President Ronald Reagan may go down as the greatest Russia hawk in U.S. history. His tough stance against the Soviet Union’s expansionism and his efforts to support anti-Soviet movements in former communist-bloc states helped lead to the USSR’s fall in 1991. His “Tear down this wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987, is remembered for its symbolism and defiance as well as Reagan’s robust behind-the-scenes diplomacy. (Of course, Reagan’s other policies in general were horrible, but that is another story.)
Republicans today herald Reagan as the guardian who stood up against Soviet aggression and a symbol of the Republican Party’s hawkish foreign policy against Moscow. But it is obvious that the reputation Reagan cultivated for his party is under threat by Donald Trump, a Republican president who many believe is in cahoots with the Kremlin. Not only is there a special investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election, but Trump’s attempts to cozy up to Vladimir Putin are doing little to ease those concerns.
Before and during his campaign for president, Trump lamented that former President Barack Obama was weak on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria. During a videoconference call to a high-profile annual conference in Kiev, Ukraine, in September of 2015, Trump said, “Our president is not strong—so far all we have is lip service,” adding, “Part of the problem that Ukraine has with the United States is that Putin does not respect our president whatsoever.” In 2016, Trump tweeted about Obama’s lack of strength against Russia over Ukraine.
Interestingly, though, Trump has essentially failed to stand up to Russia’s meddling in European elections or, for that matter, our own elections. Trump’s lack of enthusiasm for blasting the Kremlin is obvious—I mean, Putin helped him win the White House—but that should not stop Republicans from attacking Trump with the same zeal as they did Obama—if, of course, they really are Russia hawks.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of Obama’s sharpest critics, wrote in the National Review that Obama needed to reverse his “policy of weakness” against Russia over Syria. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in April 2014 that Obama’s refusal to grant Ukraine critical defensive weapons was “another sign of weakness” in Putin’s eyes. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN that Obama was “weak and indecisive.”
Fast-forward several years later, and we have Trump, who has yet to grant Ukraine defensive weapons, failing to punish Russia for arguably the greatest attack against U.S. democracy in American history or criticize Putin for what many human rights organizations say is Russia’s bombing of civilian targets in Syria.
The lack of criticism from the Republican Party for Trump’s handling of Russian aggression is just as apparent. There was plenty of room to criticize Obama for his response to Putin’s geopolitical chess match in Europe and elsewhere, but Trump? Not so much.
Sure, he is the GOP’s president, but does party loyalty rank higher than allowing Trump to stand down against Putin’s geopolitical aggression, which has only intensified over the past year? That appears to be the case. Has McCain, Rubio or Graham called Trump weak even once? I Googled and actually found Russian officials calling Trump “weak.” Ironic.
Obama’s stance against Russia may have been slow, and his understanding of Moscow’s motives may have left much to be desired, but in light of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin, Obama, comparatively speaking, looks like the real hawk.
Obama’s economic sanctions helped force Russia’s economy to contract by 3.7 percent in 2015. In addition, key drilling projects were forced to shut down as a result. Naturally, Ukraine and U.S. Russia hawks wanted more, but the devastating impact of the Obama administration’s action was hardly weak.
On the other hand, the Republican response to the Russian collusion scandal has been very weak. When then-acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in May that ex-national security adviser Mike Flynn may have been compromised by Russia, GOP senators were more concerned about who leaked the story to the media than gathering information about Flynn.
Republicans also pushed back against former FBI Director James Comey during his June testimony when he said Trump fired him because of his handling of the Russia investigation. House Speaker Paul Ryan brushed off Comey’s claims by saying Trump was “just new to this” and didn’t understand protocol.
I doubt Obama would have been afforded the same pass, especially since McCain once said during a 2008 debate that the presidency doesn’t allow time for “on-the-job training.”
Today’s Republicans are showing their true colors. They do not care about defending America against Moscow. During the presidential campaign, the GOP cared about votes, something that was obvious from Trump’s base, which clearly didn’t care about Russian meddling as long as it helped Hillary Clinton lose.
One Trump supporter told the New York Times, “If that’s what it took, I’m glad they did it.”
Meanwhile, American democracy is being taken to the sunken place by a Congress and a White House full of doves.