The Skeptics

Trump and Obama: On Foreign Policy, Two Peas in a Pod

There are two lines of effort in the current campaign against Republican nominee Donald Trump. First, his Democratic opponents stigmatize him as Russian president Vladimir Putin’s lackey, as someone who would be ready to appease the aggressor in the Kremlin. Second, they contrast him with Barack Obama, a supposed Russia skeptic, and let’s-get-tough-with-Putin Hillary Clinton. These attacks should make sense only to someone who has been under coma in the last eight years. In fact, Trump’s differences on foreign policy with Obama are as much style as substance.

“I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin,” President Barack Obama said during a press conference in the Pentagon last Thursday. Discussing a proposed plan to share intelligence and coordinate airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, Obama said that whenever the U.S. was trying to broker that kind of deal with a leader like Putin or with a country like Russia, “you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

The Democratic president's comments were made on the same day that former CIA Director Michael Morell, in an op-ed piece he authored for The New York Times, called Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, “an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” During the Cold War, he would have probably referred to him as the Soviet Union’s “useful idiot.”

Morrell’s allegation echoed similar criticism of Trump’s views of U.S. relationship with Moscow, including his repeated praise for Putin’s leadership, his call for American-Russian cooperation in a campaign to defeat ISIS, and remarks that seemed to suggest that he supported U.S. recognition of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and encouraged Russians to hack into Clinton’s email server.

Indeed, supporters of the Democratic presidential nominee as well as #NeverTrump Republicans like Morell have launched a series of attacks against the former real estate magnate, portraying him as the Kremlin’s puppet. If elected as the U.S. president, the so-called “Siberian Candidate” would end up helping promote Putin’s long-term strategic and economic interests.

In fact, the notion that Trump was being groomed to become Putin’s Man in Washington seemed to be part of a wider election campaign strategy that aimed to convince American voters that the former reality-show host wasn’t qualified to manage U.S. national security, that he “shouldn't have his finger on the button,” as Clinton had put it, and that he lacked the “judgment, the temperament, the understanding” to manage America’s role in the world,” according to Obama.

But setting aside Trump’s erratic persona and level of familiarity with global affairs (which are legitimate grounds to question his qualifications for the job of a president), his critics pointed to his position on U.S.-Russian relationship as just another example of what was troubling them: The GOP presidential nominee’s “America First” agenda—accommodating authoritarian Russia and China; reassessing U.S. security commitments across the Atlantic and the Pacific; advocating a gradual military disengagement from the Middle East—challenges the notion that the United States should maintain its global leadership role.

From that perspective, while President Obama and Clinton are committed to traditional internationalist foreign-policy principles that enjoy bipartisan support in Washington, Trump is an “isolationist” whose views on Russia, NATO and the Middle East would amount to a dramatic transformation of U.S. global strategy.

Yet in fact, the current occupant of the White House who proclaimed last week that he was “not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin,” happened to be the same president who three years ago, in one of the most defining moments of his presidency, accepted a deal proposed by Putin that avoided a military confrontation between the United States and Russia’s proxy in Syria. Obama withdrew his earlier threat to use military power against Syria if it crossed “red lines” by using chemical weapons. And by relying on the goodwill of the Kremlin, he embraced the diplomacy advanced by Putin, a man that he now apparently considers to be untrustworthy.

Or to put it in more concrete terms, President Obama and his proclaimed successor in office are now castigating Trump for espousing the contours of a policy the White House had pursued in 2013: Cooperating with Russia as part of an effort to resolve a diplomatic crisis in the Middle East and doing that by agreeing to leave Assad in power in Damascus.

Let’s be fair to Obama: He made that deal not because he was Putin’s puppet or Assad’s chum. He made the decision based on what he considered to be U.S. national interests and recognition that the American public wasn’t ready to do a rerun of the Iraq War in Syria.

But then let’s also be fair to Trump: It’s not the imaginary Trump-Putin bromance (in fact, the two have never met) that is driving the Republican presidential nominee’s approach on dealing with Russia. He believes that cooperating with the Russians in Syria and in the Middle East and refraining from taking steps to remove Assad from power would be in the national interest of the U.S.