Vladimir Putin Barack Obama
Credit: Pete Souza/White House

We occasionally hear voices on both the right and left who claim that Obama’s position on Russia was essentially no different than what we see from Trump. When confronted by his unwillingness to hold Vladimir Putin accountable, the current president often suggests that the U.S. needs Russia’s support when it comes to dealing with countries like Syria and North Korea. There is a lot of truth to that and it is, in fact, reflective of how Obama viewed the situation.

The most obvious difference between the two administrations is that Obama was never under investigation for conspiring with Russia to influence his own election. Pretty big difference there. But beyond that, it is worth looking more deeply at the question.

The person on the left who most often makes the argument about similarities is Glenn Greenwald, as he did in this tweet today.

That sent me back to something he wrote a year ago titled, “Democrats Now Demonize the Same Russia Policies that Obama Long Championed.” Greenwald noted that the Trump administration changed the Republican platform to remove a plank about the U.S. providing weapons to the Ukrainians in their fight against the Russian incursion. He correctly pointed out that Obama also refused to send certain weapons to the Ukrainians.

Of course, this was an attempt by Glenn to suggest that the Trump campaign’s position was clearly not evidence of any collusion with Russia. But he also used it to attack Democrats, whom he describes as “increasingly maniacal and militaristic hawks” based on the fact that many of them co-sponsored Sen. Lindsey Graham’s bill to bar Trump from removing sanctions on Russia. The obvious retort to Greenwald’s overall claim would be to ask who it was that imposed those sanctions—Obama.

For those of you who might find it strange to equate sanctions with being a “maniacal militaristic hawk,” that is nothing new for Glenn. Back in 2012, he was writing columns about Obama’s sanctions on Iran, which he suggested were morally indefensible and counter-productive—going so far as to quote someone who said that limited airstrikes on Iran might be a more morally sound course of action. Now we know that those sanctions led Iran to the negotiating table and produced the agreement that stopped them from developing nuclear weapons. I say that to point out that Greenwald has along history of being wrong about Obama’s foreign policy.

Anyone—including Greenwald—who wants to suggest that Obama and Trump have similar approaches to Russia should take a few minutes to read the speech the former gave in Brussels in 2014. Obama was attempting to shore up support for the sanctions imposed against Russia for their incursion into Ukraine.

I come here today to insist that we must never take for granted the progress that has been won here in Europe and advanced around the world, because the contest of ideas continues for your generation.  And that’s what’s at stake in Ukraine today.  Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident — that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future…

Our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people — a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; international law and the means to enforce those laws.  But we also know that those rules are not self-executing; they depend on people and nations of goodwill continually affirming them.  And that’s why Russia’s violation of international law — its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — must be met with condemnation.  Not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up.

Over the last several days, the United States, Europe, and our partners around the world have been united in defense of these ideals, and united in support of the Ukrainian people. Together, we’ve condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and rejected the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum.  Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G8 nations and downgrading our bilateral ties.  Together, we are imposing costs through sanctions that have left a mark on Russia and those accountable for its actions.  And if the Russian leadership stays on its current course, together we will ensure that this isolation deepens.  Sanctions will expand.  And the toll on Russia’s economy, as well as its standing in the world, will only increase…

Understand, as well, this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into.  After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology.  The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.  In fact, for more than 60 years, we have come together in NATO — not to claim other lands, but to keep nations free.  What we will do — always — is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies.  And in that promise we will never waver; NATO nations never stand alone.

No one with a straight face could ever claim that Donald Trump would utter words like that.

What Greenwald gets right is that, throughout his presidency, Barack Obama was excoriated by foreign policy hawks for his efforts to challenge what he called the “Washington playbook.”

“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

But what Glenn and so many others who make this comparison miss is that Obama has a profoundly different view of power and once said, “Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.” As I’ve written very often, Obama believed in the power of partnership, which is the opposite of Trump’s (and Putin’s) reliance on dominance.

Many of us think we know the answer to the question about why Trump adopts a position of submission when it comes to Russia. I suspect that we’ll have a much more concrete answer once the Mueller investigation is completed. But to claim that his unwillingness to hold Putin accountable is in any way similar to his predecessor is a ludicrous notion.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.