Why it's hard to take Democrats seriously on Russia

Today’s liberal Russia hawks would have us believe that they’ve always been clear-sighted about Kremlin perfidy and mischief. They’re displaying amnesia not just over a single law but the entire foreign policy record of the Obama administration. From the reset, which it announced in early 2009 just months after Russia invaded Georgia, to its removal of missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland later that year, to its ignoring Russia’s violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (while simultaneously negotiating New START) and its ceding the ground in Syria to Russian military intervention, the Obama administration’s Russia policy was one, protracted, eight-year-long concession to Moscow. Throughout his two terms in office, Obama played down the threat Russia posed to America’s allies, interests and values, and ridiculed those who warned otherwise. “The traditional divisions between nations of the south and the north make no sense in an interconnected world nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War,” Obama lectured the United Nations General Assembly in 2009, a more florid and verbose way of making the exact same criticism of supposed NATO obsolescence that liberals would later excoriate Trump for bluntly declaring.

When it abandoned missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic that same year—announcing the decision on the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland, no less—the Obama administration insisted that the move wasn’t about kowtowing to Moscow but rather more robustly preparing for the looming Iranian threat. Notwithstanding the merits of that argument, perception matters in foreign policy, and the perception in Central and Eastern Europe was that America was abandoning its friends in order to satiate an adversary. That characterizes the feelings of many American allies during the Obama years, whether Israelis and Sunni Arabs upset about a perceived tilt to Iran, or Japanese concerned about unwillingness to confront a revisionist China. Liberals are absolutely right to criticize the Trump administration for its alienation of allies. But they seem to have forgotten the record of the man who served as president for the eight years prior.