This morning, the Washington Post published a lengthy account of the Obama White House’s internal response to Russian efforts to influence the 2016 elections. It’s worth reading for the drama alone — including details of secrecy measures not seen since the Osama bin Laden raid, anguished internal debates over the proper American response, and after-the-fact regrets that more was not done to punish Russia and highlight its efforts during the campaign. Throughout, there is a palpable sense that maybe, just maybe, if the Obama administration had reacted differently, Hillary Clinton would be president now.
But then, Vladimir Putin has been incredibly fortunate to butt up against the most unworthy of adversaries: Clinton, Obama, and Donald Trump are the gifts that just kept on giving.
In the long history of foreign-intelligence operations, has greater disruption ever been achieved for less effort? Russia, a much weaker military and economic power, threw the politics of the world’s most powerful nation into bitter chaos merely by hacking into poorly protected e-mail accounts and boosting “fake news” into social-media feeds. Yet spreading gossipy private communications and misinformation in a super-saturated media environment could hardly cause an electoral crisis. Russia didn’t hack voting machines. It didn’t alter voter rolls. It didn’t disrupt Election Day. It just made Americans lose their minds.
Does anyone really think that Russia’s actions were more decisive to Trump’s victory than, say, Clinton’s decision to set up a homebrew e-mail server, her family’s decision to turn their charitable foundation into a gigantic influence-peddling scheme, her campaign’s missteps, or her decades of scandals and flip-flops? Vladimir Putin couldn’t possibly undermine the Democratic nominee more than she undermined herself.
As for Obama, where does one begin? The Post story reads like one long summary of his failed foreign policy. Our enemies act, he anguishes, and they win:
Throughout his presidency, Obama’s approach to national security challenges was deliberate and cautious. He came into office seeking to end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was loath to act without support from allies overseas and firm political footing at home. He was drawn only reluctantly into foreign crises, such as the civil war in Syria, that presented no clear exit for the United States.
Obama’s approach often seemed reducible to a single imperative: Don’t make things worse. As brazen as the Russian attacks on the election seemed, Obama and his top advisers feared that things could get far worse.
Such a mindset guarantees that our foes will always have the upper hand. It meant that Russia could act, and Obama would simply try to contain the damage. Putin invades and conquers foreign territory in Ukraine? We’ll object without poking the bear too much. He intervenes in Syria, rescues Assad, and bombs ostensibly American-allied militias into the dust? Our diplomats will speak ever so sternly to “shame” a foreign power on the “wrong side of history.” He engineers an effort to influence the American presidential election? Obama will respond with pinprick sanctions that deter nothing and are symbolic only of the White House’s weakness.
At every turn in the story, Russia succeeded because we failed, and true heroes were hard to find.
Throughout the story, the Post describes how the administration reacted internally as if Russia were deploying missiles a few miles south of the Rio Grande yet responded diplomatically with the kind of minor tit-for-tat common to petty international disputes. What really happened? Did the Russians really threaten our democracy, or were their actions more annoying than meaningful, like the buzzing of gnats around a runner’s face?
No assessment of Russia’s success in this case would be complete without Donald Trump, of course. It’s hard to imagine a more incompetent, destructive response to reports of Russian interference than Trump’s combinations of angry denials and joking encouragements. Moreover, Trump for a time surrounded himself with shady figures with suspect Russian business relationships. And he spent the entire campaign loudly and puzzlingly praising Putin, the last person who wants America to be made great again.
And that only covers his actions during the race. Since he became president-elect, he and his team have responded to the “Russia controversy” with a series of falsehoods, misstatements, and missteps that may ultimately derail his presidency even without any evidence of “collusion.” Panicked and hysterical Democrats looking for scapegoats have encountered a reflexively angry and dishonest administration that can’t seem to keep its stories straight. The results are entirely predictable: more confusion, more bitterness, more rancor.
The Obama administration’s weakness and inaction led Putin rightly to believe that he could push America around with impunity. Clinton’s corruption and Democratic incompetence created a soft and inviting target. Trump’s defiance, defensiveness, and deceptions stoked fear and paranoia. At every turn in the story, Russia succeeded because we failed, and true heroes were hard to find.
Now more than ever, we need honesty, firmness, and stable leadership from Washington, and all we’re getting is more political decay. Trump reportedly toys with firing special counsel Robert Mueller, Democrats dream of impeachment, and Twitter is awash in conspiracy theories. If Putin wanted to sow chaos, he got his wish. But he isn’t a diabolical genius, and his intelligence operatives aren’t supermen. American incompetence is his greatest asset.