Is there anything more entertaining, right now, than the public spat playing out between the outgoing Obama administration and Vladimir Putin, over the alleged Russian hacking of Democratic Party servers and Obama’s consequent decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats from Washington and San Francisco?
This has all the elements of a playground battle – everybody lining up behind the scrappy, manipulative, witty class troublemaker against the wannabe teacher’s pet. Obama has been wrongly advised and wrong-footed at every turn, and it’s now a question of whether he will admit defeat, attempt to hold his head up high and just wait out the remaining days of his administration, or whether he will attempt to rescue his reputation and level the playing field. Though it’s hard to see what he could now do, or say, that would in any way help his position.
The first mistake, of course, was making such a public fuss about the hacking in the first place. Accusations of “we lost the election because they hacked us” not only sound like the petulant cries of a bad loser, but also raise serious questions about US cybersecurity – the playground equivalent of admitting that you left your lunch money on your desk then complaining that the class bully stole it.
Next, the decision to expel the Russian diplomats. Now here I do have some sympathy with Mr Obama. Given the allegations of hacking, and the conclusions of the CIA and FBI that it was the Russians who were responsible, Obama would have looked weak had he done nothing. But the decision to give 35 diplomats and their families, 72 hours to leave the country, in the period between Christmas and New Year, was particularly ill-judged. Far better to have waited until the New Year festivities were over, when the move would have been seen simply as the show of power that was intended, rather than a spiteful act by a playground weakling, kicking out against the friends of the adversary to whom he has found himself unequal.
Mr Putin, of course, recognised that he had been dealt a joker and played it masterfully. His announcement that he would not immediately reciprocate by expelling any US diplomats from his country during the festive season, but would instead wait until Mr Trump took power in order to discuss the way forward, portrayed him as magnanimous and displayed his utter contempt for the Obama administration. The Russian embassy to the UK tweeting a picture of a duckling with the word ‘lame’ drove the point home masterfully, if cruelly.
Mr Putin’s invitation to the US diplomats and their families, to enjoy the Christmas and New Year festivities at the Kremlin, and his announcement that the Russian diplomats would be flown home by a jet specially chartered from Russia’s VIP Rossiya aviation unit, after they complained that they were struggling to get tickets back from Washington to Moscow at such short notice, were further blows to Obama – not only has the class troublemaker shown himself to be stronger than the teacher’s pet, but now he is blatantly threatening to attract his opponent’s supporters over to his side, by showing off how much better he treats his supporters than does his opponent.
All that was left, of course, was for President-elect Trump to line up behind Mr Putin, as he now has done, and Obama’s humiliation is complete. Ultimately, despite the entertainment value, I can’t help feeling a great disappointment that Obama’s presidency should end this way – the divisions between the outgoing and incoming administrations are great enough already, without these last-minute bitter feuds, with Trump making it clear how different his foreign policy will be to that of his predecessor. The suggestion by many political commentators, that Obama’s decision to sanction Russia and expel the diplomats was made specifically in an attempt to scupper relations as Trump took power, will not have gone unnoticed by those within the Trump administration – the fact that it so spectacularly backfired will give them cause to celebrate, but not to forgive.
Whether or not we see an improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington once the Trump administration takes over, I fear the divisions between the Democrats and the Republicans will only grow wider. But for the moment, I will be stocking up on popcorn.