Tuesday, February 13, 2024

The Risk of Multiplying Obama's Mistakes

Whenever Donald Trump tells a story which includes an anonymous person addressing him as "Sir," he is lying. However, we're being told here of plans to encourage Vladimir Putin when

Former president Donald Trump ramped up his attacks on NATO on Saturday, claiming he suggested to a foreign leader that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to member countries he views as not spending enough on their own defense.

“One of the presidents of a big country stood up and said, ‘Well, sir, if we don’t pay and we’re attacked by Russia, will you protect us?,’” Trump said during a rally at Coastal Carolina University. “I said, ‘You didn’t pay. You’re delinquent.’ He said, ‘Yes, let’s say that happened.’ No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.”

Finally, under President Joseph R. Biden, the USA is taking action to stem the threat posed by the world's second greatest superpower. This is occurring after four- no, twelve- years of disregarding the threat posed by Putin's Russia.  During Donald Trump's term, in February of 2018 in a commentary on the Brookings website, the Atlantic's Benjamin Haddad and Alina Polyakova of the Center for European Policy Analysis wrote of our 44th Chief Executive

Throughout his presidency, Obama consistently underestimated the challenge posed by Putin’s regime. His foreign policy was firmly grounded in the premise that Russia was not a national security threat to the United States. In 2012, Obama disparaged Mitt Romney for exaggerating the Russian threat—“the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama quipped.

The zinger was "The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years." It was a mistake in judgement easily made, and I personally fell for the line. Haddad and Polyakova continue

This breezy attitude prevailed even as Russia annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, intervened in Syria, and hacked the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Obama’s response during these critical moments was cautious at best, and deeply misguided at worst. Even the imposition of sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by so much propitiation and restraint elsewhere that it didn’t deter Russia from subsequent aggression, including the risky 2016 influence operation in the United States. Obama, confident that history was on America’s side, for the duration of his time in office underestimated the damaging impact Russia could achieve through asymmetric means.

Obama’s cautious Russia policy is grounded in three conceptual errors: a failure to grasp the true nature of the Russian threat, most clearly visible in his administration’s restrained response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; a “long view” of historical trends which in his view inexorably “bent” toward liberalism; and the perception that formidable domestic political obstacles stood in his way when it came to crafting a response to Putin’s assault on the elections in 2016.

Haddad and Polyakova acknowledge

Obama’s much-ballyhooed “Reset” with Russia, launched in 2009, was in keeping with optimistic attempts by every post-Cold War American administration to improve relations with Moscow out of the gate. Seizing on the supposed change of leadership in Russia, with Dmitry Medvedev temporarily taking over the presidency from Vladimir Putin, Obama’s team quickly turned a blind eye to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, which in retrospect was Putin’s opening move in destabilizing the European order.

The twelve years of failure may have been more like twenty years because

Like George W. Bush before him, Obama vastly overestimated the extent to which a personal relationship with a Russian leader could affect the bilateral relationship. U.S.-Russia disagreements were not the result of misunderstandings, but rather the product of long-festering grievances. Russia saw itself as a great power that deserved equal standing with the U.S. What Obama saw as gestures of good will—such as the 2009 decision to scrap missile defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic—Russia interpreted as a U.S. retreat from the European continent. Moscow pocketed the concessions and increasingly inserted itself in European affairs. The Kremlin was both exploiting an easy opportunity and reasserting what it thought was its historic prerogative.

The analysis has application to the ongoing war Russia initiated four years later in eastern Europe because

Though Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 was the final nail in the coffin of the Reset, President Obama remained reluctant to view Moscow as anything more than a local spoiler, and thought the whole mess was best handled by Europeans. France and Germany spearheaded the Minsk ceasefire process in 2014-2015, with U.S. support but without Washington at the table. The Obama administration did coordinate a far-ranging sanctions policy with the European Union—an important diplomatic achievement, to be sure. But to date, the sanctions have only had a middling effect on the Russian economy as a whole (oil and gas prices have hurt much more). And given that sanctions cut both ways—potential value is destroyed on both sides when economic activity is systematically prohibited—most of the sacrifice was (and continues to be) born by European economies, which have longstanding ties to Russia. In contrast, the costs of a robust sanctions policy have been comparatively minor in the United States; Obama spent little political capital to push them through at home.

"Obama spent little political capital...." can be applied to much of his time as President. But in their balanced evaluation of the President's actions toward Russia, the analysts add

The Obama administration also sought to shore up NATO’s eastern flank through the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), which stationed rotating troops in Poland and the Baltics while increasing the budget for U.S. support. Nevertheless, the president resisted calls from Congress, foreign policy experts, and his own cabinet to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine that would have raised the costs on Russia and helped Kyiv defend itself against Russian military incursion into the Donbas. As Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg, he viewed any deterrent moves by the United States as fundamentally not credible, because Russia’s interests clearly trumped our own; it was clear to him they would go to war much more readily that the United States ever would, and thus they had escalatory dominance. Doing more simply made no sense to Obama.

This timid realpolitik was mixed up with a healthy dose of disdain. Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power” that was acting out of weakness in Ukraine. “The fact that Russia felt it had to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more,” Obama said at the G7 meeting in 2014. This line has not aged well. Obama’s attitudes on Russia reflected his administration’s broadly teleological, progressive outlook on history. Russia’s territorial conquest “belonged in the 19th century.” The advance of globalization, technological innovation, and trade rendered such aggression both self-defeating and anachronistic. The biggest mistake for America would be to overreact to such petty, parochial challenges. The 2015 National Security Strategy favored “strategic patience”. But was it patience… or passivity? As its actions in 2016 proved, Russia is very much a 21st century power that understands how to avail itself of the modern tools available to it, often much better than we do ourselves.

"Disdain" is a fitting term given that Barack Obama nonetheless managed to get re-elected, in part because of the disdain many of us voters have for the importance of foreign policy. His term in office, however, made it far more difficult for a Democrat to succeed him in office as

The same intellectual tendencies that shaped Obama’s timid approach to Ukraine were reflected in his administration’s restrained response as evidence of Russian electoral interference began to emerge in the summer.

Statesmen were inadvertently and intentionally sacrificed, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney respectively, for President Obama's foolishness.  His was a good faith stumble into bad foreign policy, though with ramifications continuing to this day.

However, naivete about Russia's intent is reaching a whole new level. Donald Trump long has made his intent clear. At the NATO summit in Brussels in 2018,  President Trump had the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Secretary draw up orders for the USA to withdraw from NATO despite their opposition and only at the last minute pulled back.  In a video on his campaign website, Trump promises to "finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally reevaluating NATO's purpose and NATO's mission."

From a generally insightful author comes an opinion is that Trump's policy is grounded less in ideology than in self-interest:

Eastern Europe became more dangerous because of President Obama's policies, though the impact has been felt only the last couple of years. The effect of the approach, whether impelled by self-interested or misguided principle, in the second term of a Trump Administration would be devastating not only to Ukraine- and thereafter, probably to its neighbor(s), It also would open a new front in east Asia if mainland China is emboldened to invade Taiwan.

Until then, we have a President, old and accused of senility, who understands the world better than the last Democratic President and infinitely better than the guy who wants to beat him in November.

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