Barack Obama’s performance at a conference on disinformation hosted by the Atlantic left observers to wonder whether the former president set out to combat deception or contribute to it.
Almost from the start of his talk, the world Obama described himself navigating bore little resemblance to our shared reality. The president insisted that he had to “drag [Europe] kicking and screaming to respond” to Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. He said that the Vladimir Putin he knew and could work with is not “the same as the person who is now leading this charge.” Obama faulted the West’s intellectual class for succumbing to “complacency” and internalizing the notion that the arc of the moral universe bent inexorably toward democratic liberalism. And when asked what he would do differently if he found himself back in 2013 again, Obama insisted that he did all that could be done given the countervailing forces of history and politics.
Either the former president doesn’t much recall his presidency, or he assumes you won’t.
In the run-up to Russia’s effort to satisfy its territorial ambitions in Ukraine, it was Obama who was among the most vocal proponents of the kind of historical blindness he now criticizes. On September 6, 2013—as the Syrian civil war raged and amid widespread confirmation that his own “red line” for action had been crossed by the Assad regime—Obama argued while on a trip in Russia that we’d reached the end of history. “At least, you know, over the last several decades, there’s been a recognition that neither country benefits from that kind of great power conflict,” Obama told reporters while in St. Petersburg where Moscow was hosting the G20 summit. Conventional war was a threat of the past. Though “large and powerful” states including Russia and China were menacing, “we have the kind of relationship with them where we’re not getting in conflicts of that sort.”
On September 10, 2013, the president made an impassioned appeal to the nation in a prime-time address. “If we fail to act,” Obama said, “the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons.” In that same speech, however, Obama claimed he could not act until he received congressional approval to use force (which the Democrat-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee had already approved). And anyway, he had asked Congress to “postpone a vote to authorize the use of force” because Moscow had swooped in at the last minute with a promise to rid Syria of its chemical stockpiles.
Obama blinked, and Russia subsequently intervened in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime. Assad used the cover provided by international complacency to crush the resistance while feeding the growth of the Islamic State, which would later destabilize Iraq and force Obama to redeploy U.S. forces in that country. When the U.S. was eventually compelled to participate in the Syrian conflict directly, it did so in a far more dangerous environment in which NATO and Russian forces were shooting at each other’s proxies in terrifyingly close proximity to one another.
While Obama credits himself with a strong response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, he insists he couldn’t do more because there was a “strongman who was aligned with Putin” in power and the Ukrainian parliament “still had elements that were linked to the old order.” That strongman, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by that very parliament over his unilateral abrogation of a trade deal with the European Union. As the last several weeks have demonstrated, Ukraine didn’t lack “a sense of national identity” in 2014 that would have allowed the nation to resist the Russian onslaught. They lacked the capabilities to do so.
And that was fine with the Obama White House. From 2009 to 2013, the White House seemed intent only on extricating itself from European affairs. The administration repeatedly canceled plans to provide radar and interceptor missiles to Central European states, withdrew the last American armored units from European soil, and mused publicly about America’s “pivot to Asia” while ending America’s doctrinal commitment to fighting a great-power war on two distinct fronts.
While the Obama administration did pursue sanctions against Moscow in the wake of its attack on Ukraine, they were narrowly targeted. All that “kicking and screaming” must have happened behind closed doors since there’s little evidence for the pressure Obama describes putting on Europe. The Obama White House even lobbied against the passage of sweeping sanctions laws such as the 2012 Magnitsky Act, and the administration never applied them. It was left to the Trump administration to make use of those tools. And when it came time to provide Ukraine with the means to resist Russian aggression, the Obama administration balked. Kyiv asked for anti-tank weapons from the U.S., but the U.S. provided only small boats, body armor, and binoculars.
As for Obama’s hazy recollection of Putin—a man who supposedly bears little resemblance to the rational figure he once knew—we can only conclude that the former president is a terrible judge of character. The Putin he knew was the very same Putin who is implicated in the murder of critical journalists, who tore Grozny to the ground, invaded Georgia, and slaughtered innocents in Syria. Obama knew Putin was “ruthless,” but he did not know he was reckless. How does the president imagine Putin became so risk-prone if not through the many signals he received over the years licensing his audacity? What similarities are there between 2013-2014 and 2021-2022 except for the presence of a Democrat in the Oval Office and the prospect of a renewed nuclear deal with Iran in which Russia plays an instrumental role?
Obama’s self-serving historical revisionism isn’t new. The 44th president is often cast as both master of his domain and a prisoner of circumstances outside his control. It’s a self-serving narrative that should have received a more hostile reception at a “disinformation” conference. American presidents wield a lot of power, and Barack Obama used his to lay the foundations for the more dangerous world we all now inhabit.