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Theresa May embarrasses Trump into some action

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing St. on Wednesday to attend a weekly meeting in parliament in London. Credit: AP / Frank Augstein

If you blinked a couple of times hard and squinted, you could almost see shades of Margaret Thatcher in England these past several days.

There was only one Iron Lady, to be sure, but darn if British Prime Minister Theresa May hasn’t been doing a good job imitating her.

Indeed, there were moments this week when May looked like the leader of the free world. She certainly acted like it. Americans concerned about Russia’s unanswered hostility toward the United States should have but two words for the steely prime minister: Thank you.

Finally, a leader with guts.

May had largely been thought of in the United Kingdom as a vacillating figure in foreign affairs, as anything but surefooted. Not anymore. The 61-year-old Conservative has gone nose-to-nose with the planet’s bully-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, ever since the signature, March 4 poisoning of Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on British soil.

May knew instantly that this was more than just an assassination attempt. Putin was taunting the West, and she would have none of it, expelling 23 Russian diplomats and cutting off high-level contacts with Russia just days after the poisonings. The use of military-grade nerve agents to kill enemies is Putin’s tough-guy calling card. He wants the world to know he’s behind the poisonings, despite public denials, just as he wanted it known that he had another Russian defector taken in by England, Alexander Litvinenko, extravagantly poisoned with a radioactive isotope in 2006.

It seems hardly coincidental that the Trump administration suddenly found resolve toward Russia in the wake of May’s defiance. Her leadership must have deeply embarrassed President Trump, because after nine months of conspicuous inaction, his administration announced Thursday that some of the Russian sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress in retaliation for Russian meddling in our 2016 elections would soon be enacted. Some of them.

The announcement was made by an administration representative. Our bellicose president remains, per usual, oddly mute about Russia.

The British prime minister continues to lead. She has been burning up the phone lines, assembling a coalition of Western leaders — despite diplomatic tensions over Brexit — to stand together in the face of Russian aggression.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t that been the job of the U.S. president for some time? At least the role?

Leadership abhors a vacuum, it’s often said, and that’s proving itself true again with this unsettled Trump presidency. Western leaders like May are discounting American leadership in international considerations, just as Eastern and African leaders are in looking to China, and in some cases Russia, for long-term economic and security arrangements.

So-called “economic nationalists” may see that as a good thing, but the rest of us have to be concerned. America’s clout and credibility are vanishing before our eyes. (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has been the one bright light in the Trump administration. The former South Carolina governor has been unequivocal in her condemnation of Russia. Let’s hope her days aren’t numbered.)

Thatcher famously instructed President George H.W. Bush on the eve of the first Gulf War not to “go wobbly.” Now, a generation later, we see her sage advice smartly followed by another British prime minister — as America wobbles rudderlessly.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.