Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump appears to have pivoted in his approach to foreign policy. His appointment of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions offers the clue. Sessions’ record shows a trail of evidence that he favors international confrontation over negotiation.
Trump, on the other hand, had previously been singing a different tune, one of negotiation in problematic international disputes. He’s famously said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if actually we could get along with Russia,” and proclaimed that as president: “I would get along with Putin.”
But just recently Trump ran a campaign video that compares Vladimir Putin to a terrorist. And now he’s announced Sessions’ lead role on his foreign policy team.
What’s so bad about Sessions? According to USA Today for March 17, Sessions said “I think an argument can be made there is no reason for the US and Russia to be at this loggerheads. Somehow, someway we ought to be able to break that logjam.”
That doesn’t sound like much of a deviation from what Trump’s been saying. There’s an obvious difference in tone, however. While Trump boldly said “I would get along with Putin,” Sessions couched his statement in wishy-washy language such as “I think an argument can be made…” and “Somehow, someway we ought to….” He doesn’t sound very convinced, does he.
Looking back on Sessions record may provide the answer why. In February 2008 he told Congress:
“We desired and hoped as a nation that the fall of the Soviet Union would usher in a new period of cooperation with Russia. We hoped they would be a legitimate partner with us in improving both of our nations, and the world. We have the capability to create a partnership that can foster progress, prosperity, and peace in the world. But the reality is that a lot of things are happening to cause us great concern. We as a nation are going to have to face up to the fact that the Russians are not reliable. They may not be reliable as a partner in space; they certainly are not reliable in helping to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
In March 2014, as Ukraine was falling apart, USA Today reported: “Criticizing America’s response as weak, US Sen. Jeff Sessions said Wednesday the United States must make Russia ‘feel pain’ over what he described as a pattern of aggressiveness by President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and elsewhere.”
Note that he didn’t say he thinks “an argument can be made” for making Russia feel pain. Nor was there any “somehow, someway we ought to” in his statement. He sounded quite certain with his “feel pain” rhetoric.
This was also around the time when Congress passed bills to provide aid to Ukraine, give a $1 billion loan guarantee, and impose sanctions on Russia. Reuters reported, “Lawmakers said they wanted to send a unified message to Russian President Vladimir Putin — and the rest of the world — as Ukraine and neighboring states worry about more aggression from Russia.”
And then in February 2015, Sessions cosponsored the legislation to arm Ukraine with lethal military aid.
I found myself puzzled by Sessions’ change of heart about Russia. So I called his office and asked to speak with the staffer who handles foreign relations matters. What I found out is that he doesn’t have one. He does have two staffers who work on military affairs, though. But to get answers to my questions about Sessions’ current views about Russia I was referred to his spokesperson Bradley Jaye.
I emailed Jaye saying that I was interested in the Senator’s take on four key issues. Here’s the list of issues and what I learned from Jaye:
1. Vladimir Putin’s presidency in Russia: No Comment
2. Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis: No Comment
3. The Alexander Litvinenko polonium death case: No Comment
4. The Russian 2008 Military conflict with Georgia: No Comment
What do you make of that?
All of Trump’s opponents have taken aggressive stances with regard to Russia. One former opponent even threatened to shoot down Russian aircraft if he were to become president. I’ve had a hypothesis on why Trump’s original stance vis-a-vis Russia stood apart from that kind of aggressive rhetoric: Trump claimed his campaign was self-funding. Therefore, it was impervious to pressures from domestic entities that profit from escalated world tension.
But how does Sessions fit into this picture? According to a 2011 Bloomberg report titled “Impact of Defense Spending,” Sessions’ state, Alabama, is one of the top 10 states that are recipients of defense spending. In fact, it’s ranked fourth. It’s hard to imagine how Sessions could be “impervious to pressures from domestic entities that profit from escalated world tension.”
Sessions has endorsed Trump’s candidacy and has attempted to tamp down opposition to Trump from within the Republican ranks. Trump certainly needs that kind of help amid the growing clamor and alarm over his increasing popular support. There are a lot of people in political circles who apparently feel threatened by a possible Trump presidency.
But what price did Trump pay in seeking greater Republican acceptability? Did he really sell out? Has he made a deal with the devil? What do you think?