Last week, President Obama made a decision to use the last days of his presidency to make life more difficult for his successor, introducing sanctions against Russia over rumors of ‘Russian hacking’ of the US election. But observers warn that instead of trying to reignite the Cold War, the US would do better to use its energy to fight terrorism.
On Thursday, outgoing US President Barack Obama announced the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, the closure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in the US, and sanctions against six individuals and five entities, including the GRU (the Main Intelligence Directorate), and the FSB (the Federal Security Service) over unfounded allegations of Russian interference in the US presidential election in November.
President Obama’s parting short at Russia, and presumably at his successor, Donald Trump, who has made promises to improve relations with Moscow, has led to criticism, not just from Russian observers, but from pundits in the mainstream US media, who berated the president for his perceived ‘weakness’, and recognized that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ‘outmaneuvered and outplayed’ Obama when he refused to respond in-kind.
But critics had other reasons to censure the president. According National Interest magazine contributors Dimitri K. Simes and Paul J. Saunders, President Obama’s recent diplomatic maneuvers against Russia and Israel are not just petty politicking, but harm US interests and even risk American lives.
For example, Simes and Saunders warned that the fallout over the US abstention in the UN vote against Israeli settlements may nurture false hopes among Palestinians, which would then make “the Trump administration’s almost inevitable reversals” dangerous, “fuel[ing] new anti-US resentment, terrorist attacks, and American deaths.” Obama’s actions, they warned, look like a petty effort at personal payback that accomplishes nothing. On the contrary, they threaten US national security.
In the case of the sanctions that were initiated over allegations of Russian hacking, the authors suggested that this effort too seemed bizarre. Obama, they recalled, “has not presented any evidence – or even any claims – that Moscow affected the outcome of the US 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,” the article added, “if Russia’s transgressions were so severe that they required an immediate response, why has the Obama administration done so little?” Closing down a couple of recreational facilities, and forcing 35 diplomats out “will hardly damage Russia,” Simes and Saunders noted. They won’t even “substantially diminish Russia’s intelligence-gathering capabilities” in the US over the long term.
In fact, the authors noted, all that Obama actually did was use “excessively dramatic rhetoric to camouflage a remarkably weak response.” Worse than that, they warned, “sanctions like this may well impose greater costs on the United States than on Russia by stymieing counter-terrorism cooperation.”
The analysts recalled that poor communication between Russia and US intelligence has already borne its bitter fruit on previous occasions, including when the Tsarnaev brothers carried out the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. In October, President Putin pointed out that Washington ignored two Russian attempts to warn it of the danger posed by the Tsarnaevs.
“With this in mind,” Simes and Saunders stressed, “President Obama’s political grandstanding poses real risks to the lives of American citizens, in exchange for little if any foreign policy or national security benefits.” Indeed, they added, “all that Mr. Obama has managed to do is to look angry and ineffective – something that Putin’s restraint only highlights.”
The idea that Obama’s moves may pose a threat to US national security has been one of the key points made by US and Russian political analysts who commented to the Russian media about last week’s events.
For example, according to Earl Rasmussen, vice president of the Eurasia Center, a Washington based non-profit, there could hardly be a worse time for President Obama to try to further worsen relations with Moscow. Rasmussen told RIA Novosti that “the world is facing the growing threat of terrorism,” and that “under these circumstances there is a real need to work together with Russia, especially in the Middle East.” Instead, the US President has decided to try and hamper possible cooperation.
Rasmussen stressed that the US and Russia must minimize hostile rhetoric, and “work together to normalize relations and to eliminate threats to international security,” including terrorism. It is absurd, he said, that the current administration has continued to “directly or indirectly support terrorists whose organizations played a direct role in the tragic events of September 11, 2001,” presumably referring to US support for al-Qaeda offshoot al-Nusra in Syria.
Ultimately, the political analyst noted that he sincerely hopes President-elect Trump can successfully navigate policy “minefields” and a record of hostile rhetoric left to him by the Obama administration after stepping into office.