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Tuesday, February 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Trudy Rubin: Why the laughter at Trump at the NATO conference wasn’t funny

By Trudy Rubin Tribune News Service

They were laughing at him, and it made President Trump angry.

So when asked about the video clip that appeared to show NATO leaders commiserating about Trumpian behavior, the president was snappish. “Well, he’s two-faced,” Trump barked about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (who was joking to counterparts about Trump’s self-promotion).

But Trudeau wasn’t alone in issuing Trump a put-down in England. The open disdain shown by some allies at NATO’s 70th anniversary celebration this week reflects how Trump is regarded worldwide, both by longtime friends and foes.

I have watched the shift in attitudes in my travels since Trump was elected, including to Russia, the Middle East, Europe and a just-completed trip to China. The president is seen as erratic, untrustworthy and interested in little beyond self-promotion or making a profit. And oh yes, as easily manipulated by flattery, especially by the autocrats he admires unreservedly.

And so ill-informed that he could unintentionally drag America into a war.

The dangers this presents were well laid out by French President Emmanuel Macron in an interview with the Economist just prior to the NATO meeting. The French leader said the absence of American leadership was leading to “the brain death of NATO.” He added that America under Trump was showing signs of “turning its back on us”, meaning abandoning its commitment to the alliance, which drastically undercuts the viability of the organization.

Case in point, said Macron in the interview, was Trump’s pulling U.S. troops out of northeastern Syria and abandoning Kurdish allies with no prior notice to them or to European countries such as France, which also had troops in that theater. “You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies,” Macron said. “None.”

At the meeting, as he met the press alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump called Macron’s remarks “very insulting.”

Yet over 40 minutes, while questioned repeatedly about his NATO strategy, Trump showed himself clumsily unable to utter one sentence on the topic. No matter what he was asked, he returned over and over to his one talking point: that, thanks to him, NATO members upped their defense spending (although, even on the numbers, he kept making inaccurate claims).

As Macron, pointed out, in a testy public exchange with Trump, NATO has other challenges besides “just numbers.”

But Trump seemed not to have a clue or a care as to what NATO should actually do in the future. It was left to Stoltenberg to talk about the need to continue the fight against terrorism and the implications of a rising China. (It is little wonder that NATO members fear Trump might withdraw from the alliance if he wins in 2020.)

An angry Macron pointed out the cost of the president’s kowtow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an autocrat whom the president admires. Trump abandoned the Syrian Kurdish allies, who defeated ISIS, to the tender mercies of Turkey, which has helped ISIS for years. “When I look at Turkey, they are fighting against those who fight with us,” said Macron. “Who is the enemy today?”

As for Trump’s most favored autocrat, Vladimir Putin, Trump made clear, as he sat with Germany’s Angela Merkel, that he wants to invite the Russian to the G-7 meeting next June. Never mind that Russian proxies still occupy a dismembered Ukraine, and that Russia still refuses to admit its agents poisoned people in Britain or meddled in the U.S. election.

“We had a talk about Russia,” the president said. “My inclination is to say yes (to a Putin invite). Some people disagree with me, some people don’t.” It was left to Merkel to raise the issue of pressing Moscow to live up to an accord to reverse its proxy invasion of Ukraine.

And over the NATO meeting hung the shadow of impeachment hearings, in which the White House has promoted a wholly debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for hacking the 2016 elections. NATO allies, some of whose elections were, or are currently being hacked by Russia, know that this is a total lie. So does the world.

Trump’s NATO appearance solidified the image of a U.S. president bereft of any long-term strategy toward Europe, Russia or China and who (falsely) believes the world agrees is a “stable genius.” Instead, world leaders see Trump as abdicating America’s historic role while Russia, China and other adversaries fill the vacuum.

So rather than funny ha-ha, the NATO laughter at Trump’s expense should serve as a warning: America’s withdrawal from global leadership under this president is already endangering U.S. security. It will cost the country dearly should he be reelected to another four-year term.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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