By all means, let’s have a debate about the dangers of American presidents and their administrations purveying “alternative facts.” But could the members of the media most ostentatiously seething over President Trump — and now busy presenting their own alternative facts — please spare us the pretense that the White House is suddenly in danger of losing its credibility. What’s left to lose? We’ve just had eight years of the Obama administration beaming out
alternative facts “narratives” to the mascot-media echo chamber, on the theory that saying something makes it so (“If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”; Iran’s “exclusively peaceful” nuclear program; the Benghazi “video”; etc.).
It is Trump’s job to reverse this rot, not to adapt Obama’s fiction techniques to suit himself. But if anyone’s curious about the kind of fakery that Trump and his team should strive to avoid — in the interest of integrity and good policy — Obama’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has just given us a showcase example. In her farewell speech as UN ambassador, delivered Jan. 17 to the Atlantic Council, Power conjured an entire alternate universe, less by way of presenting alternative facts than by omitting a number of vital facts altogether. The result was to erase from the picture some of the most disastrous failures of the Obama administration, while insinuating that Trump is already complicit in the resulting mess.
Let me stipulate that Power did issue a warning that is valid, important, and urgent. Her topic, as she explained at the start of her speech, was “a major threat facing our great nation: Russia.”
Yep, no question about that. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a growing threat, as some of us have been arguing for more than a decade.
But it was on Obama’s watch that Russia became a mushrooming threat to a degree that even Obama and his team could not in the end ignore — welcoming Edward Snowden, snatching Crimea from Ukraine, moving back into the Middle East, backing the Assad regime and bombing in Syria, hacking hither and yon, and frustrating Power at the UN with its veto on the Security Council.
It was Obama himself, with his policy of “engagement,” who helped lay the groundwork for this rising threat — deferring to dictators, betraying allies, downsizing the U.S. military, and sneering at those who warned there would be hell to pay. Putin drew the logical conclusions, read this U.S. retreat as an invitation, and made his moves. One might have supposed that after years of Obama apologizing for America, Samantha Power in her swan-song lecture could have summoned the strength of character to apologize for Obama, and for her own role, as one of his top envoys. (Don’t hold your breath).
For Putin, Obama offered the opportunity of a lifetime — to roll right over that old “rules-based order,” which always depended on American leadership, and which Power now warns us is threatened by Russia. Obama began with the 2009 “reset,” including the gift to Putin of yanking missile defense plans for Eastern Europe. Obama went on to promise Putin “more flexibility” after his 2012 reelection. In the 2012 presidential campaign debates, Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s warnings about Russia, scoffing that “the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
When Putin gave asylum in 2013 to American-security cyber-vandal Edward Snowden, mocking Obama as he did so, Obama’s mini-mouse response was to attend a G-20 summit in Russia regardless, but punish Putin by refraining from any bilateral meetings. About that same time, Obama erased his own “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria by way of turning over the problem to Russia. When Russia in 2014 snatched Crimea from Ukraine, Obama answered with sanctions that have done nothing to reverse Russia’s grab. Meantime, Obama’s administration celebrated Russia’s presence as one of the main parties to an Iran nuclear deal that Israel, and many American lawmakers, protested as a grave threat. When Putin sent Russian warships into the Mediterranean and Russian bombers into Syria, Obama responded by hosting international talking shops, while Power gave impotent lectures at the UN.
None of this wilting U.S. policy figured in Power’s speech as part of the problem. She justified the “reset” on grounds that “2017 is not 2009.” (Right, and 2009 was not 1991, when post-Soviet Russia looked like a friend on the ropes. By 2009, Russia had already engaged in such feats as poisoning dissident spy Alexander Litvinenko with polonium-210, meddling in Ukraine’s elections, murdering a series of journalists, and transgressing into Georgia.) Power suggested that in 2009, when Putin’s sidekick, Dmitry Medvedev, was president of Russia, there was more common ground with the U.S. (surely she is aware, as was her flexible boss, that even during that interval, Putin, not Medvedev, was the real power in the Kremlin).
Power in her speech claimed that “anyone who has seen my debates in the UN Security Council with Russia knows that I and my government have long had serious concerns about its government’s aggressive and destabilizing actions.” But in her recitation of specifics, that “long” concern seemed to extend back only to about 2014, as if the previous five years of Obama’s engagement, reset, retreat, flexibility, disappearing red line, ineffectual sanctions and feckless dialogue were irrelevant.
For good measure, Power threw in a classic Obama apology for America (Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, recipient of the 2009 “reset” button, must love this routine):
Now, I acknowledge there are times when actions the United States takes in the interest of defending our security and that of our allies can be seen by other nations as offensive moves that threaten their security, and we need to be alert to this, which is why dialogue is so important.
Power then deplored Russia’s policies in which “lying is a strategic asset,” and its goal of “creating a world where all truth is relative, and where trust in the integrity of our democratic system is lost.” Correct on all counts, and an important warning. Yet somehow disingenuous coming from a senior member of the administration that unapologetically turned the National Security Council into a Ben Rhodes narrative workshop, mind-melded with President Obama. She made no mention of that.
Amid all this, Power worked around to the punch line — “we must continue to work in a bipartisan fashion to determine the full extent of Russia’s interference in our recent elections… .” Here again, Russian hacking is without question a threat to be deterred, stopped, punished. But there’s that troubling administration timeline, in which Russian hacking merited merely a public warning before the 2016 presidential election. After the vote, and Trump’s victory, it suddenly emerged on the Obama administration’s twilight agenda as a threat of the first order.
Power made a number of recommendations, some worthy in their own right, but — coming from this particular speaker — staggering for the degree of hypocrisy involved. She said “we have to do a better job of informing our citizens about the seriousness of the threat the Russian government poses.” (Quite right, but where’s that apology owed to Mitt Romney?).
Most memorable was her urging that “we must reassure our allies that we have their backs, and ensure that Russia pays a price for breaking the rules.” Yes, absolutely. But that’s quite an utterance coming from Power, who just last month, as Obama’s willing envoy, betrayed one of America’s closest allies, Israel, at the UN Security Council. It was Power who raised her hand to abstain from the vote on Resolution 2334 — allowing the passage, absent a U.S. veto, of measures deeply damaging to the Jewish state, and extremely difficult for any U.S. administration to now reverse.
Having by turns revised, scrubbed, excused, fudged and recast the Obama record on Russia, Power wrapped up by quoting George Washington and prescribing — who could argue? — that we must be “clear-eyed about the threat Russia poses from the outside” and dedicated to “restoring citizens’ faith in our democracy on the inside.”
Hypocrisy, though unattractive, is not necessarily dangerous. But it becomes so when coupled with political power and employed to cover up important truths. Russia is indeed a serious and growing threat, on multiple fronts. But to confront this requires not a Potemkin facade erected to deflect attention from years of terrible policy, but an accurate understanding of how we got here. Samantha Power and Barack Obama, with their exit warnings about Russia, owed us at least that much.
Which brings me back to alternative facts, and what we should require of Trump. He inherits a Russia that was in effect invited by the Obama administration to become the grave and growing threat we see today. Putin availed himself richly of that invitation. To remedy this will take American leadership, courage and candor. If anyone in the new Trump administration ends up giving at any stage a speech similar in its Orwellian manipulations to this farewell peroration by Samantha Power, Trump should fire that speaker forthwith. America deserves better.