Editor’s Note: SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
That was former President Barack Obama in 2012, schooling Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at a debate for saying that Russia was “without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
“Because the Cold War has been over for 20 years,” Obama continued. “But governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
The line killed, of course. But boy, does it hit differently now.
With Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the destruction of countless towns there that until April 2 has killed over 1,400 civilians, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and pushed millions of refugees to cross international borders or huddle in train stations hoping to survive the next bombing, Obama’s joke feels more like a gut punch.
You’d think that his smugness around Russia then – and the subsequent events proving him dead wrong – would have humbled the former president.
But if he feels any regret, he’s not showing it.
At a conference titled “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy,” hosted by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics and The Atlantic this week, Obama was asked point blank if he wishes he’d been stronger on Putin knowing what we do now.
Visibly annoyed, he answered, “I actually don’t, because the circumstances were different.”
He explained that Crimea’s “attitudes towards Russia” in 2014 were different. He described a “very robust response” from his administration, which just amounted to limited sanctions.
And he defended not arming the Ukrainians because “we were concerned about making sure that we did not give [Russia] an excuse for another incursion,” and “you had issues of training.”
He congratulated Europe for arriving today where he had wanted them back then.
“I will say that as somebody who grappled with the incursion in Crimea and the Eastern portions of Ukraine, I have been encouraged by the European reaction, because in 2014, I often had to drag them kicking and screaming to respond in ways that we would have wanted.”
And he stunningly explained how we got to a place where Russia believed it could invade a sovereign nation. He said, western democracies “have gotten complacent.” Seemingly, the kind of warning Romney was flagging in 2012.
It’s hard to imagine a person being less self-reflective and more dug in on an obvious foreign policy blunder, and one that you could easily argue helped lay the path for this current invasion.
But when you remember just how awful Putin proved to be in the years following Obama’s debate punchline, it’s actually far worse.
Less than two years after Obama essentially called Russia a JV team, Putin marched on Crimea, annexing the southern peninsula of Ukraine.
Around the same time, he joined forces with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to aid him in slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Syrians, just as he had done in Chechnya years earlier.
Putin always denies allegations that he murders or “disappears” his critics, but several were killed in the years of his presidency, including in 2013 and 2015.
Famously, Alexey Navalny, an open Putin critic, was charged with politically-motivated bogus crimes, jailed, and poisoned. The Kremlin denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning.
Obama certainly is aware of all of this, yet he said this week, “I don’t know that the person I knew is now the same as the person who’s leading this charge [against Ukraine].”
This is simply bizarre. Revisionist. Amnesiac.
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And, frankly, surprising. To his credit, Obama has spoken openly about his regrets concerning the Syrian genocide and the mistakes his administration made. He’s said the war still “haunts” him.
But in Ukraine, he wouldn’t have changed a thing? This defies logic.
Romney wasn’t prescient in 2012, he was merely sentient, seeing Putin for who he clearly was and understanding the threats. Obama’s misreading can be forgiven, but all this time later, with everything we now know, it’s very hard to understand his hard-headedness.