Anne Jolis

Regrets on Russia, Syria, or Iran? Obama Has None

Regrets on Russia, Syria, or Iran? Obama Has None
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The Electoral College will cast their votes for president of the United States tomorrow without any last-minute intel on alleged Russian cyber-meddling, according to a statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. A group of electors had called for a briefing before the December 19 vote, though it’s unclear what they’d hoped to discover that everyone didn’t already know on November 8.

President Obama acknowledged as much on Friday in a year-end press conference. ‘The truth of the matter is, is that everybody had the information. It was out there,’ he said, swatting away the suggestion that he should have made more of the Russian intrusions before the election. He also dismissed the notion that the contents of the purloined emails swung the vote:

‘They hacked into some Democratic Party emails that contained pretty routine stuff, some of it embarrassing or uncomfortable, because I suspect that if any of us got our emails hacked into, there might be some things that we wouldn’t want suddenly appearing on the front page of a newspaper or a telecast, even if there wasn’t anything particularly illegal or controversial about it.’

That ‘routine stuff’ included correspondence regarding multi-million dollar donations to the tax-exempt Clinton Foundation in exchange for a few minutes of Bill or Hillary’s time. That may seem sensational to us plebs, but perhaps President Obama has a point that it was all in a day’s work for the Clintons. A similar argument applies to Donald Trump, by the way. The New York Times has reported that Russian hackers also got a hold of Republican National Committee emails. The RNC denies it, but either way it’s hard to imagine what indecorous tidbit or eye-popping tax return might damage the man who crowed in January, ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.’

At any rate, Obama said, ‘when I look back in terms of how we handled it, I think we handled it the way it should have been handled’. That includes his very Obama-esque confrontation on cyber-attacks with Vladimir Putin earlier this year. By Obama’s account:

‘In early September, when I saw President Putin in China, I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn’t happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out, and there were going to be some serious consequences if he didn’t.’

Putin presumably thought as much of those consequences as he did of Obama’s infamous ‘red line’ on Syria – the 2012 promise that ‘there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.’ We did, but there weren’t. Obama instead deferred to Putin, who’d offered to secure the Assad regime’s chemical weapons while America kept out of the gory war. That was back in 2013 when Obama was still clinging to his first-term ‘reset’ with Russia. Moscow celebrated that victory with a deal to build new nuclear reactors in Iran, while moving forward with a stalled plan to deliver Tehran the S-300 surface-to-air missile system. In Syria, the Assad regime and Isis alike merrily blasted out industrially available chlorine and mustard gas, per the UN.

No one at Friday’s White House presser mentioned the aborted Counter-Disinformation Team, conceived by the State Department in 2014 to rebut a rising swell of anti-Western agitprop following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As John Schindler reported in the New York Observer, the administration canceled that effort before it ever went live so as ‘not to upset the Russians’. Upsetting Moscow, of course, would have risked upsetting the Iranian nuclear deal that Obama touts as his chief foreign-policy achievement: ‘Through diplomacy, we’ve ensured that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon – without going to war with Iran.’ For now, that is. Tehran is flush with billions in sanctions relief thanks to the nuclear agreement, which the International Atomic Energy Agency says it has already breached twice.

Russian forces and Iranian proxies are now assisting Assad in exterminating all vestiges of regime opposition in Aleppo, even as they let Isis retake Palmyra. And some 500 US special forces are in Syria anyway, without the benefit of controlling Syrian airspace. President-elect Trump has suggested working with Gulf States to set up ‘safe zones’ for Syrian civilians. But as Obama pointed out on Friday, that would require ‘some force that is willing to maintain that territory in the absence of consent from the Syrian government and, now, the Russians or the Iranians.’ In other words, the costs of intervening in Syria have risen sharply over the years.

But here again, Obama says, ‘I continue to believe that it was the right approach.’ George Osborne last week asked MPs to consider their responsibility for ‘a vacuum of Western leadership, including American and British leadership’ in Syria. Obama offered no similar acknowledgement on Friday. ‘I always feel responsible,’ he told reporters. ‘There are places around the world where horrible things are happening, and because of my office, because I’m President of the United States, I feel responsible.’ And yet on Syria, ‘what I have consistently done is taken the best course that I can to try to end the civil war while also having to take into account the long-term national security interests of the United States.’

How US interests are served by Russia and Iran overseeing perpetual war in Syria is beyond even Obama to explain. On relations with Russia more generally, the outgoing President’s main regret seems to be the double-standard applied by his detractors:

‘I mean, think about it. Some of the people who historically have been very critical of me for engaging with the Russians and having conversations with them also endorsed the President-elect, even as he was saying that we should stop sanctioning Russia and being tough on them, and work together with them against our common enemies.’

Trump’s rhetoric on Putin has indeed been troubling, in part because it so closely mirrors the credulity with which Obama approached the Kremlin not long ago. Barring any shenanigans in the Electoral College tomorrow, Donald Trump will soon become the fourth US counterpart to Russian President Putin. President Obama says he’s offering ‘guidance’ and ‘counsel’ to his incoming successor. One only hopes he’s more candid in private than he has been in public about his mistakes over the last eight years, from ‘reset’ to ‘red line’.