By CARL M. CANNON, ocregister.com
It shouldn’t be difficult for U.S. presidents to get their tone and content right when it comes to Poland and Russia: Poles are brave and good — and loyal friends to America. Russia’s leaders, not so much.
Yet a string of U.S. commanders-in-chief have flubbed their lines over the years. In a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, President Gerald R. Ford intended to proclaim that Soviet occupation of Poland could never conquer the spirit of the Polish people. Inexplicably, it came out this way: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
Once Carter reached the Oval Office — and Jerry Ford’s premature liberation of Poland was reason he got there — Carter went Ford one better, thanks to a rusty State Department-hired translator.
“When I left the United States this morning” became “When I abandoned the United States.” Carter’s translator also nearly doubled the number of Polish-Americans in this country and inadvertently ridiculed Poland’s 1701 constitution instead of praising it as a beacon of human rights. The best-remembered glitch came when Carter said he’d come to Warsaw “to learn your opinions and understand your desires for the future,” a sentiment the translator rendered as “I desire the Poles carnally.”
Worst of all from Poland’s perspective, at one point the translator used a Russian word instead of the Polish one. Ah, yes, Russia. After World War II, they weren’t even supposed to stay in Poland at all. So how did that happen?
To make a long story short, while serving as vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman hadn’t been kept in the loop. He knew little about the intricacies of what FDR had promised Josef Stalin at the February 1945 Yalta summit. It might not have mattered: the accord was vague. It called in general language for a Warsaw government elected in free elections. Truman took that to mean a western-style democracy, while the Soviets figured it meant a pro-Moscow regime. When Truman saw that the United States had been played, he summoned Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov to the White House and chewed him out.
“I have never been talked to like that in my life,” Molotov complained. Not that it did Poland much good. “Force is the only thing the Russians understand,” Truman concluded, yet he never quite fathomed Stalin’s full depravity. “I liked him a lot,” Truman said after meeting the Soviet dictator in July of 1945 at Potsdam. Privately, Truman called Stalin “Uncle Joe.”
Vladimir Putin is no Stalin, but U.S. presidents haven’t done much better in relating to Uncle Vlad. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” George W. Bush explained in an observation he later rued. “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Barack Obama misread the man, too. Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy in Libya and ephemeral “red line” in Syria was viewed by Putin as an invitation to re-involve Russia in the Middle East. Putin RSVP’d to this invite. And when a stray microphone picked up Obama assuring Putin that he’d “more flexible” after his 2012 election, Uncle Vlad licked his chops and thought about dismembering Ukraine.
This is where Donald Trump came in. Setting aside Russian hackers’ adventurism in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, where was Trump on the geopolitics of Russian military expansion in the region? The answer, at least until last week, was that he was out to lunch. A year ago, Trump propounded a few unsettling theories about what Putin was planning. “He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right?” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “You can mark it down and you can put it down …”
When Stephanopoulos gently pointed out that Putin had already annexed Crimea, which was part of Ukraine, Trump blithely replied he’d heard that residents of Crimea “would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
We can stipulate that Crimea is complicated. The most worrisome aspect of those comments, however, was the fear that if Trump became president and mused aloud about whether Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians “would rather be with Russia” — and Putin took it to heart — one possible result was World War III. After Trump did, in fact, become president, he alarmed residents of the Baltic with ill-considered and off-the-cuff blathering about NATO.
So that was the backdrop to Trump’s visit to Poland, where he made an ambitious speech, and Germany, where he met Uncle Vlad for the first time. It was an uneven performance.
In Warsaw, Trump extensively lauded the Polish people for their bravery and resilience in the face of a century of Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism. He didn’t spare the Russians, either, calling out their recent incursions as well as their murderous 20th century ways. He warned, as always, about the need to confront Islamic terrorism, and extolled western values with Reaganesque gusto.
Although liberal commentators didn’t notice, Trump’s speech included echoes of John F. Kennedy’s 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. JFK’s defiant challenge — “Let them come to Berlin” — became, in Trump’s telling, “Let them come to Warsaw.”
Sadly, if predictably, progressive commentators immediately began dog whistling one another. Somehow, they heard “western values” as “white nationalism,” which is unsettling. To these liberal critics it was sinister that the word “democracy” wasn’t in Trump’s speech. Poland was derided as a venue whiter than rural Pennsylvania, and Trump’s call to man the battle stations against the forces of darkness was portrayed as itself quite dark — and in rhetorical lockstep with Putin.
“It’s not the critic who counts,” Theodore Roosevelt once said. Then again, TR never saw Donald Trump’s press.
But Trump wasn’t done yet. In Hamburg, he fired off an ill-considered and inaccurate tweet attacking former Democratic Party official John Podesta, and seemed to bad-mouth the U.S. press corps to Putin. Trump also questioned the competence or integrity of U.S. intelligence services over their finding that Russians had fooled around in the 2016 U.S. elections. He did this even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pressed Putin on the point.
The Russians denied everything and then Vlad and The Donald started the real negotiations: over trying to stop the bloodshed in Syria. While all this was going on, the anarchists and anti-capitalists who bedevil every G-20 summit engaged in their usual tactics of arson and disruption. The theme this year was “Welcome to Hell,” a reminder that irony is alive and well in the 21st century.
Welcome to Hell? No. Hell would be the death camps operated by the Nazis, or the epic sieges on the Eastern Front that took millions of Russian and German lives and broke the back of the Wehrmacht. In Hamburg itself, Hell arrived 74 years ago this July when American and British bomber pilots turned the northern German industrial city into a fiery inferno, reducing it to rubble, while claiming as many civilian lives as were lost in Hiroshima.
Is it even odd, in today’s inchoate politics, that the Hamburg mob is protesting the same phenomenon — globalism — that got Trump elected president in the American heartland?
Carl M. Cannon is executive editor and Washington Bureau chief of RealClearPolitics.