Moving these last ten days across the South Caucasus from Tblisi, Georgia to Baku, Azerbaijan and then onto Jerusalem, Israel to witness President Trump’s arrival Monday, I often fell into easy conversations with well-meaning strangers who asked politely of the alarming headlines from America about the fate of the new presidency.
The inquiries were not based on Russian disinformation. A random skimming of the reports online included what appears to be an Allen Drury plot: “obstruction, criminal, impeachment, moron, person of interest, fear, Pence.”
At first I shrugged off the dialogue and concentrated on my opportunity to travel with a sturdy team of American philanthropists who were looking to build a new school for Jewish children in partnership with the Georgian Ministry of Education in Tblisi.
I told myself that it would not be easy to explain to non-Americans that the crisis dialogues on CNN were just more examples of the good old-fashioned American genius for whoppers – every fish tale transformed into “Moby Dick.”
Then I ran into young American soldiers who are deployed to Georgia as EURCOM and NATO trainers. Big shoulders, crew cuts, sunny smiles, careful manners — a magical vision of the cavalry riding to the rescue that this Russian-ransacked little country most welcomes during its long rebuilding.
It occurred to me that the Georgians who wanted to know about the presidency’s peril were most likely wondering about the reliability of everything about Uncle Sam, including these young men.
By the time we reached Baku, again to visit with schoolchildren, the remarks about Trump were open-ended questions in an almost Trumpian register: “What’s going on?”
The concerned Azerbaijans were young, educated, multi-lingual, well-traveled, and sharp-eyed about geopolitics. They live in a tiny energy-rich state in the Caspian Sea basin that is only 25 years free of Soviet dysfunction. The people are keen on tolerance and prosperity. The building cranes, the soaring new architecture, the trendy shops, the well-dressed youth — all of it tells the story of a people who look to the U.S. to see about the risks and rewards of liberty.
More acutely, Azerbaijan is in a rough neighborhood, with predatory Iran on the southern border, autocratic Russia on the northern border, troubled Turkey and revanchist Armenia to the west, and Scheherazade-like tales of North Caucasus terrorism all around. Uncle Sam in distress is not a positive.
Two of my correspondents were young professional Shia-Muslim women who were especially puzzled about the allegations about Trump and Russia. Most everyone in Baku speaks Russian and follows the news on Russian TV. They wanted to know if I believed Trump could be removed from office because he wants to be friends with Putin.
I answered unsatisfactorily, something inexact like, “The president wasn’t supposed to win. The experts are unhappy.”
Sixty hours later, I was on the Syrian border at Majdel Shams speaking with a young Druze lawyer, who was planning his first trip to America.
We spoke of the Syrian civil war that can be heard daily as shellfire and explosions just across the border fence at the edge of the town.
We stood on a balcony beneath a Cedar of Lebanon tree and stared at the mountain slopes where Hezbollah, the Assad mercenaries and the local Al Qaeda and ISIS blackguards are battling one another for advantages on the Syrian side of the northern Golan.
We didn’t bring up the Trump tumult, but it was implicit in our conversation about the extreme fragility of the Druze — in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan — that the Druze hope the Trump Administration can find a way to work with Russia to end the war.
Driving back to Jerusalem, I realized the shadowy common theme that I had been ignoring across thousands of miles.
We Americans know that most all of the anti-Trump talk on TV and online is theatrical hyperbole, either Democratic venting or Republican whining — a slow-motion ramp-up to party-scale electioneering for the 2018 midterms.
We also know that any Allen Drury plot to bring down any president with scandal and justice is supposed to be simultaneously credible and far-fetched, sober-minded and loopy, spontaneous and contrived — what you expect from a first chapter that alleges a new president is a blackmail victim of a Chekhist despot.
In sum, we know that there is a deal of “WrestleMania” show business in the present disorder.
What we may not know is that some of America’s friends are rattled by what they hear and read of our gamesmanship.
What we may not know is that the people of genuinely vulnerable countries surrounded by hostiles are starting to look around for Plan B if America goes missing in the aftermath of a failed presidency.
What we may not know is that the pirates and cutthroats are watching our TV, too, and spying opportunity.