Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor and former United Nations ambassador, has offered a new reason President Trump should be considered a patsy for strongmen: He spoke too softly about a diplomatic clash between close ally Canada and strategic regional ally Saudi Arabia. That was the subject of Rice’s recent New York Times op-ed, with the blaring headline: “President Trump: The Autocrats’ Best Friend.”
Branding Trump an authoritarian who admires bullies and thugs is, of course, right in tune with elite Democrats’ karaoke. Leading liberals, from the credentialed Madeleine Albright to the hackish E.J. Dionne and others are warning loudly that Trump is part of a global movement supporting resurgent fascism.
Rice’s argument departs from the flimsy trope that Trump is a puppet, or at least a pal, of Vladimir Putin. (In truth, despite Trump’s objectionable, gushy rhetoric toward the dictator with whom he would forge more peaceable relations, his actual policies have been tough and confrontational toward the Russian Bear.)
Rice’s novel criticism fabricates an ugly slander in veiled defense of her own administration’s failed Middle East policy.
Rewarding Saudi Brutality? Hardly
Some brief background: Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is taking surprising steps to normalize and modernize the Kingdom. He is pursuing these ends, however, by ruthless and brutal means. Commenting on these abuses, Canada’s foreign minister tweeted concerns about jailed dissidents and human rights activists. Saudi Arabia responded aggressively, recalling its ambassador and threatening to disrupt trade and travel between the two countries.
A State Department spokesperson made a brief comment calling upon the nations to resolve their differences diplomatically; the United States cannot do it for them. Rice would have preferred that the United States defend fair Canada’s honor and read bin Salman the riot act. Because Trump didn’t jump in with both feet against the Saudis, she says he’s rewarding Saudi brutality and intransigence.
Rice’s criticism comes poorly from a top advisor to a president whose own damaging foreign policy legacy has been glossed over by the media and awaits examination by historians. In truth, Barack Obama added to Middle East instability and conflict. He is the biggest enabler of state brutality of any modern president, with bloody fingerprints stretching from the Americas across Europe and through the Middle East.
International Relations as 8th-Grade Intrigue
Before explaining that thesis, let’s be clear about something. A critical examination of Obama’s foreign policy is not “whataboutism.” It doesn’t preclude debate or even condemnation of Trump’s actions. It places them in context, helps to identify current political norms and American standards, and tests the credibility of critics with their volume dialed up to 11. Are they sincere critics or merely partisans, blasting Trump for conduct more benign than the abuses they happily perpetuated just a few years ago?
Back to Rice. Her argument is that the U.S. should have been louder on behalf of our close northern ally and it makes international relations sound like 8th-grade intrigue for powerful adults. More important, the attack should be seen as sour grapes and self-justification from the administration that sided with Iran against Saudi Arabia in the competition for major Middle East influence. Obama bet on, and tried to construct, a future with Iran as the regional hegemon.
Trump is making a different bet, cooperating with the Saudis and pressuring Iran. The surprising recent thaw of icy relations between Israel and several other Arab powers suggests Trump’s wager may have been the right call and support American interests. The de facto reshuffling of regional cooperation indicates a number of Arab leaders share American and Israeli concerns about an ascendant Iran ruled by radical Islamist Mullahs pursuing nuclear weapons. Obama is not fond of watching Trump erase his legacy in the sand.
Obama’s Sordid Choices
Rather than make her case in geo-strategic terms however, Obama-loyalist Rice forces it into the Trump-loves-dictators storyline for the simplistic reason that (she says) she fears Trump is speaking too softly about a tiff between two other countries. By taking this tack, Rice invites—practically demands—scrutiny of her former boss’s dealings with tyrants. It’s a sordid story.
One of Obama’s early foreign policy episodes came improbably from Honduras in Central America. President Manuel Zelaya, a would-be Marxist dictator in the mold of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Manuel Ortega, and Nicolás Maduro was maneuvering to run for a constitutionally prohibited second term. The Honduran Supreme Court, legislature, and military were united in opposing Zelaya and seeking his ouster. The military removed Zelaya, while leaving the court and legislature in power.
Simply and awfully, Obama sided with the aspiring autocrat against the rest of the nation. He demanded Zelaya’s reinstatement. Honduras eventually prevailed; Zelaya did not seize another term. But the small and vulnerable country spent years hounded and marginalized by earth’s most powerful nation.
Also early in Obama’s presidency, the Green Revolution broke out in Iran. Students, mothers, shopkeepers, and others courageously protested in the streets against one of the most brutal, oppressive governments on earth. The massive demonstrations earned Obama’s cool indifference.
He didn’t offer a word of moral support to the protestors. He limply observed that he disapproved violence and the world would “bear witness” to events in Iran. Of course, Americans didn’t know Obama was looking forward to his unilateral reversal of American policy. He was steering for the deal that would fortify and enrich the radical Mullahs who were even then torturing many thousands of brave Iranians in the infamous Evin and other prisons.
A Bad Bet on the Muslim Brotherhood
Events played out differently in later Egyptian unrest against strongman Hosni Mubarak. Though no exemplar of human rights, Mubarak had maintained serviceable relations with America, observed Egypt’s historic peace with Israel, and suppressed radical Islamist forces in the nation. Evidently a bad scorecard in Obama’s book. He made clear the United States would offer Mubarak no support and it was time to go. Then, Obama leaned in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood to take power in a national election.
Predictably, the Brotherhood moved to seize total control, quash democratic norms, and silence dissent. Of greater concern to Egyptians, the gang of dictators couldn’t make the trains run, or the water, or the electricity. Conditions collapsed. Unrest flared. Protesting millions flooded the streets. When the military, to the relief of millions of Egyptians, removed the Brotherhood from power, Obama’s resentment was palpable.
Much could be said about Obama’s secretly negotiated and dishonestly sold nuclear deal with Iran approaching the end of his term. The salient point here is not the pact’s defects as arms control, but Obama’s obvious purpose to enrich, empower, and entrench the ruling radicals in Iran. He had no interest in smiling on civic resistance some six years earlier. Now, he was at great pains to elevate some of earth’s worst sponsors of state terror and perpetrators of domestic blood and horror. It defies benign explanation.
Enriching the Castros at America’s Expense
A final example of Obama’s indifference to oppression by the “right” kind of oppressors comes from his opening to Cuba. Fidel and Raul Castro for decades had impoverished a rich and lovely island while visiting pain, horror and hardship on all who speak out. Some critics argued the poverty results from isolation and economic sanctions. Improvement required recognition and the end of sanctions.
Whether they were right or wrong, there obviously was an immense benefit to Cuba’s government in being “normalized,” freed from sanctions, and legitimized on the world stage. A U.S. president who offered those things plainly held enormous leverage to press for human rights, release of political prisoners, and curtailing state oppression. Obama came up empty. Cuba’s living martyrs got nothing. Raul Castro and his cabal of kleptocrats got everything they wanted.
The as yet untold story of Barack Obama is this: He never encountered a beaten and beleaguered people whose plight he was not willing to condone or actively to make worse. Susan Rice’s column in the New York Times accusing Trump of coddling autocrats is unwitting self-satire.
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