Sunday, December 18, 2016

Obama, dis-illusioner in chief

Obama's year-end press conference on Friday was preceded by breathless expectations, half-voiced, that he would, I don't know, call the election results illegitimate, suspend transition, call on electors not to cast their votes for Trump...the hopes were inchoate.  And the despair when Obama launched into his characteristic slow-talking, methodical, low-drama point-by-points was the Twitter equivalent of Lamentations.

Listening while watching Twitter (twistening?), at first I shared the disillusionment. But gradually I began to feel that Obama's performance was literally that -- dis-illusionment. Obama was telling us some hard truths about the degradation of our institutions. His meta-message was: Russia didn't do this to us - we did it to ourselves.

In fact he was explicit on that point. Here is where my own (wavering) reaction tipped from "he's explaining away his soft-touch response to Russian meddling" to "he's telling us the truth":

...we've got to think what is happening to happening to our political culture here. The Russians can't change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don't innovate.

But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values. Mr. Putin can weaken us just like he's trying to weaken Europe if we start buying into notions that it's OK to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents, or discriminate against people because of their faith or what they look like.

And what I worry about -- more than anything -- is the degree to which because of the fierceness because of the partisan battle, you start to see certain folks in the Republican Party and Republican voters suddenly finding a government and individuals who stand contrary to everything that we stand for as being OK, because that's how much we dislike Democrats.

I mean, think about it. Some of the people who historically have been very critical of me for engaging with the Russians and having conversations with them, also endorsed the president-elect, even as he was saying that we should stop sanctioning Russia and being tough on them and work together with them against our common enemies.

It was very complimentary of Mr. Putin personally. Now that -- that wasn't news. The president-elect during the campaign said so. And some folks who had made a career out of being anti-Russian, didn't say anything about it. And then after the election, suddenly they're asking, oh, why didn't you tell us that maybe the Russians were trying to help our candidate? Well, come on.

There was a survey some of you saw where -- not this just one poll*, but pretty credible source, 37 percent of Republican voters approve of Putin. Over a third of Republican voters approve of Vladimir Putin, the former head of the KGB. Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave. And how did that happen? It happened in part because for too long, everything that happens in this town, everything that's said is seen through the lens of does this help or hurt us relative to Democrats or relative to President Obama. And unless that changes, we're going to continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence because we've lost track of what it is that we're about and what we stand for.
Years ago, I read that Slobodan Milosevec had primed Serbians for the aggression that fueled the multi-part civil war in the former Yugoslavia through years of state propaganda demonizing the former state's other ethnic groups. Republicans have been progressively, similarly primed through the evolution of right-wing talk radio, Fox, and more recently Breitbart and its ilk. The Russians knocked us over with a feather.

Now, I remain of two minds about Obama's response to the Russian intervention. In the press conference, he gave a detailed defense of that response, culminating in the meta-point quoted above. Here is his case in outline:

1) U.S. intelligence agencies publicly asserted that Russians had done the hacking, and it was obvious to all who they were favoring. Their actions weren't subtle or hard to read.

2) The administration's main concern was preserving the integrity of the actual vote and vote tallying (including via a direct in-person warning from Obama to Putin not to tamper with it), and they succeeded in that regard .

3) For the administration to ascribe motive (helping Trump) to the Russian hack/dox without Republican support would have politicized the administration's response and so blown its credibility.

4) As an open society, we are inevitably more susceptible to information dumps that authoritarian societies. The administration has made concerted efforts to ramp up cybersecurity, but it can't dictate measures to nongovernment organizations.

5) With regard to deterrence, retaliation is forthcoming.

6) The media made the emails "an obsession that dominated news coverage" and thus weaponized the document dump.

7)  As noted above, 20 years of right-wing gaslighting largely shaped reaction.

So again: collectively we were our own worst enemy.

While my own reaction to the press conference swung from "he's providing no aid/comfort" toward "he's telling us what we don't want to hear," I was left with this uncertainty:
That is, could timely, forceful warnings or actions have stopped the Russians from passing their troves to Wikileaks? And could raising a more forceful alarm to media and the public -- look what they're doing to our election -- have pushed U.S. reaction to the leaks in  a different direction?

On the latter point, it seems increasingly clear to me that that particular regret is a mirage of hindsight. After all, Clinton spelled out in a nationally televised debate that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concurred that the hack came from Russia -- and who could doubt whom the asymmetric document dump was designed to help? As to whether the handoff to Wikileaks could have been prevented, or our collective reaction to it better shaped by administration action -- I don't know.

UPDATE, 12/20: Read Marci Wheeler on this presser.

* From memory, I think the transcript is off here -- what Obama said (I think) was closer to "now this was just one poll, but..."

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