At the end of 2011, Jim Sciutto moved to Beijing to become chief of staff and senior policy adviser to U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, after spending a decade as ABC News senior foreign correspondent. After his two-year stint in China, Sciutto returned to the world of journalism and was named CNN’s chief national-security correspondent. This move from a position in the Obama administration to a major cable-news organization led to familiar complaints that Sciutto was biased, and that he would be unlikely to assess his former colleagues and bosses fairly.
But anyone who wanted Sciutto’s new book, The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America, to offer a flattering portrait of the Obama administration will be deeply disappointed. In fact, anecdote by anecdote, chapter by chapter, Sciutto assembles a stinging indictment. (He’s also not all that impressed with most of the Trump administration’s moves, although he credits it for “aggressively calling out Chinese theft of U.S. secrets.”)
It’s easy to forget just how stubbornly naïve the Obama administration could be in its dealings, particularly with Russia. It began with Hillary Clinton’s infamous “reset button” ceremony with Russian foreign minister Sergi Lavrov and continued with the president’s 2012 debate comment that “the 1980s are now calling to get their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Obama declared at the G-7 summit in 2014 that Russia was a “regional power” and that its territorial ambitions “belonged in the 19th century.” But Obama’s 21st-century worldview had no effective response to those ambitions.
The Shadow War isn’t merely Sciutto’s personal assessment. Many of the most stinging passages quote Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2013 to 2016. Pyatt describes a meeting early in his time in that post with European Union official Stefan Rule during a conference in Yalta, Crimea: “It was the first time I had ever met him, and he came on very, very strongly and said basically, ‘Where the hell are the Americans? Don’t you realize that there is a great struggle that’s going on right now to define the future of the European periphery? We need an engaged America.’”
Sciutto writes, “U.S. and European diplomats and policymakers would persist in mirror-imaging their Russian counterparts, while Putin and his lieutenants were playing by very different rules.”
Pyatt also described the Obama administration as being excruciatingly slow-footed in its response to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 being shot down by Russian forces in Ukraine:
The day after the MH17 crash, Pyatt recalls a contentious videoconference with Obama administration officials in Washington.
“That was one of the darkest days of my time in Ukraine,” said Ambassador Pyatt. “I remember one of my Washington colleagues saying something along the lines of, ‘we have to be very careful not to jump to conclusions.’
That answer was too much for Ambassador Pyatt to take.
“It was one of my more unguarded moments because I remember saying very clearly, ‘you say we don’t know what happened, but we do know. We do know that Russia is responsible, that there were no Ukrainian missiles of this class in the region, and one way or another, the Kremlin is responsible for the deaths of three hundred people.’”
Even after Russia invaded and occupied Crimea, the Obama administration dithered and completely underestimated Russia’s intention to keep Crimea:
“Kerry was still talking in terms of ‘Russia must not overstep,’” said Pyatt. “And it was while they were already running the place.
Inside the Obama administration, discussions focused on providing Moscow with a diplomatic ‘off-ramp’ to defuse the crisis and eventually exit Crimea in a face-saving way. . . “The Russian objective was not to win the argument,” Pyatt emphasized. “It was to win a war.”
It was a fight that the Obama administration wasn’t interested in having, or even acknowledging. Pyatt tells Sciutto in another passage, “When I arrived in Kiev, my instructions were, Europe is in the lead.” Confronted with the Crimean takeover, Obama lamely attempted to spin it as some sort of moral victory: “The fact that Russia felt it had to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.”
The Obama approach to China followed a familiar pattern. China violated international law by constructing artificial islands in disputed waters, but Obama accepted Chinese assurances of their good intentions:
Increasingly, however, China’s man-made islands were hosting full-fledged military operations. In May 2018, the United States detected the deployment of anti-ship and antiaircraft missiles on three of the islands during Chinese military exercises. The missiles form an integral part of China’s anti-access, area-denial strategy, which is itself designed with the United States in mind. Beijing’s blunt message to Washington appeared to be: We are prepared to make these waters unsafe for U.S. warships. President Xi’s promise to President Obama in 2015 not to militarize the islands had become meaningless.
A disturbing pattern keeps reappearing: “Obama would later accept Chinese assurances that Beijing would dial back its cyber-theft of U.S. corporate secrets, malicious activity that remains rampant and aggressive today.
Sciutto offers a tough assessment of his former colleagues in the State Department, using a dispute between China and its neighbors over the Scarborough Shoal as an example:
Inside the embassy, I remember concern but not urgency. U.S. officials believed that China could be coaxed into reversing course — allowing the Philippines’ fishing boats back into the lagoon and, more important, ending its attempt to take more formal possession of the shoal. This was a consistent pattern inside the State Department and the Obama administration at the time. Negotiation will work. China can be convinced. Let’s not overreact. This approach applied to a whole host of issues and disputes between Washington and Beijing, including China’s cyber activities against the U.S. government and private sector. And yet even as this approach often failed to change Chinese behavior, it persisted.
The dispute about the Scarborough Shoal went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, where the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and thoroughly rebuked China. But with no real enforcement, nothing changed. Scarborough Shoal remains under Chinese control. The international institutions so frequently touted by the Obama administration proved useless in the face of aggression.
There’s another lesson that isn’t in the pages of Sciutto’s book but seems worth mentioning: If the Obama administration was so persistently naïve and so willfully blind to risks and threats emerging from Russia and China, why would we think the same foreign-policy minds, guided by the same philosophies and worldviews, would have a more correct assessment of Iran and its nuclear ambitions? Or the Syrian civil war? Or North Korea?
For eight years, President Obama’s foreign-policy approach was rarely out of step with the beliefs of the rest of his party. Internal disagreements with Hillary Clinton or Robert Gates or John Kerry occurred intermittently but rarely became disruptive or discussed too openly. Until Russia’s hacking and disinformation during the 2016 election became clear, most members of his party thought Obama and his team managed relations with Russia just fine – and they had a similar faith in his administration’s nonconfrontational and acquiescent approach to China.
Now that we know the results of that sort of approach to foreign policy, why would we ever go back?