The Washington Post last week published a big story about the Obama administration’s struggles to figure out how to deal with what the intelligence agencies were telling, during the final months of the 2016 campaign, about the Russian attack on our election system.
That story has apparently led to a disagreement among Democrats about the rightness and necessity of the very restrained path that the Obama people ended up taking.
One group looks at all the reasons for caution, and concludes that the right decisions were made under the circumstances, or at least that the decisions were reasonable given what was then known (including the apparent likelihood that Hillary Clinton would win the election anyway).
The other group looks at that same caution and bemoans the choices, which ended up helping Donald Trump become president.
I am strongly of the latter camp.
This is not to say that I do not recognize that there were factors that rightly weighed on the side of that caution. But I have been arguing — since the 2000 election; since the vote to authorize the use of force in 2002; since the failure to censure, much less impeach W, since the failure of President Obama to make a scandal out of the scandalous Republican across-the-board obstructionism — that the Democrats let themselves get intimidated and pushed around by the Republicans too much for their own good, and especially too much for the nation’s good.
And I can barely bear to follow that Washington Post story, because I find it so painful and frustrating to see how this pattern of intimidation and appeasement continued into this past disastrous election, rewarding the Republicans for disgraceful behavior, and in this case helping to give us this monstrous Trump presidency that Putin sought to inflict onto the United States..
As fond as I am of Barack Obama, and as much as I regard him as one of the most thoroughly decent people ever to occupy the presidency, I want to use this instance of Obama’s wrong-headed decision-making to provide a clear image of what we should not want our leaders to do in the face of the wrong-doing of our opponents.
Democrats seem to be gaining backbone in the age of Trump. But old habits die hard, and it is important to keep underscoring what we need to have learned.
So here, below, I will attempt to lay-out — as an object lesson — President Obama’s pattern of intimidation and appeasement as it appears in this episode.
(This episode is emblematic of the one major area of failure of the Obama presidency. And, moreover, Obama’s failure is but a somewhat exaggerated version of a failure on the part of Democrats — and of Liberal America generally — that has been visible throughout this era.)
The starting point here is this: America’s premier intelligence agency — the CIA — had a strong finding that a hostile nation was attacking the heart of America’s political system, our electoral process.
No small thing. Can anyone imagine American leaders ignoring — because of political considerations — a conventional military assault, of similar magnitude and seriousness, from a powerful adversary?
Intimidated by Trump
First, the Obama people faced the problem that Trump had already been campaigning with the message– unsupported by a shred of evidence or justification — that the election was “rigged,” and that the only way he could lose is if they “cheated.”
The Obama people reportedly feared that calling the public’s attention to the problems with the Russian hacking would somehow play into Trump’s word to his supporters that the election was rigged. There was concern about what disreputable rhetorical use Trump would make of President Obama’s informing the public being informed that the Russians were meddling in our election system, and that the Russian’s purposes clearly included trying to pull Hillary Clinton down and get Trump elected.
To begin with, this was a situation that called for a President’s informing the public, just as JFK went on television to tell the American people when American intelligence spotted Russian missiles being installed in Cuba. This was a national security issue. It was not right — for the nation — to allow fear of wholly unjustified political attacks from the GOP to dictate a decision to inhibit the president’s doing the presidential thing.
More to the present point: allowing oneself to be intimidated was a bad way to play the politics. a) It rewarded Donald Trump for his disreputable tactics, i.e. the way he was irresponsibly talking about the “rigging” of the election; b) Allowing oneself to be intimidated by the expectation that Trump would unleash additional lies and distortions reflects an under-estimation of the strength of the president’s own position, acting as he would have been on an important national security matter and on the basis of such strong information from a highly credible source.
It was a battle forfeited that should have been fought and won– like so many battles against the Republicans that have been forfeited by Democrats over the years.
Intimidated by McConnell
Second, the Obama people later made an attempt to get leaders of both parties to join with the administration in making the situation public. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to cooperate in going public with this very important news. Moreover he threatened that he would attack the administration for using such public announcements for illegitimate political purposes if Obama took the matter public.
Again, such a threat — of some disgraceful, unjustified, and illegitimate tactics and accusations from McConnell and the Republicans — should never have governed Obama’s decision. Again, the administration had the CIA’s strong information on its side. Again, the public deserved to know that an adversary was attacking our democracy. And again, the President forfeited rather than fought a battle in which he held the stronger hand.
(I would have dared McConnell to make good his threat: “Go ahead, make my day. I’ll have no trouble showing the American people that it is you and your fellow Republicans who are playing politics with this issue, with your refusal to help as act as patriotic Americans to protect our democracy from a serious assault from this nation’s most dangerous adversary.”)
Intimidated by the Russians
Third, we also read that the Obama administration was afraid to take counter-measures against the Russians because they feared that the Russians might have the capacity to do still more damage to our election, and they feared that counter-measures would provoke the Russians into attacking the election even more aggressively.
Hello? Come again? The fact that the Russians might have the ability to attack us even more severely intimidated you? Are you serious?
Here we are, as we have been virtually every moment of our lives, in a situation where the Russians have the ability to destroy virtually ever American city with their nuclear weapons. And you feel unable to deter them from escalating their attack on our election?
The idea that they can hurt our election system should hardly add to our knowledge that we are vulnerable to them. The more suitable response, in view of their aggression against the heart of our democracy, is to do what we think appropriate and to add to that a warning. “You have attacked us, we are exacting a price. Let it stop there. Escalating your attack further would be taken as a completely intolerable unfriendly act, and would provoke a most serious response from us.”
In each case, the president was in a stronger position than his adversaries. But in each case, he allowed his fear of what his adversaries — Trump, McConnell, Putin — would do if he did what the nation required the president of the United States to do in the face of this grave assault on our democracy.
We Need to be Led by Fighters
The Democrats have been intimidated by the Republicans for years. Obama’s main shortcoming is Liberal America’s shortcoming taken to an extreme degree.
Here’s one more instance, which helps illustrate the overall pattern of allowing the fear of the response by Republicans to dictate decisions that –invariably, so far as I have been able to see — lead to bad outcomes for Democrats and for the nation.
When Obama came into office, he faced a situation in which there was substantial evidence that serious crimes had been committed by the preceding president and his inner circle.
But Obama feared how the Republicans and their supporters would react if he pursued investigating and, quite likely, prosecuting those Bush-era crimes.
Although President Obama had just taken an oath of office to defend the Constitution, and to see that the laws were faithfully enforced, he allowed himself to be intimidated by the threat of the Republicans waging political battle. And so he declared that he, the President of the United States, would “look forward, not backward” and not pursue any of those apparent crimes. (Rejecting “looking backward,” of course, necessarily implies not enforcing the law, because crimes can be prosecuted only when they’ve been committed, which always means that law-enforcement must “look backward.”)
(At the time, I proposed that he establish a blue ribbon panel, and charge them thus: “I’ve sworn an oath to …. There are credible reasons to believe that crimes may have been committed by the previous administration. Look into that situation, please, and tell me and the nation how I should best fulfill me oath of office and best serve our nation.”)
Obama’s decision –due to his being intimidated by the prospect that prosecution would lead to the Republicans waging political war against him — gained him nothing: The Republicans relentlessly attacked and denigrated him anyway. A lawless presidency was given a free pass, setting unfortunate precedents, and the Republican fomenting of division could not have been any more intense had Obama made sure that the laws were faithfully enforced.
Every time the Democrats have allowed themselves to be intimidated into appeasing the Republicans — fearing the GOP lies and crimes and acts of aggression — it has only enabled the dark force on the right to grow stronger. (I can’t think of a single instance in which appeasing the Republicans has led to a favorable outcome.)
It will always be important to choose one’s battles wisely. But we in Liberal America should recognize that allowing themselves to be intimidated has been our leaders’ consistent error. And we should seek out leaders who do not shrink from the fight.
Studying this pattern of intimidation and poor outcomes should help fix in our minds that this is not a pattern that serves us or the nation well.