Over the last few weeks I have repeatedly made the point that Barack Obama’s recent moves, especially his criticisms of Israel and his hyping up of the hacking scandal against Russia, are first and foremost intended to box in and undermine his successor Donald Trump.
What is interesting is how what was essentially a lone view when I first expressed it ten days ago is now rapidly becoming the consensus. Obama’s moves and Putin’s counter-moves of the last three days has brought all this into stark relief by making Obama’s motives altogether too transparent.
A flood of articles appeared in the British and US media yesterday, some written in an obviously gloating tone, lauding the “difficult dilemma” in which Obama had supposedly placed Trump by imposing more sanctions on Russia.
Supposedly Trump now faced a choice: either he rescinded the sanctions, in which case he risked being branded (including by some leaders of his own party) as a stooge of the Kremlin, or he failed to do so, in which case he supposedly risked antagonising Putin and the Russians.
Either way the legitimacy of his election would be called into question, with the claim he owed his election to Russian election manipulation being given extra force.
This was of course exactly the point I made shortly after the new sanctions were introduced
The true target of these sanctions is Donald Trump.
By imposing sanctions on Russia, Obama is lending the authority of the Presidency to the CIA’s claims of Russian hacking, daring Trump to deny their truth.
If Trump as President allows the sanctions to continue, he will be deemed to have accepted the CIA’s claims of Russian hacking as true. If Trump cancels the sanctions when he becomes President, he will be accused of being Russia’s stooge.
It is a well known lawyer’s trick, and Obama the former lawyer doubtless calculates that either way Trump’s legitimacy and authority as President will be damaged, with the insinuation that he owes his Presidency to the Russians now given extra force.
Lots of these articles appeared – a sure sign by the way of a pre-arranged campaign – with this article in Bloomberg serving as just one example. Note the title – “Trump Must Choose Between Obama Sanctions and Putin Detente” – and its opening paragraph
Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin are forcing Donald Trump to pick sides: undo sanctions the U.S. just imposed on Russia for hacking e-mails before last month’s election or set aside a campaign vow to improve relations with Moscow.
Along with these articles there was also what was surely a pre-arranged chorus of support for Obama’s move from various members of Congress, including several prominent Republicans.
Much has been made of these comments, especially those of Republican leaders like Paul Ryan. These people have however never liked Trump, or his moves towards detente with Russia, so the fact they lent themselves to this campaign is not surprising. Trump’s support does not come from these people, but from the Republican base.
The key point about Putin’s response yesterday is that it has made clear that the “difficult dilemma” Obama thought he was creating for Trump does not exist.
By blaming Obama for the sanctions, by getting his diplomats to call Obama a “lame duck”, and by refusing to respond in kind, Putin and the Russians have enabled Trump to sidestep the trap Obama laid for him, and have given him the political space he needs to forge ahead with his policy of improving relations with Russia.
In other words what Putin is doing is signalling that he does not require Trump to lift the latest sanctions as a condition for improving relations with Russia. Putin will not allow the future improvement of US-Russian relations to be held hostage to Obama’s spoiling tactics.
This explains Trump’s response to Putin’s move. Trump’s now famous tweet – “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” – is not only an acknowledgment by Trump of Putin’s cleverness. It reflects Trump’s relief that Putin is giving him the political space he needs by refusing to be goaded by Obama into action that might box Trump in.
At the same time the overtly transparent tone of the campaign, with the frank admission that Obama’s motive was to box in Trump, has effectively given the whole game away.
That this is so is shown by the extent to which sections of the Western media are now frankly acknowledging the motivations behind Obama’s and Putin’s various moves.
Again an article by Tim Stanley in the Daily Telegraph may serve as a good example. It begins with the title “Putin has helped Trump escape Obama’s trap” and then discusses with intelligently and factually the motives behind the various moves. Here is what it has to say about Obama’s
t would be nice to say that America’s spat with Russia is all about national security, but let’s not be naïve. Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach is defined by rapprochement with Russia – and Barack Obama is clearly trying to limit his room for manoeuvre when he takes over in the New Year. By taking such a tough stance with Russia, Obama hopes to force Trump either to acknowledge Putin’s aggression and follow suit, which would amount to a u-turn, or repudiate Obama’s actions and risk looking weak.
(bold italics added)
It then discusses Putin’s counter-move and the reasons behind it
It is a game of chess, and Obama played a clever move. By expelling Russian diplomats on Thursday he tried to commit the United States to one line of policy: confrontation. Happily for the Democrats, this also split the Republicans. Hawks such as John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Paul Ryan welcomed Obama’s action as necessary if belated. What would Trump do?
On the other side of the world, Putin prepared to move his pieces – and did nothing. Better, he decided, to treat Obama as a lame duck and ignore him. Play the long game and wait for Trump to take over.Happily for Trump, this means that he doesn’t inherit a frozen diplomatic Cold War on January 20. The reset of Russian relations is more likely to go ahead.
Whether or not the hacking succeeded in depressing Democratic turnout, to interfere in US internal affairs is a hostile act that demands a firm bipartisan response. That unified front has not appeared. On the contrary, the insouciant reaction of President-elect Trump to the hacking has handed the diplomatic initiative to Mr Putin. Yesterday the Russian leader conspicuously declined to follow the urging of his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to impose tit-for-tat expulsions of US diplomats. With calculated fulsomeness, Mr Putin invited the children of US diplomats to new year parties in the Kremlin.;Russia, he said, would not “stoop” to the level of “irresponsible diplomacy” but would work to restore ties with the US under President-elect Trump. The lofty riposte allowed Mr Putin to win this diplomatic bout and he now undoubtedly hopes that Mr Trump will be a more malleable diplomatic partner on entering the White House next month. That should serve as a warning to the US and its allies. Russia’s diplomatic aims have been triumphantly served in 2016 by a lack of resolution on the part of western democracies. Extraordinarily, the Russian embassy in London posted online an insulting response to Mr Obama’s actions, comparing him to a lame duck.
This cannot be allowed to go on. Britain has a part to play in making life difficult for hostile Russian interventions. It should start by demanding swift regulatory action against the Russian propaganda outlets Russia Today and Sputnik, both with bases in Britain. Meddling with western democratic procedures is an outrage; it must bear a heavy cost.
To which one need only respond by wondering what RT (not Russia Today) and Sputnik have to do with any of this; and by referring to a comment by one of The London Times’s own readers
“Putin’s Provocation” This is just getting beyond ridiculous. If Putin were to eject American diplomats he would have been presented as pariah, Putin decides not to eject American diplomats and that is presented as provocation.
The fundamental problem with Obama’s scheme was that it depended on Putin and the Russians reacting as he expected them to react: imposing counter-sanctions and reciprocal expulsions of diplomats. When they failed to react as Obama expected, his scheme unravelled; in The London Times’s words “allowing Mr. Putin to win this diplomatic bout”.
It is the sort of mistake clever people who (like Obama) are not quite as clever as they believe they are, routinely make.
In the process the obviously partisan way in which Obama is using the hacking scandal is creating more and more doubts about it.
A good example is this article in Rolling Stone – “Something about this Russia Story Stinks” – written by someone who clearly has no time for either Putin or Trump, but who is becoming increasingly concerned by the all too obviously manipulated nature of this story. Reading through the article one comes across comments like this
The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.
If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now…..
…….Also, like the WMD story, there’s an element of salesmanship the government is using to push the hacking narrative that should make reporters nervous. Take this line in Obama’s statement about mistreatment of American diplomats in Moscow:
“Moreover, our diplomats have experienced an unacceptable level of harassment in Moscow by Russian security services and police over the last year.”
This appears to refer to an incident this summer in which an American diplomat was beaten outside the diplomatic compound in Moscow. That followed a 2013 case in which a U.S. diplomat named Ryan Fogle was arrested in similar fashion…..
If the Russians messed with an election, that’s enough on its own to warrant a massive response – miles worse than heavy-handed responses to ordinary spying episodes. Obama mentioning these humdrum tradecraft skirmishes feels like he’s throwing something in to bolster an otherwise thin case.”
(bold italics added)
Obama is now promising a further report, which will supposedly provide more evidence to back his story of Russian interference in the election. However this report too will apparently fail to disclose evidence that is said to be ‘classified’. This does make the story look increasingly like the Iraq WMD scandal, with one ‘dodgy dossier’ succeeding another.
As for Obama, very late in his Presidency he has now been given a lesson on how unwise it is to try to beat the Russians at diplomatic chess.