Issue No.1326, 5 January, 2017      03-01-2017 09:43AM ET

Trump courts the Kremlin

Last week’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US by the Obama administration and President-elect Donald Trump’s reaction to it has opened up quite a Pandora’s Box, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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Liberalism is in retreat. Outgoing US President Barack Obama has certainly goofed every time he and his administration have meddled in the Middle East. Perhaps this will not be so with President-elect Donald Trump.

Predictable claptrap is being uttered about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Middle East, in the light of the storming of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and onetime economic hub, in the week preceding Christmas. This earned him accolades from Trump and like-minded leaders in Europe and across the globe.

In sharp contrast, Obama’s “handshake” to Islam in June 2009 at Cairo University that was full of initial promise and earned him his Nobel Prize eventually came to naught. Obama’s half-hearted intervention in Syria was deplorable. His “red line” was a sham, and Russia now has the upper hand in the Middle East and Trump is elated by Putin’s political acumen. Putin talks and acts accordingly, and Trump openly praises Putin.

“We know, including from the lessons of our own history, that a people that has lost its historical benchmarks, that has renounced the continuity of generations, is easily converted into an object of social and ideological experiments. And the cost of such experiments is too high,” the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kiril said in his address at the XVI World Russian People’s Council entitled “Milestones of History – the Frontiers of Russia” recently.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the world’s largest Orthodox Church with particularly close ties to the Kremlin, celebrates Christmas like the Orthodox Christian Coptic Church of Egypt and the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church of Ethiopia on 7 January.

The implications of a Russia that is opening up to the outside world and a Washington that is heading for an increasingly isolationist international policy is bound to have tremendous ramifications worldwide and not only in the Middle East.

“An Orthodox Christian has the same task: He should respond to the surrounding world not through the prism of his own political preferences, cultural focuses, or under the influence of group interest and psychology, but exclusively through the prism of his Christian convictions,” Kiril extrapolated.

Russia under Putin’s leadership is surging ahead of Washington in the international arena. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a case in point, a political, economic and military organisation which comprises the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

All these nations have bolstered their opposition to intervention by the Western powers in world affairs. In July 2015, the SCO decided to admit India and Pakistan as full members. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia have observer status within the SCO. Nations such as Afghanistan, supposedly an American ally, seem fed up with US incompetence.

Memorandums on accession were signed between the SCO and India and Pakistan, respectively, in June 2016 in Tashkent, thereby starting the formal process of joining the SCO at the next summit in the Kazakh capital in 2017.

Trump designated Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton a sore loser in the US presidential elections, and the loser’s scorn for the Kremlin seems pure sour grapes. Last week, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US in response to the alleged hacking of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential elections.

The Kremlin confirmed the departure of the diplomats from Washington on New Year’s Day. However, Trump’s take on the expulsion of the diplomats has been diametrically opposed to Obama’s and Clinton’s. For Clinton, the Kremlin is a knot of contradictions. Trump begs to differ. “I know a lot about hacking,’’ he told reporters.  “And hacking is a very hard thing to prove,” he said.

The US President-elect praised Putin’s poise and composure in response. “Great move on the delay,” Trump tweeted on Friday. “I always knew Putin was very smart,” he mused. While there is something undeniably pleasing about the notion of the end of Cold War-like warmongering by Clinton and Obama, it soon transpires that though Trump’s aims may be high-minded, his tantrums are frequently anything but.

“Nobody believed he would win except for us,” Putin said recently of Trump’s US elections victory. He cast Clinton in an undignified light and spurned Democratic Party claims of Russian hacking of Clinton campaign e-mails as hogwash. “They are losing on all fronts and looking elsewhere for things to blame. In my view this, how shall I say it, degrades their own dignity. You have to know how to lose with dignity,” Putin said. 

Trump’s tweets contain a wealth of cryptic comments, anecdotal information and startling revelations. “You know, if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way,” he said recently. “Because I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe.” The new world order of 2017 ignites wildly contradictory sentiments.

Trump is constantly chasing the future moment. His gripes about the “liberal media” are conspicuously candid and unequivocal. His selection of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state has been cause for concern among the president-elect’s detractors in Washington. US political circles still maintain a Cold War mindset, and Tillerson has had close ties with Russia and with Putin personally.

Trump’s selection of campaign adviser David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer with hardline views on Israel, as his nominee as chief envoy to Israel and the controversial relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem have stoked concerns in Arab and Muslim nations. “Stay strong Israel,” Trump tweeted, “I’m coming” – a message that has sent shock waves throughout the Arab world.

“Trump has already appointed the vilest and most incompetent right-wing Zionists in his circle to advise him and make – or execute – his policies on Israel and Palestine: One of his several bankruptcy lawyers, David Friedman, will be the American ambassador to Israel (he might as well be the Israeli ambassador to the United States) and the Trump Organisation’s chief legal adviser, Jason Greenblatt, will be his ‘representative for international negotiations.’ With these appointments and after a recent flurry of Trumpian tweets, the Israeli settler movement is riding high,” wrote Andrew Levine, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in the US.

Trump’s tenor is decidedly disconcerting. Furthermore, his perceptions of the Israeli settlements on the Occupied West Bank have sparked fears that he will blunder his way to further bloody crises in the Middle East. The Arabs can scarcely afford to brush Trump’s brazenly pro-Israeli policies aside.

Anxieties also linger on “Make America Great Again,” a cherished Trump slogan. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” Trump has tweeted.

A nuclear nightmare may be in the making. Yet, with Clinton hamstrung, it seems unlikely that any nuclear war to come will be between the US and Russia. With Trump at the helm in Washington railing against Beijing, something else may be in the offing.

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