist, socialist superpower that had to be won.

Once it was over and Russia reverted to its Christian roots, Moscow evolved from an enemy to a cultural ally in the far more relevant conflict with radical Islam. Many Trumpites, it is true, see Vladimir Putin as a champion for traditionalist values.

They ask why America pretends to loathe him when he’s fighting on the same side in Syria.

The answer, of course, is that he’s not. Putin is fighting with President Bashar al-Assad — not for democracy but to sustain a bloodthirsty dictator who serves Moscow’s strategic interests. Russophiles are just as myopically enthusiastic about Putin as the neoconservatives sometimes seem suicidally hell-bent on war. Between these two positions is a rational third way.

There’s evidence that Trump inhabits it.

Take Rex Tillerson, the subject of the second allegation I noted at the beginning of this article — that Trump is thinking about appointing a Moscow patsy as secretary of state. This is nonsense. Yes, Tillerson knows Putin and has done business with him. Are these not strong qualifications for dealing with Russia?

He has received Russia’s Order of Friendship, true. But so have a former archbishop of Canterbury and the former Prime Minister of Canada. If those two are KGB assets then the world really is in trouble.

Finally, Tillerson has opposed sanctions on Russia. But that makes sense given that he is the CEO of ExxonMobil, which was hurt by sanctions imposed after the partitioning of Ukraine. He is a statesman of business — that’s what stands out about his appointment.

Trump is compiling a Cabinet of mini-Trumps, of largely aging, white, male business leaders who see the world in terms of the bottom line rather than grand theories of international relations.

They are not, I suspect, motivated by Slavophilia or a passion for Russian orthodoxy. Rather, they see Putin for what he really is: a strong man in a weak position. Russia’s economy and army are antiquated and not particularly strong — and the country is surrounded by a ring of NATO countries committed to mutual defense.

All Putin really has to his advantage is a lot of hackers and an arsenal of nuclear weapons. The latter is why we still have to be very, very careful when dealing with him.

Why not talk to Putin? Why not acknowledge that America cannot run the world and that other nations have legitimate strategic interests? What’s fascinating about Trump is that while he might regard America as an exceptional country, he’s honest about its failings and refuses to pretend it has a right to global domination.

He is assembling a team that does contain some hawks, such as, potentially, John Bolton, and that has tough talk for countries like Iran. But it’s also a team of realists.

Somewhere between Obama’s retreat from the Middle East and George W. Bush’s invasion of it is an approach based on cautious national self-interest. I sincerely hope Trump adopts it.

By: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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