by James A. Russell
It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry listening to President Obama’s series of retrospective interviews on radio and television about his eight years in office. He invariably comes off as a bright, reasonable, detached intellect that tried to do his best in office. He had many qualities that you want in a president.
Curiously, however, he never seemed to fully grasp and confront the dimensions of the strategic challenge to the republic coming from the far right. He was always trying to be reasonable with political opponents that had unapologetically declared war on the federal government and that were bent on his destruction.
An Inadequate Respose to Russia
In these retrospective interviews, it’s also clear he didn’t understand the magnitude of the threat of Russian attacks on the country over the course of the 2016 presidential elections–attacks that at the very least will lead to the undoing of everything he worked for over his 8 years in office. If Russia’s aims are fully realized, we will see the end of our republic as we know it under the Trump presidency and his right-wing acolytes.
The view here is that Obama’s legacy principally will be shaped by one indelible fact: he and his administration were essentially AWOL during one of the most serious attacks ever mounted on American soil by a foreign power. In terms of its impact, the attack has to be compared with 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and the British sacking of Washington in the war of 1812. While historians will ultimately decide how to view the Russian assault, it is hard to escape the view that the intervention was one of several critical factors that helped deliver Trump’s razor-thin margin of victory in the three critical states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
To be sure, Obama is not alone in his dereliction of duty in marshaling the resources of the government to defend the country. There’s blame enough to go around. Any even half-serious investigation of the attacks would have to conclude the reforms undertaken following the 9/11 attacks designed to prevent another attack on American soil failed miserably.
Following the 9/11 attacks, authority to manage America’s sprawling intelligence bureaucracy was centralized in a single office—that of the Director of National Intelligence. A new cabinet department–Homeland Security–was created with the mission of preventing a recurrence of 9/11. Barriers to cooperation between domestic law enforcement and the intelligence community also supposedly were torn down, leading to an unprecedented era of surveillance and eavesdropping of our friends and enemies at home and abroad. Most of America’s e-mail traffic and recorded phone calls sit in archived data bases stored in various parts of the country.
While the system put in place to warn America of attacks worked in this instance, it failed in every respect following detection of the attack. According to press reports, the FBI’s response to the initial intrusions into the DNC’s e-mail servers was to call the help desk and leave a message. Several messages were left over the course of weeks–and the contractor manning the help desk thought the messages were a hoax. No office director, no division chief, no director level personnel in the FBI ever picked up a phone or decided to walk the half-mile from the FBI’s headquarters to the DNC’s offices to raise the alarm until it was too late. Then, even after the scope of the attacks on both political parties became apparent, the FBI declined to aggressively pursue the investigation–perhaps because the agency could not grasp the full implications of the attack.
Then, there’s America’s vaunted intelligence community, made up of a dizzying array of 16 different agencies–a community that received an estimated $500 billion in federal funds following the 9/11 attacks. In the post-9/11 era of the global battlefield, in which the United States blasted away wherever it wanted, the intelligence community was deployed to help track down and kill America’s enemies abroad. The last 15 years of war have seen the executive branch and the intelligence community become partners in targeted assassinations all over the world, aided and abetted by the Defense Department’s special operations empire, designed to find, fix, and destroy our terrorist enemies.
It would be easy to say that nobody in this community saw the Russian attack coming–except that we did see the attack coming. The Russian assault on our democracy was no surprise attack. According to press reports, Russian, Chinese and various other groups had already succeeded in penetrating our government servers at the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and various other government agencies. The State Department had to shut down its e-mail servers at various points in 2014 and 2015 because the Russian hacking was so pervasive. Secretary Kerry had to shut down his e-mail communications during one visit to Geneva because of the penetrations.
As was the case in the FBI, it’s not clear that anyone in this community fully appreciated the gravity of the assault–though perhaps this will come out in subsequent investigations. There is sure to be some kind of version of George Tenet’s assertion that he was wandering around with his “hair on fire” in August of 2011 before the 9/11 attacks. The intelligence community will surely produce copies of the written warnings provided to congressional and executive branch leaders to justify its existence and place blame elsewhere.
Playing Politics with National Security
Another important failure belongs to the country’s congressional leadership. Congressional leaders were briefed on the attacks in the late summer of 2016, yet none of them found it necessary to collectively appear on a stage to denounce Russia’s efforts. Instead, the Republican leadership stayed silent–acquiescing in Russia’s efforts that were clearly mounted on behalf of their candidate.
According to press reports, House Speaker Paul Ryan wouldn’t return Nancy Pelosi’s phone calls asking for a joint statement to condemn the attacks and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell reportedly challenged the veracity of the intelligence at the briefings. There is nothing particularly surprising about the Republican response to the attacks. As a party, it has clearly placed partisan gain and opportunity for the wealthy over the interests of the country in its single-minded pursuit of a one-party state. Their objectives in all likelihood will be realized following the election with a right wing supreme court and their hands now on all the levers of national power.
Obama Bears Ultimate Responsibility
In the end, however, with the institutions meant to defend the country failing at virtually every stage of the Russian attack, we must return to Obama, as the commander-in-chief, bearing ultimate responsibility. On his watch, America was continuously at war around the world as he sanctioned a trigger-happy, militarized foreign policy that was designed to protect us here at home.
The country’s bloated security sector and intelligence community were showered with money and prestige on his watch as no stone was left unturned to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks. As the global battlefield took shape, it provided the pretext for the United States to send its armies and special forces around the world to pre-empt its enemies with little regard for due process or basic constitutional rights.
It’s that reactionary and sclerotic foreign policy that makes Obama’s detached view of the Russian assault so difficult to explain. As he sanctioned sending our robots and special forces off on hunting expeditions around the world, he sat on this hands as the Russian assault gathered momentum here at home over the election season.
He never appeared on a podium before the presidential seal to denounce the assault and warn the public as the attack unfolded. He never went to the United Nations with a version of the ill-fated Powell briefing to warn the world of Russia’s attempts to destabilize democracies around the world. The response of his administration to the attack was to hold meetings, which produced no response except an empty-sounding threat by Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama’s dereliction of duty in failing to defend the country helped deliver America’s 21st century version of Il Duce to the White House, placing the entire republic at risk–delivering it to the hands of the very people (both foreign and domestic) that want to tear it down.
The real question that remains is this: what will take its place? We can’t expect any help from a Republican leadership that sees its chance to finally realize its dream of destroying important parts of the federal government. The best bet is an institutionalized crony capitalism benefiting the very rich, an effective one-party state supported by authoritarian, coercive state instruments, and the emergence of a cult of personality within our political leadership.
Sounds a lot like Putin’s Russia and the regime America destroyed in Iraq in 2003, doesn’t it?