Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump met for the first time during this week’s G-20 meeting in Germany. The G-20 is always contentious–at least outside among the ever-present protesters–however, the lack of conflict is what troubled a lot of observers. Trump has been dogged with accusations that he is too cozy with Russia for longer than his presidency. Whether those are true, baseless, or most likely, something, but not nearly as much of a something as alarmed liberals think is beside the point when faced with the disaster of Syria.
Trump shouldn’t do things. Much like President Obama shouldn’t have joked about droning the Jonas Brothers while overseeing a precedent-setting program of assassinations via flying robot, Trump shouldn’t feel the need to be jovial about civil asset forfeiture with sheriffs, or disliking the press when talking to a man who many suspect has had journalists killed.
But we know this. We know Trump has no filter (and that people like Obama got excused by his fans, as every politician is). We also know Putin is not a good person. He is a dictator who has moved Russia further away from freedom, both of the press and otherwise.. Russia’s interventions in Syria, like every other nation’s, have caused nothing but chaos and civilian casualties.
And yet, the left side of the aisle, the side that managed to realize that men like Saddam Hussein were murderous dictators, but deposing them would make things worse, continues to act as if trying to avoid a hotter cold war with Russia is a kind of deep betrayal of the US. Shouldn’t stopping even a whisper of the conflict that terrified three generations of kids be a top priority?
Again, Trump is terrible at diplomacy. He’s terrible at speaking in a way that makes a person wish for the “misunderestimated” presidency of George W. Bush. Trump is completely unable to discuss people, countries, or anything else without describing them as either a buddy of Satan, or his dearest friend. There’s a very fair reason that that’s both infuriating and disturbing coming from a man as powerful as the president of the United States.
But we want Trump–or VP Mike Pence, or whomever you think is the real power behind the throne–to talk to the leaders of other countries. We want him to talk to them, and to try to be diplomatic, and the last thing we want is a war with a country, and the second last thing we want is crippling sanctions against a country that hurt everyone except for thuggish dictators.
This is not to say that the US and Russia hashing out a ceasefire is likely to succeed in stopping the Syrian slaughterhouse. Half a million people have been milled in six years, and millions displaced as Islamic Fundamentalist rebels battled with the forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad. The US remains convinced that it can depose Assad (having learned nothing from previous dabbling in the region), while Russia is pals with the regime, and wants nothing to do with the rebels who are mostly way too close to relatives of Al-Qaeda for comfort. In short, there is almost nothing to be done to or for the people of Syria, nor is either side a moral or practical horse to bet on. But we don’t want the US and Russia fighting a proxy war, or a real war against one another. And in the last few months, they’ve danced way too close to the latter.
It’s not just Trump who has a problem with buddying up to dictators and strongmen. The US has always picked its friends and its enemies in a coldly practical manner. Its presidents inevitably speak unhelpfully harshly towards some regimes–usually one member of an axis of evil or another–and cozy up to another (Saudi Arabia comes to mind, but it is not unique). Often that cozying comes with arms sales or aid. You cannot expect the US, or any nation-state, to be pure and good and to speak exactly the way they should towards enemies and friends in a world full of overbearing presidents and dictators. As nauseous as it is to see people with too much power buttering up people who are even more powerful, it is better than the current alternative.
The one takeaway should be that avoiding a war between nuclear powers is just as much of a good idea in 2017 as it was in 1949, 1961, and 1983. Avoiding war is worth some unpleasant handshakes between unpleasant leaders. Whether those leaders can find any solution ins Syria is unlikely, but if they back off before they make things even worse, that’s no small thing.