Trump’s offending tweet had praised Vladimir Putin. The Russian president had just said he would not retaliate against the United States after President Barack Obama expelled 25 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and imposed new sanctions on Russia. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin),” Trump tweeted, “I always knew he was very smart!” Trump’s effusive admiration for the man who was behind the 2016 hacking attacks on the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s email account was worrisome, offensive, and un-presidential. But it wasn’t in the same neighborhood as treason. It wasn’t even on the same continent.
The Constitution defines treason as “the levying of war against the United States” and the giving of “aid and comfort” to America’s enemies. If we were to stretch the meaning of “aid and comfort” to include social-media compliments, we would find Twitter fairly overrun by traitors who routinely praise America’s adversaries. But what’s most interesting about the left’s overreaction to Trump’s tweet is that it condemned a stance on Russia that Barack Obama himself had maintained for the lion’s share of his two terms as president. And that stance was widely praised by Obama’s supporters. If we believed in the new definition of treason provided by these sudden Russia hawks of the left, Barack Obama’s previous interactions with Putin would have landed him in the dock years ago.
There was, for example, that time in March 2012 when a microphone in Korea picked up the 44th president telling Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that he, Obama, would be more accommodating to Putin’s demands for reduced American missile defense in Europe once he got reelected and could drop his harsher pose toward Russia. (This was the moment that featured Medvedev’s immortal response, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”)
That was but one instance of Obama’s long, dogged (and failed) effort to make nice with a revanchist Russia by dealing with Putin almost entirely on Putin’s terms. In March 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implemented Obama’s “Russian reset” policy, presenting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a symbolic red “reset” button. As the Obama administration’s own fact sheet explained: “President Obama sought to reset relations with Russia and reverse what he called a ‘dangerous drift’ in this important bilateral relationship. President Obama and his administration have sought to engage the Russian government to pursue foreign policy goals of common interest—win-win outcomes—for the American and Russian people.” Outcomes soon proved, however, to be win-lose. Obama reneged on U.S. missile-defense promises to Poland and the Czech Republic in order to becalm Putin. But Putin went on the offensive, eventually annexing Crimea in 2014. Putin also failed to honor new nuclear agreements between the U.S. and Russia, oversaw years of cyberattacks against the United States, and waged an air war on U.S.-backed rebels in Syria that continues to this day.
Even as rapprochement with Putin was failing, Obama and his supporters remained enthusiastic about the policy. When 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney described Russia as America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” the president and his defenders mocked Romney ruthlessly. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said during a debate with Romney. The New York Times editorial board saw Romney’s position as dangerous: “Two decades after the end of the cold war, Mitt Romney still considers Russia to be America’s ‘No. 1 geopolitical foe.’ His comments display either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics. Either way, they are reckless and unworthy of a major presidential contender.” The editorial defended Obama’s missile-defense betrayal in Eastern Europe and closed on a note that now sounds remarkably Trumpian: “There are real threats out there: Al Qaeda and its imitators, Iran, North Korea, economic stresses. Mr. Romney owes Americans a discussion of the real challenges facing this country and his solutions to them.” Consider that a year ago, Trump defended his approach to Russia thus: “I’m not saying Russia is not a threat. But we have other threats. We have the threat of terrorism.”
What’s the difference, then, between the Russian reset of 2009 and its 2017 iteration? What makes the first good and the second bad? Why, the man doing the resetting, of course. For the New York Times and other liberal entities, foreign-policy positions that were considered brilliant under President Obama are now deemed subversive in the hands of President Trump. The reset policy is one example; there will be many more to come. For on several key issues, Trump represents more of a continuation than a refutation of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs. But don’t expect to see the kind of support Obama enjoyed for taking similar steps.Vladimir Putin isn’t the only bad actor with whom Trump is seeking cooperation or understanding. He also sees Syrian dictator—and Putin ally—Bashar al-Assad as a potential partner in fighting ISIS. Although Assad has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens and many see his removal as key both to ending the Syrian civil war and draining the appeal of ISIS, Trump has no interest in helping to bring down the current Syrian regime. “If they ever did overthrow Assad,” he has said, “you may very well end up with worse than Assad.” He’s also praised Assad as “much tougher and much smarter than [Hillary Clinton] and Obama.” What’s more, Trump’s interest in working with Putin militates against his causing any grief for Putin’s Syrian client. For his part, Assad has described President Trump as a “natural ally” in the fight against terrorism.
Trump’s critics on the left will surely view this as repellent cynicism. And they would be correct in their assessment. But where were they when Obama was engaging Assad with great enthusiasm? When Obama came to office, he worked tirelessly to warm relations between the U.S. and Syria, reestablishing diplomatic ties, hinting at eased sanctions on the regime, and smoothing Syria’s way into international trade bodies. And, as now, Assad was keen on friendly relations with a U.S. president. He even invited Obama to Syria. Then-Senator John Kerry was passionate about what he saw as a great opening. Assad “wants to engage with the West,” Kerry told Seymour Hersh. “Our latest conversation gave me a much greater sense that Assad is willing to do the things that he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States. He told me he’s willing to engage positively with Iraq, and have direct discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights—with Americans at the table. I will encourage the Administration to take him up on it.” Hersh, and the rest of the liberal commentariat, ate it up. “Obama Has Syria’s Assad Right Where He Wants Him,” announced a 2010 Newsweek headline atop an editorial about Obama’s engagement policy.
Despite Donald Trump’s well-earned reputation for bluster, he is actually following the Obama line on talks without preconditions. He’s eager to work with Putin, Assad, and others toward what he believes are common goals.It is true that Obama’s engagement push came before Assad launched a brutal campaign against his own people. In 2009, his defenders might argue, there was still a chance of appealing to Assad’s better angels and inspiring reform. But massive slaughter is not the only indication of an irredeemably dangerous regime. When Obama sought to engage Assad, the Syrian dictator’s monstrous credentials were well established. He had sanctioned a flow of jihadists into Iraq to kill Americans fighting in the war. Syria was the closest ally of Iran, a terrorist state bent on the destruction of Israel and the United States. His was a terrorist regime, a Baathist regime, and an oppressive dictatorship beyond rehabilitation. Moreover, even after the Syrian civil war began, the Obama administration tried time and again to cajole Assad into reform or compromise.
For all the above reasons, many conservatives were outspoken in opposing engagement with Assad from the start. But this time round, as Trump attempts to work with Damascus, liberals are sure to take great offense.
Then there is the matter of talking to rogue regimes more generally. When Obama ran for president in 2008, his vow to talk to Iran (and other regimes) “without preconditions” became an election focal point. Conservatives pounced, pointing out that American diplomatic engagement can itself be a valuable “win” for bad regimes hoping to raise their profile. As such, it shouldn’t be granted lightly. Moreover, summitry can succeed only if it involves parties hammering out the details of a goal they already share.
Those on the left were either quick to defend Obama as breaking courageously with George W. Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy” or quick to amend his comments so that they seemed a harmless verbal slip-up. Obama, of course, did pursue such talks and those talks produced the dangerous and immoral policy hash that is the Iran nuclear deal and the fruitless normalization of relations with Cuba.
Despite Donald Trump’s well-earned reputation for bluster, he is actually following the Obama line on talks without preconditions. As discussed, he’s eager to work with Putin and Assad toward what he believes are common goals. He was also asked by Reuters if he would be willing to talk directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about halting the isolated nation’s nuclear program. “Absolutely,” Trump said. “I would speak to him, I would have no problem speaking to him.”
Will the left see this as a brave turn away from the failed stubborn policy of the past? Not likely. Instead, we’re probably going to hear more about what Hillary Clinton adviser Jake Sullivan characterized as Trump’s “bizarre fascination with foreign strongmen like Putin and Kim.”Donald Trump’s stance on American alliances is hard to discern. As he’s done on most issues, Trump has spoken in contradictory terms about the future of NATO. Trump is on record calling NATO “obsolete,” telling ABC’s Jonathan Karl that he considered it “extremely expensive for the United States, disproportionately so.” Additionally, he said, “it can be trimmed up and it can be reconfigured and you can call it NATO, but it’s going to be changed.” Similarly, he told the New York Times’s David Sanger: “If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries . . . Then yes, I would be absolutely prepared to tell those countries, ‘Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.’” In speaking to Sanger, however, he also said he believed that NATO membership was a matter of “mutual interest,” and he dismissed as “fools and haters” those who say he seeks to shirk alliances. For the most part, then, Trump has indicated his disapproval of NATO’s current configuration and hinted at an inchoate plan to shake it up.
His strange bitterness on this issue is wrongheaded and worrisome. As we weather the current global surge of illiberalism, maintaining old and trusted alliances becomes all the more important. But if Trump’s actions turn out to be less hostile than his rhetoric, as seems the case in other policy areas, he might very well end up adopting a position similar to the one held by President Obama. As the reversal on missile defense demonstrates, Obama had little problem denying our NATO allies what they desperately sought. Sounding not unlike his successor, Obama complained of ungrateful allies to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg only a few months ago. “Free riders aggravate me,” he said. He even told British Prime Minister David Cameron that if Britain did not spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense, the “special relationship” between the two countries would be special no more. Later in the interview with Goldberg, Obama blamed the failings of the 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya in part on, as Goldberg paraphrased it, “the passivity of America’s allies.”
Obama’s coolness toward longstanding allies went mostly unremarked-upon in the liberal press. Progressives saw these compromised relationships as an acceptable price to pay for making supposed progress with antagonists such as Russia. Neglected alliances were contextualized as the tough but necessary work that peace demands. But we should expect no such pass to be given to Trump if he manages our relations with allies in a similar fashion. In his case, we’re likely to hear much talk of abandoned allies and to see the left rediscover the maintenance of international democratic ties as a foundational principle of American foreign policy. To be clear, Obama was wrong to let important ties with democracies whither, and Trump would be just as mistaken to follow suit. When the United States broadcasts its reluctance to stand by allies, bad actors become emboldened and soon make their moves. That was more or less the story of Obama’s presidency.In broad terms, Trump and Obama share a reluctance to challenge American adversaries or risk American lives for the sake of friends or principles. Both men believe deeply in their talent for persuasion and hope that their skills at negotiation will obviate the need for rougher measures. In Obama, his supporters saw this alternately as an expression of progressivism or foreign-policy realism. He was either an idealist who put his faith in dialogue or a calculating realist who understood the perilous temptation of overreaction. In Trump, similar actions will surely be attributed to darker motives.
It must be said that Donald Trump has given Americans, left and right, very little reason to respect his judgment or sympathize with his intentions. He speaks from unprecedented ignorance for someone occupying his office. And he’s overtly hostile to calls for transparency. For that and other reasons, it behooves conservatives to avoid becoming mirror images of their progressive counterparts. We would do great harm on the right if we began to champion Obama-era policies that now come in Trump dress. And there are some worrying signs of conservatives doing just that. Fortunately, however, leading Republicans are already pushing back on the most egregious of these—namely, Trump’s interest in befriending Putin. That kind of internal disagreement is a sign of political health the likes of which one can’t easily find on the left. Liberals and leftists marched in virtual lockstep behind Obama as he executed his failed policies. On the left, conservative infighting during Trump’s rise through the GOP was a source of amusement. But it’s the ability to oppose one’s own that keeps a party honest.
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