In a matter of hours, perhaps, we will find out if U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gets an audience with Carnac the Magnificent…uh, I mean with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
If Putin has any guts, he will meet with Tillerson, who has lambasted Russia on TV and in news conference in recent days for its apparent complicity with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the chemical attack last week that killed scores of Syrian civilians.
If he has any spine at all, he should be eager to confront Tillerson and have it out.
But Putin, whose forte is gamesmanship not leadership, will probably try to embarrass or upstage Tillerson by stiffing him. It wouldn’t surprise me if Putin made a mini-drama out of whether he will meet with Tillerson by holding out the prospect of a meeting for hours and then pulling back.
On Monday, a spokesman for Putin said a Tillerson-Putin meeting was not planned. “We have not announced any such meetings and right now there is no meeting with Tillerson in the president’s diary,” the spokesman said.
The Russians are notoriously cagey about such things, however, so the question of a meeting is up in the air. My prediction, though, is Putin will not meet with Tillerson and will thus expose himself as a big talker when shouting across oceans but a wuss when it comes to looking in the eye a powerful international figure who is effectively calling Putin’s hand.
For the first time in a long time, as many observers have noted, America, at least for the time being, is speaking from a position of strength, instead of allowing itself to be pushed around by the fish-eyed former KGB agent.
In case you missed it, Tillerson has spoken confidently and scathingly at least twice in recent days, first on Sunday on “Face the Nation” and then Tuesday at the Group of 7 foreign ministers conference in Italy, before heading to Russia.
Here are samples of what he had to say…
Asked, on “Face the Nation,” if the Russians might have been involved in the chemical weapons attack, he replied:
I think the Russians have played now for some time the role of providing cover for Bashar al-Assad’s behavior. The alternative explanation that the Russians put forth is simply not plausible. Not only is it not plausible, we know from our own information and open-source information that their– their alternative explanation is simply not credible.
So there’s little question as to who was responsible for these attacks. It was Bashar al-Assad. And I think the Russians need to think more carefully about the commitment they made under the chemical weapons agreements to be the guarantor that these weapons would be seized, they would be removed, they would be destroyed. And since they are Bashar al-Assad’s ally, they would have the closest insight as to the compliance.
So regardless of whether Russia was complicit here or whether they were simply incompetent or whether they got outwitted by the Bashar al-Assad regime, you would have to ask the Russians that question.
He was even harsher at the G7 meeting in Lucca, Italy, where he read from a prepared statement to reporters and then answered a couple of questions.
In the statement, he said Russia had “failed to uphold the agreements” of 2013 when Russia agreed to guarantee that all Syrian chemical weapons would be located and destroyed.
He went on to pointedly say, “It is unclear whether Russia failed to take this obligation seriously or Russia has been incompetent, but this distinction doesn’t much matter to the dead.”
In answer to a reporter’s question, he said:
I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end; but the question of how that ends and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria, and its stability and durability of the outcome going forward. So that’s why we are not presupposing how that occurs, but I think it is clear that we see no further role for the Assad regime longer-term given that they have effectively given up their legitimacy with these type of attacks.
Whatever happens in Moscow, it is certainly gratifying to see Tillerson, a man who came from the corporate world and who has taken his time getting his feet under him in his new job, find his voice and speak out strongly on behalf of humanity.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, I think Tillerson speaks with the full blessing and confidence of President Trump. There are those who contend the cruise-missile attack on Syria was ordered primarily to divert attention from the investigation into the possibility of coordination between the Kremlin and Trump’s presidential campaign. That may or may not be the case. Regardless, it would have been horrible — as it was several years ago under President Obama — for the U.S. to stand meekly aside while Assad dropped chemical bombs on Syrian civilians, creating horrifying and maddening images of human suffering.
…If you get a chance, Rex, give him hell.