Gee whiz, G-20 has gone OK. Apparently even better than OK for Donald Trump. The big challenge yesterday was his first meeting with Russia’s intimidating president, Vladimir Putin. There is no sign that anything damaging or embarrassing occurred — and that surpasses the low bar for success set by skeptics.
Talk about confounding Trump critics: He did raise the subject of Russian meddling in the U.S. election. According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump did so at the very start of the closed-door meeting.
The two sides disagreed, afterward, as to whether Trump accepted Putin’s denial that he had approved any hacking into U.S. politics. People around the world will have to decide whom they believe more. Both leaders have a history of telling fibs.
Yet Trump deserves credit for insisting that the subject of meddling not be dropped. Tillerson said Russo-American groups will meet to hammer out a pledge of noninterference.
Still, Putin probably did not get the impression that the subject is hugely important to Trump. At a news conference in Poland Thursday, Trump repeated his claim that many other hackers might have meddled, and he was far from certain that the intelligence community is accurate in pointing to Russia.
Tillerson said, in effect, that Washington and Moscow agreed to disagree on political intrusion, because there were so many other topics to cover. He told reporters that most of the 135 minutes — quadruple the time scheduled for this sideline summit — was spent on Syria. The leaders were obviously looking for a major issue on which they coulddisplay a desire to cooperate.
It has to be taken as a positive sign that they sealed the deal for the reinstatement of a cease fire in southwestern Syria. That appears to lay the groundwork for harvesting some genuine good from the U.S.-backed military campaign that is dislodging the Islamic State from its self-declared capital in Raqqa. The alternative would be for ISIS to be defeated, followed by new warfare as various forces in the civil war vie to fill the vacuum.
Another concern is that Bashar Assad’s regime will take advantage of every opportunity to oppress and even massacre civilians in areas where Syria might regain control. U.S. officials said Trump’s agenda included telling Russia it must restrain its ally Assad.
It is worth noting that Tillerson, who early in the Trump administration seemed to be suffering at an emasculated State Department, spoke to reporters with the gravity and clarity of a veteran diplomat — even though his entire career until 2017 was at Exxon Mobil.
Although it is too early to know where Trump and Putin found a common chord, we can reasonably expect that the results won’t be all sweetness and light. In a sense, what the two agreed on were twin cease fires: one covering cyberintrusions and another aimed at protecting civilians suffering in a civil war.
If even a single life is saved in Syria because of the Trump-Putin summit, then it certainly was a meeting worth having.
Dan Raviv is senior Washington correspondent for i24NEWS television.