Victor Davis Hanson // National Review
Donald Trump has said a lot of silly stuff about Russia, from joking about Vladimir Putin helping to find Hillary’s deleted emails, to naïve musings about the extent of Russian interference into Western democratic elections. But far more important than what he has said is what Trump has done. That same caveat applies to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Start with two givens: Vladimir Putin is neither stupid nor content to watch an aging, shrinking, corrupt, and dysfunctional — but still large and nuclear — Russia recede to second- or third-power status. From 2009 to 2015, in one of the most remarkable and Machiavellian efforts in recent strategic history, Putin almost single-handedly parlayed a deserved losing hand into a winning one. He pulled this off by flattering, manipulating, threatening, and outsmarting an inept and politically obsessed Obama administration.
Under the Obama presidency and the tenures of Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Russia made astounding strategic gains — given its intrinsic economic, social, and military weaknesses. The Obama reaction was usually incoherent (Putin was caricatured as a “bored kid in the back of the classroom” or as captive of a macho shtick). After each aggressive Russian act, the administration lectured that “it is not in Russia’s interest to . . . ” — as if Obama knew better than a thuggish Putin what was best for autocratic Russia.
A review of Russian inroads, presented in no particular order, is one of the more depressing chapters in post-war U.S. diplomatic history.
Just watching the film clip of Hillary Clinton presenting the red, plastic Jacuzzi button to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva remains painful, more so than even George W. Bush’s simplistic, reassuring commentary after he looked into Putin’s eyes. Under the Obama-Clinton reset protocols, Russia was freed from even the mild sanctions installed by the Bush administration, imposed for its 2008 Ossetian aggressions. As thanks, in early 2014, Russia outright annexed Crimea. It used its newfound American partnership as an excuse to bully Europe on matters of energy and policy, confident that under American reset, it would face little NATO pushback.
Russia assumed de facto control over large sections of eastern Ukraine. Its aggression sent nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States into a panic and raised fears of another Ukrainian-like intervention — thereby wresting pro-Russians concessions on the premise that it was nearby and unpredictably dangerous while the U.S. was distant and predictably inert. Russia succeeded in helping to dismantle previously negotiated U.S. missile-defense arrangements with the Czech Republic and Poland.
Russia since 2013 had sought to interfere in U.S. elections with impunity, so much so that as late as October 18, 2016, on the eve of the anticipated Clinton landslide, Obama mocked any suggestion that an entity could ever successfully warp the outcome of a U.S. election. (“There is no serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even rig America’s elections. There’s no evidence that that has happened in the past or that it will happen this time, and so I’d invite Mr. Trump to stop whining and make his case to get votes.”)
After a near 40-year hiatus, Russia was invited into the Middle East by the Obama administration. It soon became the power broker in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq and to some extent offered passive-aggressive support for Israel and Turkey — a position of influence that it retains to this day and that would now be hard to undo. It posed as a “helper” to the Obama administration with Iran and helped broker the disastrous Iran deal — and then used U.S. acquiescence to Iran to fuel the ascendance of the Iran-Hezbollah-Assad crescent.
Unlike the United States, Russia had no need to maintain the nuclear umbrella, which protected the clients of the U.S. post-war alliance. Despite America’s nuclear responsibilities, Russia convinced the Obama administration to cut back radically on our stockpile of deployable nuclear weapons. Such promised reductions in deliverable weapons came at a time of massive U.S. defense cuts and cancellations, and delays in missile defense.
Russia was relieved by Obama’s efforts to stall fracking and make huge swathes of American territory off-limits for U.S. oil and gas exploration — as this would tighten global oil markets and enhance Russian petroleum export profits. The Obama administration inexplicably approved sale of a sizable portion of scarce U.S. uranium holdings to a Russian company, despite the fact that it was known that investors connected with the Kremlin and uranium interests had paid Bill Clinton $500,000 to give a speech in Moscow. In additions, the chairman of the so-called Uranium One consortium gave $2.5 million to the Clinton Foundation, a fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not disclose, even though she had promised (during her confirmation process) to reveal all such possible conflicts of interest.
Most significantly, the Obama administration had created a false orthodoxy of détente, a politically correct Lala Land, in which to question any of these lopsided Russian advantages was to be considered idiotic or unpatriotic.
Mitt Romney learned that in the third 2012 presidential debate when he was tagged as a Cold War hack by a snarky Barack Obama for even suggesting that an opportunistic and conniving Russia was our chief geostrategic rival. Even when Putin became arrogant and greedy in his winnings, and finally, mostly through hacking, helped to collapse the disastrous Russian-reset misadventure, Hillary Clinton looked back on her role in Russian reset and made the astonishing claim that it had been a success: “I think it was a brilliant stroke, which in retrospect it appears even more so, because look at what we accomplished.”
Barack Obama revealed himself with an open-mic promise to outgoing Russian puppet president Dmitri Medvedev, which, by any reasonable logic, could only be explained as a promise by Obama to retard U.S. missile-defense efforts in Europe in exchange for good Russian behavior during Obama’s reelection bid. (“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space. . . . This is my last election. . . . After my election, I have more flexibility.”) Had Donald Trump been caught in such a private conversation offering a Russian president a quid pro quo — massaging future U.S. national defense policy in a pro-Russia direction in exchange for Russian behavior that would help Trump’s electoral chances — he would probably be facing impeachment on grounds of real Russian collusion.
By the 2016 campaign, however, amid allegations of Russian hacking of Democratic and Clinton campaign communications, the Obama administration could no longer see its failed reset as “a brilliant stoke.” As a result, the architects of one of these embarrassing concessionary policies became not just embarrassed; she pointed to Trump’s loud bombast as proof that he’d colluded with and appeased the Russians. And so began the real collusion between the Clinton campaign and elements in the U.S. government to smear Trump as a Russian patsy.
The odd result of such failed reset policies and bought opposition research was a yarn that the neophyte and recklessly talking Donald Trump was a clever Russian lackey. Yet Trump’s strategic, defense, and energy policies, and his later appointments of realist Russian skeptics — such as General James Mattis, General H. R. McMaster, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, and, yes, Rex Tillerson — were anathema to Moscow.
In just its first year, the Trump administration has armed Ukrainians, reentered the Middle East to bomb ISIS, squared off against Russia, and decimated Russian mercenaries in Syria. Trump also has ensured that the U.S. is well placed to usurp Russia as the world’s largest oil producer within about twelve months. He upped the defense budget, ordered the updating of the nuclear arsenal, bantered NATO members to increase their defense contributions, and traveled to Eastern Europe to bolster Western solidarity,
Given the media dismissal of Donald Trump and its eagerness to canonize Barack Obama’s eight years with another eight of Hillary Clinton, Russia by late 2016 went from a deity to a demon. It was reinvented as Mitt Romney’s enemy of liberal democracy, and, after the election, served as Hillary Clinton’s excuse for losing the election — and Putin became the new ally and collaborator of Donald Trump!
Thus spread the fertilizer that fed the national hysteria leading to the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate a crime — active collusion with the Russians to warp an election — that likely did not exist. And if it did exist, it was probably committed by Hillary Clinton, her campaign, members of the Obama administration, and the miscreants of Fusion GPS. After months of politicized special-counsel investigations, together with House and Senate investigations, Americans are only now being apprised of what we always should have known from the beginning:
1) Russia implants chaos as cheaply as it can inside the U.S. How bold it is depends on how much it worries about a U.S. response. During the Obama reset tenure, it felt there were no repercussions and thus few bounds to its disinformation efforts.
2) Like the Obama administration and the Hillary Clinton campaign, Moscow was convinced that Hillary Clinton would win the nomination and would be a shoo-in during the general election. Predictably, Russia invested comparatively meager resources to encourage pro-Sanders and pro-Trump campaign efforts to stir up trouble. It may have hacked into the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails, and perhaps it even found access to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private, illegal, and deleted emails to embarrass the likely future president and perhaps to find avenues for threats of future blackmail against her. Note well, that if the sure thing had happened — the election of Hillary Clinton — then no one but the Russians might have known, and possibly disclosed at a time and under conditions of their choosing, the shenanigans of Fusion GPS, Christopher Steele, and his Russian sources.
3) The result of the Russian-fed, Clinton-bought Steele dossier is as depressing as was the earlier Russian wins from the reset: The gullible and partisan FBI hierarchy is now discredited and compromised. The intelligence agencies, politicized under John Brennan and James Clapper, may soon share the embarrassments of the FBI. The critical FISA-court protocols have been undermined by deceit and untruth. The highest echelons of the Obama administration were probably complicit in surveillance of political opponents, spying that was predicated on Russian sources for a bogus dossier, and some Obama officials may well have committed felonies by unmasking the names of U.S. citizens and leaking them to the press.
The verdict on Russia, the Obama administration, and the Clinton campaign is now becoming clearer. Russian reset resurrected Putin’s profile and hurt U.S. interests. It grew out of a partisan rebuke of the Bush administration’s perceived harshness to Russia and was later massaged to help Barack Obama’s reelection campaign by granting Russia concessions in hopes of a foreign-policy success that would lead to perceived calm. Russia deliberately inserted itself into the 2016 election, as it had in previous elections, because 1) it had suffered few if any prior consequences, 2) it wanted to sow chaos in the American political system, and 3) it saw a way to warp Clinton’s efforts to smear Donald Trump, first, no doubt to compromise a likely President Clinton, and, in unexpected fashion, later to undermine an actual President Trump.
At very little cost, Russia has embarrassed American democracy, played the media for the partisans they are, completely discredited the Clinton campaign and name, and created a year of nonstop hysteria to undermine the Trump administration.