Politics

President Obama’s ‘Naïve’ Approach to Russia

At final news conference, he casts Putin's aggressiveness in personal terms

President Obama Wednesday reflected on Russia, putting sour relations in very personal terms.

Obama said during the final news conference of his presidency that he reached out to Russia, but that Russian President Vladimir Putin batted him away. He said Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 touched off “an escalating anti-America rhetoric and an approach to global affairs that seem to be premised on the idea that whatever America’s trying to do must be bad for Russia and so, ‘We want to try to counteract what they do.'”

“What makes Obama so dangerous … is his persistence with this,” he said. “Obama has been the leader of the pack in resisting meaningful sanctions.”

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Obama said he attempted in good faith to reorient America’s relationship with Russia.

“At the beginning of my term, I did what I could to encourage Russia to be a constructive member of the international community and tried to work with the president and the government of Russia in helping them diversify their economy, improve their economy, use the incredible talents of the Russian people in more constructive ways,” he said.

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Robert Kaufman, an expert in U.S. foreign policy and a professor at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, said Putin and Russia are pursing geo-strategic interests. It is “naïve” to believe Russia’s actions are connected to the identity of the American president, he said.

Kaufman, author of “Dangerous Doctrine: How Obama’s Grand Strategy Weakened America,” said such a belief may have been excusable in 2009.

“What makes Obama so dangerous … is his persistence with this,” said Kaufman. “Obama has been the leader of the pack in resisting meaningful sanctions … It’s all personal when it comes to him.”

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Obama said at the news conference that the Russo-American relationship has become strained. “It was hammered home when Russia went into Crimea and portions of the Ukraine,” he said.

Yet Obama spoke with pride about the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II that resulted in a reduction of nuclear arms in both countries, and said he hopes for further reductions.

“I was prepared to go further,” he said. “I told President Putin I was prepared to go further. They were unwilling to negotiate … I think there remains a lot of room for both our countries to reduce our nuclear stockpiles.”

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Kaufman said the sanctions that Obama imposed after the Ukraine invasion were woefully inadequate and that the arms treaty shifted the balance of power toward Russia by scaling back America’s nuclear missile defense system.

He said Trump has made statements about Russia that are troubling as well. But he added he has more confidence in Trump’s defense and foreign policy team and in the incoming president’s willingness to build up defenses. He said he does not think Trump will show weakness, which Russia interprets as an invitation to run roughshod over American interests.

Kaufman said Obama behaved as if history is inevitable.

“He believes he’s above the rules and that he sees the arc of history more clearly than others,” he said.

Obama touched on a number of other topics during the news conference:

  • On the fact that many congressional Democrats have vowed to boycott Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday: “I’m not going to comment on those issues. All I can tell you is that I’m gonna be there.”
  • On his failure to bring peace between the Palestinians and Israel in their long-running dispute: Obama blamed the “rightward drift” of Israeli politics. He said the only chance for peace is for Israel to accept a two-state solution. “Ultimately, what has always been clear is that we cannot force the parties to arrive at peace. What we can do is facilitate, provide a platform, encourage, but we can’t force them to do it.”
  • On LGBT rights: Obama said he is proud of the state of rights for the community, but said the “real heroes” are individual activists who changed hearts and minds.
  • On voting rights: Obama said America should work to encourage voting: “We are the only country in the advanced world that makes it harder to vote, rather than easier. And that dates back. There’s an ugly history to that.”

Obama said he will use his post-presidency to speak out on behalf of the marginalized. And in an implicit rebuke to those who have cast Trump voters as bigots, Obama suggested the elitist attitudes contributed to the outsider’s victory.

“There are a whole bunch of folks who voted for the president-elect because they feel forgotten and disenfranchised,” he said. “They feel as if they’re being looked down upon. They feel as if their kids aren’t going to have the same opportunities as they did. And we don’t want to have an America in which a very small sliver of people are doing very well and everybody else is fighting for scraps.”

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