President Obama's declaration of sanctions against Russia for election hacking has come at an unusually convenient time in the news cycle. To use Obama's most favored word over the past eight years, it's the perfect distraction from the massive criticism he's received over the last five days for his UN vote against Israel.
The timing is not just convenient, however. It's pure theater, designed specifically for the cable news pundits and the public at large to latch onto, in order to forget an abysmal record of weakness and inaction against adversaries.
What was headline news on the morning of Dec. 29, such as the Wall Street Journal's "US Escalates Tensions with Israel," has now been dutifully relegated to the back burner. For five days since the UN's 14-0 vote against Israel, news outlets have been filled with commentary, speculation and direct criticism of Obama about the escalation of a rift between the US and its closest Mid-East ally. But with the announcement of Russian sanctions, descriptions of Obama as petulant, petty, and vindictive have now been replaced--he hopes--with words like punitive and strong-willed.
Cue the yawns.
Announcing sanctions against Russia many months after the fact (Obama claimed he was notified in early summer), is like punishing your teenager in December for a speeding ticket he got in July. Administration officials admit that they've been discussing options and vacillating for months, as Obama is known to do whenever strong action needs to be taken. The New York Times reports that an Obama aid complained about hacking to the Russians way back in April, so we've known about it at least since then, if not much earlier.
So why now, with less than three weeks to go in office, when Congressional representatives, including most Republicans, have already made it clear they would call for a public investigation next year, despite Trump's reluctance?
Because Obama, at the relatively young age of 55, is most interested in what comes after his presidency. He can't afford to go out in a blaze of criticism that he betrayed a long-time friend, when he can much more easily depart on a wave of supposed strength by punishing an enemy. There are no down sides in this play, and it benefits Obama in both direct and indirect ways:
- The sanctions, which will in any case prove unsustainable in the long run, clearly place a few immediate obstacles in Trump's path. Since Trump has made his opposition to them clear, they create the uncomfortable situation of forcing him to actively lift them, putting him at odds right at the start of his term with a riled-up public and Congress. Of course, Trump will overcome it, in order to get back on track for his own reset with Russia, but the fact that Obama can stick his foot out while Trump enters the White House is no doubt bringing a smile to Obama's face.
- The sanctions give cover to weakened Democrats in Congress who lost not only the Presidency and both houses, but have come out of this election looking out of touch and ineffectual. Jumping on the sanctions bandwagon, however wobbly its wheels, saves them some face and adds a line to their resume for their re-election campaigns.
- Obama is playing a long game. Unlike 43 presidents before him, he's already broken with precedent by announcing that he's not going off into gentlemanly silence like Bush before him. Not only is he staying in Washington, at least until his youngest goes to college, but he's made it clear that he wants to actively reinvent the Democrat party. And to do that, he's got to start with restoring the two things that the party is most seen lacking--forcefulness against foreign adversaries and the credibility of their convictions.
- The timing was perfect for a distraction, and it didn't exactly fall into his lap. For at least as long as Obama knew about the Russian hacking, and holding back on when and how he would respond, he was working on the UN resolution. He knew he was going to abstain and he knew full well the anger and turmoil that it would create. Therefore, the timing of two events would marry perfectly--first the anger at the UN vote, then the feint to Russia and the hoped-for benefits it would reap.
It remains to be seen how long the American audience can be distracted before other actors re-direct their attention back to center stage, whether to the Israel rift or elsewhere. But that's why politics is theater--all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...and one man in his time plays many parts.