Obama to Moscow: ‘We Can Do Stuff to You’
The president defends his response to Russian hacking, his legacy on Syria, and approach to China.
President Barack Obama defended his hands-off response to Russian hacking that appears to have influenced the U.S. election in Donald Trump’s favor and reiterated a vague warning first issued Thursday night that Moscow will face U.S. reprisals of some sort for its unprecedented interference in the vote.
“Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us, because we can do stuff to you,” Obama said. “Some of it we do publicly, some of it we will do in a way that they know but not everybody will.”
Obama, speaking in his final year-end press conference, just over a month before Trump’s inauguration, catalogued a litany of administration achievements, from lowering unemployment to boosting the number of people with health insurance. But Friday’s hour-plus news conference served as a painful summary of Obama’s tumultuous final year in office, and was dominated by Russian hacking, the ongoing slaughter in Aleppo, Syria, and rising Chinese belligerence in Asia.
Despite plenty of frustration among Democrats who feel that Russian interference — abetted by a passive administration and an FBI busy investigating old Hillary Clinton emails — cost the former secretary of state the election, Obama defended his actions.
He said that his first concern was to ensure that “the election went off without a hitch,” and that no attacks materialized on voting machines or during the vote count itself. “We allowed law enforcement and the intelligence community to do its job without political influence,” Obama said.
Before he leaves office in January, Obama said his administration will finish a review of the Russian hack, with an eye toward making it harder for other state actors to interfere with U.S. political institutions. But on Friday, Obama remained coy about releasing any of the intelligence that forms the basis of the intelligence community’s assessment, and said that a forthcoming review will try to make public as much information as possible without disclosing “sources and methods.”
Saying “this shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Obama also backed the idea of a bipartisan study into Russian mischief during the campaign.
Trump compared the CIA’s assessment that the Kremlin intervened in the election on his behalf to misleading claims in the run up to the 2003 Iraq War. Obama on Friday reiterated the intelligence community’s “high confidence” in their conclusions of Russian involvement, and fingered the Russian president by name.
“This happened at the highest levels of the Russian government,” Obama said. “Not much happens in Russia without Vladimir Putin.”
He lit into Republican lawmakers — and Trump — who have suddenly reversed decades of GOP orthodoxy on the threat posed by Moscow to now turn a blind eye to the U.S. intelligence community’s findings. More than one-third of Republican voters support Putin, Obama said.
“Ronald Reagan would roll over in his grave,” Obama said.
The president sought to defend his legacy in Syria as well, where this week the country’s second-largest city, Aleppo, fell to a combined assault by Syrian government forces backed by Russian airpower. Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 civilians are still trapped in the city as attempts to evacuate amid a fragile ceasefire stall, start, and stall again.
Obama defended his hands-off approach during the almost six-year old civil war. “I’ve taken the best course I can,” he said, adding that a full-scale intervention to stop the slaughter in Syria was “impossible to do on the cheap.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates 312,000, including over 90,000 civilians, have died since the Syrian civil war began in March, 2011. Obama placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia, and Iran.
“The blood and these atrocities are on their hands,”he said, adding that “over the long term, the Assad regime cannot slaughter its way to legitimacy.”
An increasingly belligerent China also barged into Obama’s year-end press conference, largely because of heightened tensions after Trump’s unprecedented phone call to Taiwan’s president earlier this month. On Thursday, a Chinese naval vessel snatched a U.S. underwater drone and refused to return it to the Americans, prompting a diplomatic spat. Trump and his advisers have pushed for a more confrontational line with Beijing diplomatically, militarily, and economically.
Obama, who came into office hoping to pivot the United States away from the Middle East and toward the growing economies of the Asia-Pacific, acknowledged that a fresh policy to deal with China could be welcome. But any new approach to Beijing, he said, should be well thought-out and part of a national strategy, rather than shoot-from-the-hip policymaking. That is especially true regarding the issue of Taiwan, Obama said.
“The idea of ‘One China’ is at the heart of their conception as a nation,” he said. “And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through whatever the consequences are, because the Chinese will not treat that the way they treat some other issues.”
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Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll