By Alec Liberman
As the end of the Obama Administration approaches, relations between the United States and Russia have taken a turn for the worse. The U.S. intelligence community accused Russia of tampering with the 2016 election, and in response, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the United States.
In the last weeks of his term, President Obama has pledged to retaliate against Russia “at a time and place of our own choosing.” Essentially, Obama wants to get back at Russia for their alleged hacking.
However, as his presidency comes to a close, sanctioning Russia is the opposite of what Obama should be doing. Instead of worsening the already tenuous relations between the two countries, Obama should put personal vendettas aside and do what is best for the country by not taking any major steps in the international arena, especially if he is not 100% sure that the next administration will support those steps.
Before getting into the details, some background is in order.
In 2008, Russian president Vladimir Putin began nudging boundaries– testing the waters, if you will– for his international ambitions by supporting Ossetia region separatists in Georgia, even going all the way to starting a war with Georgia, presumably to block its aspirations of joining NATO. In other words, by creating instability in the region, Russia made NATO member-countries reluctant to accept Georgia so as not to risk being dragged into this conflict.
At the time, George Bush was the President in the U.S. He announced the sending of humanitarian aid to Georgia and released a statement condemning the Russian president’s decision to recognize the secessionist factions as independent states. Thus, United States and NATO response was weak at best, and at worst, barely existent in the grand scheme of things.
Fast-forward to 2012, and, more specifically, the 2012 American elections. Romney famously said that Russia was the United States’ number one geopolitical foe. Obama sarcastically responded, “the 1980s [called] to ask for their foreign policy back, because, you know, the Cold War has been over for 20 years.” He was not taking Putin even remotely seriously.
However, time has passed, and Putin’s aggression hasn’t. He has taken steps to resurrect Russia as a major international player, even a world superpower, and to prevent its neighboring countries from allying with the West, all while claiming that Russia is under foreign offensive– a step that never fails to boost domestic approval and support of any government.
The biggest action, by far, was taken against Ukraine, when, in the first land grab in Europe since the Second World War, Putin annexed Crimea and supported separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The West enacted economic sanctions but did not offer military support to Ukraine, nor did it attempt to physically intervene.
Putin then entered the Syrian conflict and supported the incumbent President Bashar al-Assad, again going against the West.
I am not saying that the West is always the “good side” and Russia is always the “bad side,” or vice versa. That’s beside the point.
What I am saying is that Putin has been consistently pitting Russia against the West, and Obama, the de facto leader of the West, did very little to contain him. Obama’s previous failure to stand up to Russia is coming back to bite him. The recent démarche against Russia, justified or not, is Obama closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
The past four years have proved Romney right and Obama dead wrong. Putin’s aggressions, regardless of size, have proven him to be a real threat to the United States and should be dealt with accordingly. However, Obama is not going about it the way he ought to.
Obama’s previous failure to stand up to Russia is coming back to bite him. The recent démarche against Russia, justified or not, is Obama closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
After Donald Trump’s election, Obama became what is known as a “lame duck”– in other words, he is a politician that is nearing the end of his term, and he shouldn’t be making policies that are controversial or ones that might potentially have major consequences.
As such, Obama should not take any steps in foreign policy, especially because there is a chance that the incoming administration will not support said steps. This is something that should be apparent to everyone, from Obama’s most vocal critics to his most fervent supporters.
Nonetheless, Obama has made two significant international steps in the last two weeks: first, he did not veto a UN resolution against Israel. All opinions aside, this has essentially reversed a decades-old U.S. policy. It would not be a stretch to say that this was done to vex Netanyahu, whom Obama strongly dislikes, and to vex Trump, one of Netanyahu’s supporters, whom Obama probably dislikes even more.
Second, even though there was no unequivocal proof (at least, none presented to the public) of Russian interference in the elections, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the United States.
There’s an apparent pattern going on here. Put bluntly, it looks like Obama is throwing some kind of tantrum, where he is settling personal scores– putting his personal vendettas over the interests of the United States, which should undoubtedly include a smooth transition to the next administration on all issues, especially international ones.
Regardless of the validity of their reasons, taking major steps in the international arena when on the verge of a new administration is not what is best for the country. In the next few weeks, Obama should fight to ensure that the transition of power is as smooth as possible and wish Trump the best– and not leave him with a situation that is more difficult than it needs to be.