May 24th, 2018


Sorry, Obama: You never stopped underestimating Putin

Rich Lowry

By Rich Lowry

Published Jan. 10, 2017

President Obama has finally had it with Russia. It only took eight years of cold reality - topped off by the Russian interference in the November election - to make the outgoing president almost clear-eyed about the Kremlin.

Not that Obama is ready to admit error. Asked by George Stephanopoulos on Sunday if he under-estimated Vladimir Putin, Obama said no, he had only missed how cyber-hacking could be used to meddle in our electoral system - in other words, it was a technical mistake, rather than a fundamental mis-assessment of a foreign adversary.

Perhaps the president can be forgiven for not being more forthright, since it would require acknowledging how spectacularly his "reset" failed.

Obama began his term with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presenting her Russian counterpart with a (mis-translated) reset button, and ended it watching the Kremlin target Clinton's party and campaign team with no evident respect for US sovereignty or fear of US retaliation.

The reset was premised on willful naivete about Russia.

It required forgiving and forgetting the Russian invasion of Georgia that had occurred only in August of 2008, on the cusp of Obama's election. It meant looking away from the poisoning of the former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, a crime that British authorities concluded in 2007 was an assassination carried out by Russian intelligence. It demanded believing that temporary Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, a supposed modernizer, was something other than a placeholder for the real power in the Kremlin - Putin.

Obama thought that misunderstandings and ill will had under-mined the US-Russian relationship under George W. Bush (who himself had an early soft spot for Putin) and his more deft, re-assuring touch would make new memories. In 2010, the White House was patting itself on the back for forging "win-win outcomes" with Russia.

The touching emphasis on mutual interests and respect failed to understand Vladimir Putin's motives. How he must have snickered when, at a summit in 2012, Obama was caught on a hot mic telling Medvedev that he should relay to Putin to give him "space" because after the election he'd "have more flexibility."

The Russian leader cared only about power and honor (and riches for himself and his cronies) and was immune to Obama's blandishments.

Putin stole the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections anyway. He invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014 anyway. He intervened in Syria in 2015 and bombed Aleppo to rubble anyway.

The administration always made the minimal response, and actually welcomed Russia's entry into Syria as part of a face-saving way out of Obama's "red line" fiasco.

It is only now, after the Russian meddling in the November election, that all the apologists for Obama's reset have converted en masse into stalwart Russia hawks. They almost sound ready to re-constitute the Cold War-era Committee for the Free World - after years of accommodation of Moscow.

Oh, how they mocked Mitt Romney when he said in 2012 that Russia was our foremost geopolitical rival. And resisted calls to arm Ukraine against the Russian invasion. And welcomed the faux chemical-weapons deal Russia forged in Syria and took seriously, time and again, the utterly bootless attempts to cut cease-fire deals with Russia in Syria.

Perhaps Russia's hacking over the last year would have turned liberals against Moscow no matter what, but one gets the sense that, in their minds, Russia's chief offense was taking the wrong side in the election.

Now, with Obama's reset in tatters, Donald Trump wants to pursue his own version. Putin has a dark view of the United States, so it must be a mystery to him why every new American president is so convinced that he can get along with the Russian, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Trump should learn from Obama's failure, and not replicate it.