The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Trump is making the world a very dangerous place

President Trump speaks to the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Nov. 26. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Trump’s statement last week about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi began with these words: “The world is a very dangerous place!” At a certain level, this is a no-duh elementary school truism akin to saying “look both ways before you cross the street.” But that’s not what Trump means. What he really means is that he will ignore the world’s most pressing dangers by hiding behind sophistry, lies and moral equivalence. Thus, Trump’s statement is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy: If the United States is retreating into quasi-isolationism — in which our chief concern is to sell as many weapons and other goods to other countries as we can while reducing our obligations to preserve the international system — then the world will get a lot more dangerous than it already is.

Trump is certainly making the world more dangerous for journalists of all nationalities by refusing to punish Saudi Arabia’s odious crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for his role in the murder of Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Trump once again chooses to believe the disingenuous denials of a despot over the findings of the U.S. intelligence community — just as he did with Russia’s attack on the 2016 election.

Trump is also making the world a more dangerous place by refusing to address the clear and present danger of climate change. His own government issued a report reflecting the scientific consensus about the growing threat, but Trump said Monday, “I don’t believe it.” That means there will be no U.S. leadership even as sea levels rise, crops wither and wildfires burn out of control.

And now Trump is making the world a more dangerous place by refusing to confront Russia over its latest aggression against Ukraine. On Sunday, Russian border-patrol vessels fired on three small Ukrainian ships transiting through the narrow Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Under a 2003 agreement between Moscow and Kiev, the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait are domestic waters for both countries. But that did not prevent the Russians from attacking and capturing the Ukrainian vessels along with 24 crew members.

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There are various theories as to why the Russians acted. Perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to prop up his sagging poll numbers. Perhaps he wants to hurt Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s reelection chances in March. Perhaps Putin wants to annex the Sea of Azov and choke off the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Perhaps he wants an excuse to expand the war against Ukraine that he has been waging since 2014.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that this is an attack not just on Ukraine but on the entire system of international law that the United States has championed since 1945 — a system that rejects wars of aggression and the redrawing of borders by force. There is much that the United States and its allies can do to punish Russia and restore freedom of navigation without risking World War III. Expand sanctions on Russia’s financial system and its oil companies (for example, kick Russian banks out of the SWIFT system of interbank transfers); rush anti-ship cruise missiles to Ukraine to allow it to defend its territorial waters; announce that no Russian ships will be allowed to dock in the European Union or United States if they are coming from ports in the Black Sea or Sea of Azov; or disinvite Putin from the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires in a few days.

Trump did none of these things. He could not even bring himself to condemn the Russian attack. He’s more exercised about Europe allegedly not paying its “fair share for Military Protection.” The most he would say is: “Not good. We’re not happy about it at all. We do not like what’s happening either way.”

Either way? He makes it sound as if the Ukrainians did something wrong by being attacked. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was equally invertebrate in his response: “We call on both parties to exercise restraint and abide by their international obligations and commitments.” This is the kind of moral equivalence that would give Republicans an aneurysm if it were coming from Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

The only member of the administration who said the right thing was United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. She condemned Russia’s “outlaw actions.” But Haley has already announced her resignation. Her strong words are no substitute for strong words — or actions — from the president.

In failing to forcefully confront Russian aggression, Trump is hardly alone. President George W. Bush made the same mistake with Georgia, Obama with Crimea. But far more than his predecessors, Trump is sending a signal that he will ignore U.S. intelligence and cozy up to dictators at any price to America’s true interests in upholding the Pax Americana. The only threat he seems to care about is the nonexistent one posed by a caravan of Central American refugees. Trump will be remembered as the president who tear-gasses women and children while truckling to tyrants.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump slanders Khashoggi and betrays American values

Greg Sargent: No, Trump isn’t putting ‘America first.’ He’s putting himself first.

Kathleen Parker: The new normal isn’t normal at all

David von Drehle: You think things are bad now? Look back 40 years.