Can you have a good relationship with the Russian leader at the same time that you have a bad relationship with the country of Russia?
The quest to do exactly that has been in the heart of the President
global strategy He has endeavored to separate his leader-leader relationship with the Russian president
(friendly, free from personal criticism) of the considerable problems in the broader relationship between the United States and Russia (increasingly tense, marked by the Russian challenge and US sanctions).
Now that strategy is being tested. In fact, he may have died in a mist of chemicals that rained down on civilians in Syria over the weekend.
By launching an attack with chemical weapons within his own country, the Syrian president
-the friend of Russia and the recipient of all kinds of Russian aid-put a finger in the eye of the world. The attack came a few days after Trump said he wanted American troops out of Syria and out of his civil war, a statement that may have encouraged the Syrians.
In any case, the president responded with a rare public reprimand of Mr. Putin, in essence accusing him, was an accomplice to the chemical attack. That marked a significant change.
Mr. Trump, in addition, has essentially promised an answer. He has a range of options. He could order the kind of limited retaliatory attack against Syrian targets that he launched in similar circumstances almost exactly a year ago, simply to make an observation. It could launch wider US attacks on Syrian military sites, which would have the additional effect of indirectly helping the Syrian opposition forces. The United States continues to help in the country.
Alternatively, Trump could try to lead a broader international response. The Russians will use their veto to block significant actions in the United Nations Security Council, but it is likely that the US UU They can obtain cooperation from France and the United Kingdom if Trump seeks it. The president likes to act unilaterally; This can be the occasion to think multilaterally.
More generally, the chemical attack may lead Mr. Trump to reconsider his impulse to withdraw the small contingent of US forces on the ground in Syria, where his apparent aim is to help clean up the remains of the fighters of the Islamic State. Mr. Trump's impulse, explicitly stated last week, is to go out and let Assad and his Russian and Iranian friends and the Turks next door fix the future.
But in the wake of the weekend attack, it would be withdrawn to make it appear that the United States is willing to hand over the fate of Syria to the same people who use chemical weapons against the local population. At a minimum, Mr. Trump, once again, has just criticized his predecessor,
for not taking more decisive measures in Syria, now he can not get away so easily.
In summary, Mr. Trump, like other presidents before him, would prefer to separate from the Middle East mess; like them, you can now come to the conclusion that it is not easy, and that maybe it is not even possible.
Mr. Putin is not the kind of leader who sits passively if Russian interests in Syria are attacked by the United States. The possibility of an escalation of tensions between the United States and Russia in Syria adds to growing concerns about Russian interference in the United States. politics, the apparent Russian poisoning of a former spy in Britain and a simulated Russian presidential election, is now very real. And the idea that the Trump-Putin personal relationship can somehow be isolated from these broader tensions is subject to increasing tension.
Mr. Trump is, of course, just the first president to try to maintain cordial relations with a fellow world leader even when their countries collide in the trenches below. Nor is he the first to be hit for doing it. Notably, former President George H.W. Bush tried to maintain ties with China's leaders, even in the midst of the 1989 crackdown on demonstrators for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. He was widely criticized for not being more open, but his approach maintained its ability to obtain Chinese cooperation when Iraq invaded Kuwait next year.
Mr. Trump seems to have a particularly strong belief in the power of his personal ability to woo, coax and manipulate other leaders. In separate conversations, several of his advisors said that the belief is rooted in his business experience in New York.
Mr. Trump has tried a similar approach with Chinese President Xi Jinping, seeking to cultivate a personal connection that can be isolated from the outbreak of commercial tensions.
But maintaining that focus with Mr. Putin is already a strain because of the investigation of Russia's alleged efforts to help Mr. Trump win the presidency in the first place, it has become increasingly difficult. Putin has proven to be not only undemocratic, but determined to mock democracy with his interference in a US election. The tragedy of the weekend in Syria simply makes the tension more extreme.
Write to Gerald F. Seib at email@example.com