President Barack Obama chats with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin prior to a working session at the Group of 20 (G20) leaders summit in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, Turkey, November 16, 2015. (Kayhan Ozer/Pool/Reuters)
I have written frequently about the dangers Vladimir Putin poses to U.S. interests. Yet when we prune all the rhetoric away, we are still left with two antithetical Obama–Trump administration policies.
The Obama reset, in reaction to the Bush pushback against Putin’s aggression in South Ossetia, inaugurated a bewildering policy of appeasement — summed up in a 2012 debate by Obama’s weird attack on Mitt Romney who warned of Russian threats (“the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years”).
The list of Obama’s Russian appeasement is long: watering down sanctions, not arming the Ukrainians, inviting Putin into the Middle East after a near 40-year hiatus, defense cuts, dismantling plans to cooperate with Eastern Europeans to install missile defense, the Obama/Medvedev hot mic incident, whose terms (reelection “space” for Obama in a exchange for “flexibility” on Eastern European missile defense) were carried out, high-level U.S. intelligence and FBI operatives trafficking in a “dossier” drawing on purchased Russian disinformation sources, anemic responses to the Russian absorption of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and wet-noodle reactions to Russian cyber interference in the U.S. (“cut it out”, Vladimir?).
All of this naivete was based on the mythical assumptions that Russia was in transition to a civil society and should no longer be alienated as it had been in the last years of the derided Bush administration, and that Putin would interpret such restraint as magnanimity to be reciprocated rather than as timidity to be exploited.
Trump’s rhetoric was certainly not as eloquent on questions of Russian human-rights abuses as we heard in the twilight of the Obama administration in 2016, when the reset was in ruins.
But Trump’s 2017–19 record stands in stark contrast to all of the above: Pulling out of an asymmetrical anti-missile deal, arming the Ukrainians with lethal aid, defeating and killing Russian mercenaries in Syria, beefing up U.S. defense, jawboning NATO to rearm, opposing energy deals between Germany and Russia, and pushing for more U.S. gas and oil production and exports that stabilized or lowered global export prices. Are these witnesses going to criticize Trump’s “unfair” dismantling of Obama’s Russian reset on grounds that he knew Putin had tried to sabotage his campaign via having Russian operatives seeding Christopher Steele’s phony dossier?
In that context, it is baffling that a parade of civil servants now expresses their disenchantment with the White House policies of delaying lethal military aid that was fully delivered. Yet many of these critics were in government service between 2009–17.
The natural question arises, then: Where was their outrage at resetting with the Russians and leaving the Ukrainians to fend for themselves when it came to stopping Russian armor?
We can understand Fiona Hill’s apparent anguish at a temporary administrative delay in sending lethal aid, but she said nothing about not arming them in the past in extremis, and even wrote an incoherent Washington Post op-ed supporting the Obama administration’s failure to arm them.
When Hill states that Ukrainian officials had no involvement in the 2016 election to harm the Trump campaign, her opinions are in stark contrast to the testimonies of Ukrainian officials themselves, who cited Ukrainian efforts to discredit the Trump campaign.
And when she adds that Russians were seeding chaos without preferences in 2016, she again engages in selective memory. She must know that we spent 22 months and $35 million to show that there was no Russian–Trump election collusion, and we are soon going to learn from the Horowitz and Durham investigations whether U.S. officials trafficked with a British subject, hired by the Clinton campaign, to seed a spurious “dossier” that drew on all too willing Russian-seeded smears and libels that did a great deal of damage to the integrity to the FBI, the CIA, the DOJ, and the FISA courts, as many in these agencies used such unverified Russian dirt to harm a presidential campaign and transition.
Many of the witnesses are fine public servants, but their current and frequently expressed discontent over Trump’s Ukraine policy would find a more credible audience had they shown the prior courage to disagree with a past president popular within the ranks of the Washington bureaucracy who nonetheless did a lot of damage to Ukraine, by empowering Vladimir Putin and failing to adopt the measures that Trump rather quickly embraced and implemented.
There are two constants in these entire hearings: presumptions, assumptions, and conjectures from civil servant A about what civil servant B said or thought, and outrage at a temporary delay in lethal military juxtaposed by past silence over its prior nonexistence — which explains why what was born with a bang is ending with a whimper.