The Administration

Obama settling old grudges — but not against Russian, Israeli leaders


Is President Obama using his final weeks in office to settle personal grudges against Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Obama certainly appears to be settling scores, slamming Russia for trying to meddle in the U.S. election, and abandoning Israel to the untender mercies of the United Nations Security Council.

But if you look past the administration narratives, Obama’s record suggests his animus has less to do with savaging Putin and Netanyahu than with sticking a thumb in the eye of the American electorate and its chosen winner, President-elect Donald Trump.

{mosads}Obama for the past eight years has pursued policies meant to fundamentally transform America, including downsizing its role in the world.


This has entailed downplaying threats, pulling the rug from under America’s allies, and rolling out the red carpet for its foes. Against White House expectations, American voters rejected this approach. With Obama campaigning for Hillary Clinton in last month’s election, Trump won — running on promises to reverse Obama’s legacies.

Now, having promised a smooth transition, Obama is instead directing actions likely to taint or hamstring a Trump presidency.

The cases of Russia and Israel are in many ways different, but on both fronts the White House and State Department have abruptly, post-election, repackaged longstanding trends as crises suddenly too dire to wait for Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

In the case of Russia, the alleged cyber-meddling in America’s 2016 election campaign is certainly cause for alarm.

It warrants investigation, better cyber-defenses, and retaliatory measures far stronger than Obama’s expulsion from the U.S. this week of 35 Russian diplomats and blacklisting of select Russian officials (who happen to be already adept at out-maneuvering sanctions).

But to insinuate — as the Obama administration is doing — that Russian hacking might have tipped the election for Trump, is laughable.

The Democratic emails allegedly hacked and leaked by the Russians were a footnote to the appalling and non-Russian saga of candidate Hillary Clinton’s choice to conduct State Department business for four years over a hacker-friendly home server, and then try to wipe the records.

Nor does it appear there were any Russians involved in the mortifying coda in which some of Clinton’s State Department email traffic turned up on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the since-estranged husband of Clinton’s close aide, Huma Abedin.

Presumably with no help from Russia, those Clinton emails turned up in the course of an FBI investigation into Wiener’s alleged online sexting with an under-age girl.

And for Obama to repackage himself at this late date as America’s last-ditch defender against Russia is a farce. Russian hacking fits into a far larger pattern of Russian predation that for years no-drama Obama has treated as no big deal, responding chiefly with lip service and half-baked sanctions.

Obama from his first year in office pursued policies of appeasement and retreat that invited Russian aggression.

Just connect the dots, from Obama’s 2009 fawning “reset” with Putin, to his 2012 confidential promise, caught on an open microphone, of post-reelection flexibility, to his 2013 handover of his “red line” in Syria to the ministrations of Putin.

Then came Obama’s 2014 de facto acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and Obama’s de facto deference right up to the present date of Russia’s increasingly bold reach back into the Middle East, including air strikes in Syria.

Having declared in 2011 that it was time for Syria’s President Bashar Assad to go, Obama today — following the rise of ISIS and more than 400,000 deaths in Syria’s war — leaves the U.S. sidelined as Russia, Iran and Turkey seek a deal that would strengthen Assad’s grip on power. Small surprise if along the way Putin concluded he could at no serious cost cyber-meddle with the U.S. itself.

With just three weeks left in office, Obama is flat out of time to remedy his eight-years of failure to contain Russia. But Obama does have time, if he harps chiefly on Russian hacking, to smear doubts across the legitimacy of Trump’s election.

That does not qualify as a blow to Putin; it is a gift.

In the case of Israel, Obama prior to the presidential elections of 2012 and 2016 attempted a balancing act.

He showed a clear tilt against the Jewish state, from his 2009 Cairo speech, to his snubbing at the White House of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the 2015 nuclear deal reached with Iran over the protests of Netanyahu.

At the same time, Obama upheld America’s longstanding practice of wielding the U.S. veto in the UN Security Council to defend Israel against the virulent anti-Semitism of the UN.

That lasted until Obama was done trying to win votes for himself or his party.

On Dec. 23, Obama decided with precision post-election timing that Israeli settlements had reached a tipping point, requiring immediate action to preserve his vision of a two-state solution. From his holiday retreat on Hawaii, he ordered America’s abstention from a UN Security Council resolution profoundly damaging to Israel, thus ensuring the resolution would pass.

This resolution limply chides the Palestinians for what translates on the ground into a relentless campaign of terrorism, while targeting Israel harshly and specifically for international opprobrium and declaring as already Palestinian the land that Israel, under a two-state solution, was supposed to be able to trade in “land for peace” talks with the Palestinians.

If Obama’s aim was solely to settle a grudge against Netanyahu, there were many conduits available to him other than the UN. Or, if Obama’s aim was a tough-love attempt to advance Israel’s security and protect its legitimacy, as Secretary of State John Kerry unpersuasively argued in a speech on Dec. 28, that too could have gone around the UN.

But Trump could likely have undone any such maneuvers with relative ease. By allowing the UN Security Council to pass a resolution punishing Israel, Obama has tied the hands of his successor. Now that this resolution is on the UN books, Russia and China can veto any attempt by Trump to have it removed.

That’s an odd move by Obama: to hand Russia far greater influence at the UN over the fate of Israel, while at the same time denouncing Russia as a menacing influence on America’s recent election.

Unless you consider that Obama’s real bottom line is not the settling of personal scores against foreign leaders, but the cementing of a grudge against the promised policies of America’s president-elect, and the Americans who voted for him.

Claudia Rosett is Foreign Policy Fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum, and blogs at

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags A New Beginning Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration Government Hillary Clinton John Kerry Political positions of Donald Trump Politics Presidency of Barack Obama Vladimir Putin
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