Spiteful Obama Lashes Out at Netanyahu and Putin (and Trump) But Hits America Too

Mr. Obama’s efforts seem directed more at his successor than at any serious U.S. foreign policy objective.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Listen to author Paul Saunders on NPR discussing Trump and Russia.

One need not admire Benjamin Netanyahu or Vladimir Putin or, for that matter, approve of Israeli or Russian conduct, to see Barack Obama’s recent efforts to punish the two states for what they really are. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s efforts seem directed more at his successor than at any serious U.S. foreign policy objective. The outgoing president’s efforts to tie President-Elect Donald Trump’s hands in both domestic and foreign policy appear particularly un-presidential after his petulant complaints that America should have only one president at a time—a rule he apparently sees as applying in only one direction as he defiantly disregards the deference typically shown to an incoming commander-in-chief.

On Israel, Mr. Obama had to know that America’s abstention in voting on a United Nations Security Council Resolution critical of Israel would neither change Israeli settlement policy nor undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political standing in his country. He should also have known that the move would not improve U.S. relations with Arab states, both because Mr. Trump stated that he would block UN sanctions on Israel and because the Arabs themselves are increasingly preoccupied with Iran and Islamist extremism and, accordingly, care much less about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process today than in the past. On the contrary, if passing an anti-Israeli resolution nurtures false hopes among Palestinians and their international supporters, then the Trump administration’s almost inevitable reversals could fuel new anti-U.S. resentment, terrorist attacks, and American deaths.

Moreover, while President Obama is pretending that his representatives at the United Nations have done nothing more than to abstain during a Security Council vote, important evidence supports Mr. Netanyahu’s claim that the administration went well beyond that. Draft resolutions do not simply appear on the Security Council’s agenda; U.S. officials reportedly had repeated opportunities to block the resolution from coming to a vote, to lobby other governments, and to soften the text. That they made no meaningful effort to intervene at any point illustrates starkly that this was an intentional effort at personal payback by an outgoing president against an Israeli leader whom he apparently despises. This petty score-settling—without accomplishing anything useful and quite possibly at the expense of U.S. national security—makes Mr. Obama look pathetic and vindictive rather than tough or purposeful.

The same is true of President Obama’s new measures to punish Russia, which his administration describes as a response to Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and some other American individuals and organizations as well as Russia’s broader interference in the U.S. political process. The issue is not whether Russia has engaged in hacking or espionage in the United States—it almost certainly has. The real question is why Moscow’s conduct has so shocked him. After authorizing millions of dollars in U.S. government spending to shape Russia’s domestic politics, explicitly targeting Mr. Putin’s close associates and supporters with sanctions, and personally criticizing the Russian leader, did Mr. Obama really think that Russia would not look for a way to retaliate in kind? Cyber-intrusions and intelligence gathering in foreign nations are hardly alien to America’s security services. The lack of moral equivalence between U.S. policies to promote freedom in Russia and Russian attempts to interfere in America’s democratic process is no excuse for his blindness.

Another question is why Mr. Obama had to respond to Russia’s behavior at this late point in his presidency. According to President Obama, Russia’s political hacking has stopped. He has not presented any evidence—or even any claims—that Moscow affected the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. This suggests that Russia’s actions were not that significant. In that case, why not allow investigations to proceed and leave the matter to President Trump and the next Congress?

Conversely, if Russia’s transgressions were so severe that they required an immediate response, why has the Obama administration done so little? Forcing thirty-five Russian diplomats to leave the country and shutting down two recreational facilities will hardly damage Russia or compel Mr. Putin to change his ways. Nor will this substantially diminish Russia’s intelligence-gathering capabilities in the United States beyond the short term.

In fact, some proposed shutting down these very facilities to President Ronald Reagan after the Soviet Union shot down South Korean passenger jet in 1983. Mr. Reagan, who was quite effectively fighting Soviet expansionism, disregarded this advice because he saw depriving diplomats of their recreational facilities as not only petty but inconsequential. Not so Mr. Obama, who criticized Governor Mitt Romney’s harder line toward Russia in the 2012 campaign by saying that the 1980s were calling and wanted their foreign policy back. At least Mr. Romney was looking to Cold War policies that worked; President Obama has instead chosen the discarded leftovers.