Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What Should Obama Have Done?

All right, I am a little late to the game, but let me post my thoughts on the Washington Post article  about what Obama knew about the Russian hacking and why he didn't do anything about it.

As for what he knew, the big news is that he received a top secret report in August, 2016 that the Russians were interfering in the election, that they were doing so at Putin's direction, and that they were trying to get Trump elected.  This was at first top secret, known only to the President and three advisers, then to four others, the head of the CIA, the Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, and the head of the FBI.  Later Vice President Biden and various Cabinet secretaries were let in on the secret, and eventually the Gang of Eight -- the majority and minority leaders of the Senate and House and the chairs and ranking Democrats from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Obama's conversations with the Eight have been known for some time.  The Republicans in the group resisted going public with the information and Mitch McConnell expressed outright disbelief.  The article relates other details that had not been disclosed before.

Obama contacted state Secretaries of State to warn that Russians were meddling in the election and found none of them convinced.  He also considered and rejected various measures against Russia and rejected them largely for fear of retaliation.  Expelling Russian diplomats was rejected on the grounds that the Russians might retaliate against our diplomats (many of whom, as with the Russians and with all countries, are really spies).  A cyber attack against Russia was rejected because it would expose how and where the US had penetrated the Russian networks.  Releasing embarrassing information on Putin was rejected because it looked too much like doing what we were condemning.  Economic sanctions were rejected on the grounds that they might harm Russia's European trading partners. And, of course, with Republicans refusing to back him, Obama decided not to go public for fear of appearing partisan.

It is this last decision that has been the subject of the most controversy, and that I am prepared to defend, although my response may seem a bit strange and self-contradictory.

Some people have defended Obama's decision not to go public for fear that such an announcement would and played into Trump's narrative that the election was "rigged" against him and might even have sparked an armed rebellion by Trump supporters and led to blood in the streets.  This is just plain nuts. First of all, no, there would not have been an armed rebellion.  Maybe a few terrorist outburst here and there, but certainly nothing large enough to be menacing.

And in any event, as I have discussed many times before, any free and democratic government that allows itself to be intimidated by men with guns is abdicating its duties and will end up abdicating democracy as well.  And no, guns are not the way to uphold the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority.  To allow a veto to anyone with a large enough arsenal is to surrender the rule of law in favor of the law of the jungle.  After all, if you don't dare come forward with evidence of Russian interference in the election for fear of an armed response by the alt-right, you might as well just agree to throw the whole election for fear of revolt by the alt-right.  And hell, why not agree never to have another Democratic President at all if certain people might consider it grounds for armed rebellion?

Political violence is a serious threat to a democratic order.  It should be dealt with firmly, whether it comes from the alt-right or from black-clad antifa.

But there were other reasons for Obama not to go public with the information without Republican buy-in.  He had a legitimate fear of appearing partisan.  I realize many people's response to that would be to say, of course he was partisan, the Presidency is a partisan office.  He was out openly campaigning for Hillary.  Why shouldn't he appear partisan?

But this is conflating two different things.  The President of the United States, as an individual, has the same right as anyone to favor a candidate for the office and campaign for her.  As head of his party, he may use the party apparatus for her.  But as head of state, he must not use the power of the state -- the "deep" state, if you will -- to sway the outcome.  Any question of the President using the power of the state to sway an election is a very, very serious matter.  Without bipartisan support, it was reasonable of Obama to want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

"What?" you may say.  Are you seriously saying that Obama should not have kept quiet for fear of blood in the street, but should have kept quiet for fear of creating the appearance of impropriety? How does that make any sense?

But I guess my answer has to be that in the end, Obama had no control over how the alt-right might react to his actions.  He could only control what he did, and if what he did created the appearance that he was using the power of the state to sway an election, it would have been a serious matter.

So what options did that leave?  I can only suggest, that he take action against Russia whose purpose would be clear to Putin and others who were interfering, but not go public with the reasons, except perhaps to say that it was retaliation for cyber action without saying what sort of cyber action.  Of course, in that case Republicans would have dismissed such action as mere posturing, trying to look tough ahead of the election to win votes for Hillary, but so what?  Tough posturing ahead of an election to win votes, and accusations of such posturing, are politics as usual.  Our democracy would have survived it, as it has survived many such instances.  And, after all, the Republicans could hardly have come forward and say that Obama was only taking such actions against the Russians because they were trying to help Republicans win the election.

The main danger I would see was that sooner or later the truth comes out on this sort of thing.  Right now, as any number of people have commented, the truth is coming out at unprecedented speed as the intelligence community leaks like never before.  But sooner or later it would have become known that the reason for Obama's mysterious actions against the Russians was that they were attempting to sway the election against Hillary.  Would that have delegitimized her her victory?  Would it have led to endless Republican investigations into the Obama Administration's true motives in taking anti-Russian action and major scandals?

Quite possibly so.  But attempts to expose the Obama Administration's true motives would also have led to revealing what the Russians were really up to all the while.  I can only hope that such knowledge would have vindicated Obama's actions in the eyes of loyal Americans everywhere.

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