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Conservatives have reason to be optimistic about 2016. The ample supply of viable Republican candidates seems to grow every week, and should they (or at least the more comb-over adorned among them) keep the internecine squabbling short of apoplectic levels, the Republican nominee will enter the general election with the chance to put a fresh face on American leadership.
Opposing them is a Clinton campaign of the mind that generating no news is better than being held to account for anything uttered in the buildup to the primaries. Despite her perfunctory tour of the nation, the USS Hilldog rests in stagnant waters. The most prominent media it can expect for the near future will be the State Department’s monthly email dumps. These should fasten even more barnacles to She-Who-is-Inevitable.
Let us assume that Clinton is in fact just that, at least for the Democratic nomination. She will sell voters the following: inequality rhetoric, a hard-line on immigration, and defense of the Affordable Care Act. In short, she will present herself as their heir to Barack Obama’s coalition, using all the best practices in consultant-based identity politics, and like her predecessor, hers will be a domestic agenda.
We’ve thoroughly documented the many disappointments of her State Department tenure. Her own record will confine Mrs. Clinton’s talking points to euphemism and frivolous accomplishments. When the Administration followed her lead, failure ensued (e.g., Libya). Should Mrs. Clinton draw attention to where she and the President disagreed (Clinton was an early proponent of arming pre-ISIS Syrian rebels), she risks badmouthing his record in front of what will still be his audience. Expect her to minimize any mention of goings-on outside of the United States.
The Republican candidate should step into this void with gusto.
They should (and will) harangue President Obama and his abdication of global leadership, and Mrs. Clinton for her bungling of, well, everything she touched. But they shouldn’t settle for Sean Hannity-style bromides about appeasement. They must make principled, nuanced arguments about why the United States is uniquely suited to lead and its declared enemies entitled to no grievance or ambition at our expense.
They should start by having a conversation about Russia, and give the voters some insight into Mrs. Clinton’s myopia and the true nature of our past rival’s reincarnation. The Obama Administration’s outlook on Russia is a prime example of Hope and Change as a substitute for foreign policy. It’s a mindset in which our President foregoes consideration of history’s lessons as well as plain facts about the person of Vladimir Putin.
Pretend it’s 2009. What do we know about Vladimir Putin? Well, for starters, he was a 16-year veteran of the KGB, an organization he didn’t leave until the death throes of the Soviet Union. Then let’s consider his 2005 Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, in which he said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century,” and consider the implications of his very next words: “As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” Then let’s look at the mockery of the democratic process Putin orchestrated in 2008 to perpetuate his stranglehold of Russian politics. Oh, and he had just invaded Georgia. These examples might suggest a man hungry for power, if not empire.
To be fair, Barack Obama is not the first President to misconceive Mr. Putin. But it would have been nice if President Obama had learned something from his predecessor. Was it necessary to talk up the placatory reset policy? The Obama Administration’s first significant change in our policy toward Russia, in 2009, was to scrap a proposed missile defense system staunchly opposed by Mr. Putin. It was to be built in coordination with the Czech Republic and Poland in anticipation of Iranian intercontinental capabilities. In return for folding their hand early in the game, the Administration received nothing, least of all a reduction in weapons sales to Iran.
In April this year, in a remorseless bit of irony, Russia lifted its 2007 ban on the sale of its advanced S-300 missile defense system to (who else?) Iran.
As late as 2012, President Obama, on the national stage, deprecated Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was a geopolitical threat. The wishful thinking implicit in this flippant sound bite is the perfect encapsulation of this administration’s outlook. In early 2013, Clinton wrote a memo to the President telling him that the reset with Russia was over and done with. Better late than never.
This should not stop the Republican nominee from beating this dead horse into the tundra. Secretary Clinton and President Obama read the tea leaves exactly wrong, and made a substantial pre-emptive concession to a despot. They will offer excuses for having withdrawn from our defense plans with the Eastern Europeans. They will say that they were an obstacle in the way of a new START Treaty. They will mention technological concerns about the defense system, and point to the alternative naval-based system favored by Obama. Nonsense. They withdrew because there was a latent notion that former Warsaw Pact territory falls under the Russian sphere of influence, that the USA had overstepped in its suggested NATO expansion, and on marginal issues like the location of missile defense hubs, the USA ought to show Mr. Putin some deference.
I want to see the Republican nominee carefully address this idiocy. And please, when pointing out the failure of appeasement, be specific. State with loaded inflection that in 2009, Vladimir Putin threatened to place its most advanced ballistic missile system in Kaliningrad. Our withering in the face of this threat postponed this aggressive act by three years.
We should also reject the notion that authoritarian and theocratic states can and should become successful regional powers. This applies to Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East. The United States stands firm with former Warsaw Pact nations because they are former Warsaw Pact nations. They are among the most steadfast supporters of democracy today because they endured communism and Russian imperialism.
There are no easy answers for dealing with the Russians. But our relationship with the them over the last six and a half years should clear indicate what not to do. This administration has given Republicans plenty of material to work with. If they take off the kid gloves, they will win in 2016.
(Illustration from Punch, 1911. Caption: “If we hadn’t a thorough understanding, I might almost be tempted to ask what you are doing there with our little playfellow.”)