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National Security & Defense

How Clinton’s National-Security Cluelessness Emboldened Putin

Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung authored an important column for the Washington Post yesterday in which they tried to explain Hillary Clinton’s supposed feud with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  According to Warrick and DeYoung, when Clinton left the State Department in 2013, she advised President Obama to snub Putin, avoid working with him and turn down any invitations by Putin for a presidential summit. 

Clinton also counseled Obama that “strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.”

Clinton’s advice reflected her frustration that the so-called U.S.–Russia reset she attempted in 2009 went nowhere. Instead, U.S.–Russian relations deteriorated drastically while Clinton was Secretary of State and Russia engaged in destabilizing and belligerent behavior in Ukraine and Syria. 

Clinton’s recommendation that President Obama snub Putin goes to the heart of her foreign-policy incompetence. While the United States obviously does not condone Russia’s foreign adventurism and support for the genocidal Assad regime, Russia is nevertheless a major power with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, thus Washington must maintain an ongoing dialogue with Moscow, especially at the head of state level. Despite the bashing Donald Trump has endured from the Clinton campaign and the mainstream media for supposedly admiring Putin, Trump seems to understand this since he has called for America to find a way to work cooperatively with Russia.

Trump gave his best response to Clinton’s criticism of him over Russia and Putin at the last presidential debate on October 9 when he said that “Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way. From everything I see he has no respect for this person [Clinton].”

Clinton’s call to snub Putin ignores the reality that our country frequently must deal with many regimes accused of violating international law and having abysmal human rights records. 

For example, China’s active oppression of Tibet and Xinjiang is far worse than anything Putin has done in Ukraine. China also has significantly increased international tensions by its naval maneuvers to seize control of the entire South China Sea. If Clinton believes the United States must shun Russia because of its human rights record and aggressive behavior, why did she not also call for China to be shunned?

And of course there is Cuba and Iran. The Obama administration decided to ignore both countries’ abysmal human rights records because it wanted to strike historic agreements – normalization of relations with Cuba and the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – with both states.    The world sees these agreements for what they really are: American hypocrisy and appeasement.

Making this worse was Clinton’s advice that “strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.” I agree, but it is laughable that such a weak Secretary of State representing one of the weakest presidents in history would say this. Putin never sensed resolve or strength from the Obama administration or Clinton. 

Instead of strength and resolve, the Obama administration’s Russia policy has consisted of fecklessness and confusion. President Obama and Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry constantly issued ultimatums and endorsed sanctions in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and support for the Assad regime. These actions undermined America’s credibility since Russia ignored them and Washington failed to back them up.

At the same time the Obama administration was condemning Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, it was simultaneously trying to engage it as a partner to negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran and has tried to work with Russia on the Syrian crisis.  This obviously undermined the Obama administration’s efforts to isolate Russia over Ukraine. But even worse, Russia exploited both situations to expand its influence with these countries and throughout the Middle East at America’s expense. 

There was a good example of the Obama administration’s toothless Russia policy in September 2016 when Secretary of State Kerry told Moscow after it ignored a two-week old U.S.–Russia Syria cease-fire plan by stepping up airstrikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo that the United States would cease Syria talks with Russia if it continued to violate the cease-fire.  In a joint statement, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham perfectly captured the absurdity of this threat.

Finally, a real power move in American diplomacy. Secretary of State John Not Delusional Kerry has made the one threat the Russians feared most – the suspension of U.S.-Russia bilateral talks about Syria. No more lakeside tête-à-têtes at five-star hotels in Geneva. No more joint press conferences in Moscow. We can only imagine that having heard the news, Vladimir Putin has called off his bear hunt and is rushing back to the Kremlin to call off Russian airstrikes on hospitals, schools, and humanitarian aid convoys around Aleppo. After all, butchering the Syrian people to save the Assad regime is an important Russian goal. But not if it comes at the unthinkable price of dialogue with Secretary Kerry.

Warrick and DeYoung cite officials who claim Putin dislikes Clinton because of policy differences and her condemnation of Russian elections.  Many experts have claimed this may be why Russia could be behind the WikiLeaks disclosures of Clinton campaign and DNC emails.  Although I don’t doubt Putin dislikes Clinton, I believe his aggressive policies and possible interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election are in response to his perception of American weakness under the Obama administration and have little to do with any personal animus toward Hillary Clinton. 

The overall consequences of the failed Obama/Clinton/Kerry failed approach to Russia are much more alarming. In recent years there have been significant improvements in Russia’s nuclear ballistic missile arsenals, drastically improved air and missile defenses, and hardened shelters against nuclear attacks, apparently in preparation to survive a nuclear war. Russia also has stepped up economic, cyber, information and intelligence warfare against the United States to undermine American security and create a new global order. 

The Center for Security Policy addresses these issues in a new book, Putin’s Reset: The Bear is Back and How America Must Respond.  This series of essays I edited by nine U.S. national security experts — Dr. Stephen Blank, Kevin D. Freeman, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., Dr. Daniel Gouré, Cliff Kincaid, Roger W. Robinson, Jr, David Satter, Dr. Mark B. Schneider, and Dr. J. Michael Waller — document how the threat from Russia is growing as it gears up, at best, for a do-over of the Cold War. And at worst, how Russia is creating what the Soviets used to call “a correlation of forces” that will enable the Kremlin to engage decisively in actual hostilities against the United States.

The bottom line in this book is that the cluelessness of President Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry undermined American credibility to such an extent that it emboldened Putin’s belligerent and destabilizing behavior.

Strength and resolve are the only language Putin understands.  We haven’t seen that from the Obama administration. I am certain we would not see in in a Clinton presidency. 

I am hopeful that Donald Trump, if he wins the 2016 presidential election, will launch a new U.S. approach to Russia that deals with Russia from a position of strength and restores a relationship of trust and respect between Moscow and Washington.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.


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