Those in Barack Obama’s orbit were fond of commandeering the title of his second book, Audacity of Hope, and applying it to just about everything the president or his administration did. Obama delivers a speech extolling the benefits of modernity? “Audacity.” Obama wears a tan suit to a press conference? “Audacity.” Obama defies his party’s extremes while achieving some incremental legislative successes? “Audacity.” The former president’s admirers have appropriated the word’s positive connotations—daring, fearless, spunky, transgressive self-assuredness—but the word has an alternate definition that is equally apt but rarely applied to Obama or his courtiers. That’s a shame, too, because the impertinence the former administration’s leading lights often display sure is audacious.
Members of Obama’s former foreign-policy brain trust has taken the occasion of the G-7 summit’s meltdown not only to excoriate Donald Trump for his antagonism of some of America’s closest allies—which he richly deserves—but to polish their own records. “Your wrong-headed protectionist policies [and] antics are damaging our global standing as well as our national interests,” Obama’s former CIA chief John Brennan wrote of Trump. “Your worldview does not represent American ideals.” Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice penned a New York Times op-ed excoriating Trump’s habit of antagonizing American allies, courting its adversaries, and promoting political movements forged in Trump’s own image. “All good for Mr. Putin and no one else,” Rice declared. “Putin [is] getting a high return on his investment as Trump shreds the Atlantic alliance and reaches out to Russia,” the dyspeptic Ben Rhodes marveled at Trump’s inexplicable support for Russia’s re-admittance to the group of industrialized nations from which it was exiled after the 2014 invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory. These former Obama officials all but allege that sedition is afoot, and they would know. If anyone would be able to recognize seditious foreign policies, it’s this crowd.
Take “wrong-headed protectionist policies,” to start. Obama entered office determined to reward the United Steelworkers Union and punish China for producing and exporting enough cheap tires to depress domestic tire producers. So, in 2009, he imposed a 35 percent duty on Chinese tires, which an admittedly charitable Peterson Institute study in 2012 determined had saved maybe 1,200 jobs, but which caused the price of tires to soar and cost of some 3,700 retail jobs. As late as 2016, the Obama administration was imposing tariffs on foreign goods such as solar panels and steel. The sanctions on Chinese steel followed a complaint by domestic producers that China had failed to agree to a resolution among global steel producers to cut back on production and artificially raise the price of its product. Solar panel duties followed the glut of cheap, imported photovoltaic cells that actually reduced the costs associated with installation. That would seem ideal if the Obama administration’s true objective was increased consumer access to solar power and not lavishing domestic solar-panel manufacturers with federal grants and incentives.
Rice, who complained about the Trump administration’s exporting its nationalist populist ideology to Europe and undermining bulwarks in the region for parochial and political ends, would know of what she speaks. In 2015, the U.S. State Department provided a non-governmental organization with ties to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign $350,000 in federal grants “to support peace negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.” But a congressional investigation concluded that the NGO went on to use “U.S. grant funds to support a political campaign to defeat” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Considering that Secretary of State John Kerry was compelled to apologize to Netanyahu after an anonymous U.S. official called him a “chickens***,” it’s unlikely that this NGO had gone rogue.
And what of Rice and Rhodes’s complaint that the United States is undermining its long-standing alliances in order to orient America’s diplomatic posture toward its adversaries like Russia.
Perhaps they have forgotten how one of Barack Obama’s first acts in the initial 100 days of his administration was to send a secret letter to Moscow suggesting that they might scuttle a Bush-era plan to deploy radar and interceptor-missile technology to U.S. allies like Poland and the Czech Republic. Also, by the by, the Kremlin’s support for a nuclear accord with Iran would be welcomed in the White House. Wink, wink. Maybe they overlooked the “reset” in relations with Russia, in which a beaming Hillary Clinton posed with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov just five months to the day after Russian tanks were closing in on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi?
If Rice, Rhodes, and company are advising Trump to take an inventory of who America’s true friends and adversaries really are, the message might find a more receptive audience if packaged with a little introspection. Maybe they missed a former Obama official’s confession that the last administration believed “Iran required appeasement in Syria,” thus paving the way for the worst humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe of this century? Maybe they don’t recall how Barack Obama sat on Bush-era free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama for years. Maybe they’ve overlooked Obama’s regular exchanges of pleasantries with Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, his all-smiles day at the baseball field with Cuban despot Raul Castro, or his decision to look upon Iran’s youthful green revolutionaries with caution or even suspicion?
The Trump administration deserves all the condemnation in the world for its reckless conduct of American foreign affairs and trade relations, but sound policy isn’t Team Obama’s goal, or they would have pursued it in office. It’s hard to avoid the impression that these former Obama officials are less interested in advising Trump to avoid their mistakes than they are in buffing their own tarnished legacies. If only we had a word to describe that kind of gall.