- - Wednesday, December 21, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Vladimir Putin is portrayed by “Saturday Night Live” as a bare-chested Santa Claus, sliding down the chimney with a sack full of presents, a muscle-bound energetic figure of fun. He delivers a small surveillance device shaped like an elf for a shelf to Donald Trump (played by Alec Baldwin), who is ripe for satire. When the president-elect apologizes for not having a gift in return, the Russian leader replies, “Please, Mr. Trump, you are the gift.”

Santa knows who’s naughty and nice.

Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil and Mr. Trump’s pick for secretary of State walks in to take his lumps as a Putin confederate. If “Saturday Night Live” made fun of Rex Tillerson’s “friendliness” toward Vladimir Putin as a fault, Robert Gates, the former CIA director and a paid-up member of the bipartisan elites, took a different tack in real life the next morning on “Meet the Press.” He cast the businessman’s relationship with world leaders not as risk, but asset.

“Being friendly doesn’t make you friends,” Mr. Gates said, and called the criticism of Mr. Tillerson’s business connections a “false narrative.” His experience and deep knowledge of many countries and the men and women who run them could help America restore its leadership in the world.

“You don’t have to negotiate very much with your friends,” Mr. Gates observed. “It’s with your adversaries that you have to deal and figure out how to get along.”

As the shirtless pretend-Putty laughs it up on “Saturday Night Live” with Rex Tillerson, joking about their future together, Hillary Clinton persists in a defensive public crouch over her past with the Russian strongman.

At the party at the Plaza Hotel she threw for top donors to express her gratitude for their big bucks, she blamed Vladimir Putin for her humiliation on Nov. 8. The Russian president interfered in the U.S. election “because he has a personal beef against me,” she said, according to a tape obtained by The New York Times. It was Russian retaliation for critical remarks she made of Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011, which she said were neither “free nor fair.”

The Clintons have not always been so skeptical of the Putin intentions toward them or to the United States, but the nature of their friendship doesn’t sound like the kind Robert Gates was talking about. In 2010 Bill Clinton took $500,000 in speaking fees from a Russian finance company run by KGB spies with links to Mr. Putin. When Hillary was secretary of State, she professed optimism about doing high-tech business in Russia. She cheered the visit of an American delegation of executives from information technology companies that went to Russia to explore joint private-sector initiatives. When Russians visited Silicon Valley, she said, it’s great that Russia is trying to create that kind of center for technology and growth right outside Moscow, “and we want to help because we think it’s in everyone’s interest to do so.”

What followed was the Skolkovo Innovation Center, a Russian-run, high-tech enclave of researchers and developers supporting start-ups with global investors. Its success, as measured by Government Accountability Institute, benefited the Clintons. The Skolkovo Foundation was a favorite of many Russian and American corporations, who gave generously to the Clinton Foundation. Viktor Vekselerg, a billionaire Putin ally who headed the Skolkovo Foundation, was particularly generous.

Power, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder dependent on who wins and who loses. “Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person,” Tolstoy famously wrote,” and that’s certainly how voters, disappointed over Hillary’s defeat, perceive Mr. Putin’s responsibility in the hacking.

Vladimir Putin actually resembles a character out of not Tolstoy, but Dostoyevsky, as Henry Kissinger observed: “So for him, the question of Russian identity is very crucial, because, as a result of the collapse of communism, Russia has lost about 300 years of its history.” He’s figuring out how to bring back pride of place.

Because Mr. Putin is such a cold and cunning calculator, Mr. Kissinger told CBS News that he thinks the Donald has a unique opportunity to be a positive player in those calculations.

“I believe he has the possibility of going down in history as a very considerable president, because every country now has two things to consider: one, their perception that the previous president or the outgoing president basically withdrew America from international politics and secondly, that here is a new president who is asking a lot of unfamiliar questions. Donald Trump is a phenomenon that foreign countries haven’t seen.”

Indeed, neither have we.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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