The Twitter user Comfortably Smug reminded us today that the Democrats’ attitude toward Russia is deeply opportunistic. On the heels of Robert Mueller’s indictment of twelve Russian operatives for their role in hacking the computers of Democratic staffers and attempting to influence the 2016 election, Smug flooded Twitter with some trollery about the previous administration’s policy toward Russia. Among these count a retweet of a Democratic-party message from 2012 that says, “Romney, who calls Russia our ‘No. 1 geopolitical foe,’ doesn’t seem to realize it’s the 21st century.”
Another 2012 tweet from the Democrats’ account quotes a comment by then-Russian president Dmitri Medvedev: “Mitt pegged Russia as our ‘number one political foe.’ Russian President responded: ‘We are in 2012…not the mid-1970s.’” For those keeping track at home, that was an American political party echoing the Kremlin’s line to bludgeon a political opponent.
Now, whether it’s true that Russia is America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe can be debated — especially given China’s aggressive efforts to expand its reach through infrastructure projects around the world (though I would argue that Russia has taken a more active role in opposing the United States in international fora and on the geopolitical chess board). What’s clear, though, is that Barack Obama underestimated Vladimir Putin’s pretensions to imperial grandeur, hence his hot-mic moment with Medvedev in 2011: “I’ll have more flexibility after the election.”
Smug’s tweets, made partly in jest, remind us that under the previous administration, American policy towards Russia was so anemic as to enable Moscow’s meddling in Syria, Ukraine, and, eventually, the United States. In fairness to the previous administration, it’s not clear that a more assertive U.S. foreign policy would have dissuaded Putin from playing on the political fault lines that made the United States an appealing target. What is clear, though, is that Bashar al-Assad (and his friends in Moscow and Tehran) is close to winning the Syrian civil war, leaving a charnel house of a mess in his wake, and that Ukraine could have used anti-tank weapons years ago.
Some of the current president’s foreign-policy actions have disproved the previous administration’s dogmas in these areas. Punitive strikes against the Syrian regime for gassing children did not lead America toward Vietnamesque mission creep. Equipping the Ukrainians with lethal defensive aid (truth be told, Congress deserves credit for this, not the president) did not lead the United States down an escalatory spiral into war with Russia.
The absolute reversal of roles in party attitudes toward Russia, would have seemed impossible back in 2012, but the Democrats, four years after Obama won reelection, have started to see the light. Expressing concern about Russia’s influence, once unfathomable to progressives, seems to have found a resurgence in the new political context. Could it be that the furor over election interference has created a new generation of left-wing hawks? I’m doubtful. This is probably just rank political opportunism to take advantage of Donald Trump’s bizarre rhetoric on Russia, lacking sincere follow-through in terms of policy.
But as long as the Democrats want to play their faux anti-Russia game, we might as well hold them to a repudiation of Obama’s feckless policy of acquiescence and move them toward an embrace of assertive policies that hold Putin to account.