In foreign affairs, it was not a quiet few days leading up to the New Year’s weekend — from Secretary of State John Kerry’s blunt parting speech about Israel to President Obama’s announcement of retaliation against the Kremlin for election hacking. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with New York Times columnist David Brooks and David Corn of Mother Jones about the week in politics.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Next, to the analysis of Brooks and Corn. That’s syndicated New York Times columnist David Brooks, and “Mother Jones” Washington bureau chief David Corn.
All right, David Brooks, let’s start some of the unilateral steps that President Obama has taken just in the last few weeks. We are talking about everything from the Russian sanctions to the U.N. Security Council condemnation — or allowing the U.N. Security Council to go forward in the condemnation of the Israeli settlements, preserving large swathes of land.
As the paper of record, The New York Times, said, is this about boxing Trump in?
DAVID BROOKS: I guess a little. But what can be done by a president can be undone by a president.
What’s sort of remarkable is that, especially in the Israel and the Russia cases, you have got a U.S. citizen, Donald Trump, siding with a foreign leader against the U.S. president.
There is a reason why president-elects have tried to remain mute during their transitional periods, relatively, because you just don’t want to be for somebody — some other country against your own government, and especially when you’re about to take the helm of that government.
And there will be a lot of permanent people who are just going to be stuck there who are now in a war between the president-elect and the guy they’re currently serving.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David Corn, does this violate the spirit of that smooth transition that both gentlemen had that photo-op in the White House?
DAVID CORN: Well, President Obama is still president until January 20, and the world keeps turning.
Now, the Republicans wanted to call his presidency over last February, when he nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. The U.N. sanction vote came up. It wasn’t scheduled by Obama. And a lot of people think he should have responded to the Russian hacking of the U.S. elections weeks ago, months ago.
So these happened on his watch. There’s nothing wrong with him dealing with it. The Trump side now seems to be whining that he’s violating the smooth transition and trying to delegitimize Trump. But coming from Trump, who pushed the racist birth conspiracy theory for years against Barack Obama, I think Obama has been very much a gentleman. And he has a lot of reason to just not even bother to deal with Trump.
HARI SREENIVASAN: How different is this from previous presidents on their way out? Is it fairly traditional to leave an exclamation point at the end?
DAVID CORN: Well, it’s kind of.
And I think, depending what is happening — when George W. Bush left, he left Barack Obama two raging wars. And the biggest fight he had was inside his own government about whether or not to pardon Scooter Libby. And he was sort of consumed fighting with Dick Cheney about that, and didn’t do a lot I think externally.
And I think he was focused on trying to, from a national security perspective, bring Obama and his people up to speed, so they could take control of these wars.
Bill Clinton had the controversy with pardons when he was walking out the door, Marc Rich and others, that certainly tarnished his reputation. But I think Obama is just doing what he should be doing at this point.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David Brooks, it almost seems like there is a first 100 day strategy and at the end of four or eight years the last hundred days, to do all the things that you wish you could have done, but this is on your way out.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
That is not abnormal. If you look at regulations that come out of White Houses, even Republican White Houses, there is a ton right at the end as they try to jam everything in at the end. That’s reasonably standard.
But there certainly is a pattern of administrations that have good transitions, George W. Bush to Barack Obama, and administrations that have really bad transitions, I would say Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy.
I would say this is beginning to look like a bad transition, as they begin to argue even at the presidential level, which is more or less unprecedented.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s start talking a little bit about Russia.
Will the sanctions that we have imposed keep the Russian hackers out?
DAVID BROOKS: No. No.
It’s so disproportionate. They interfered in our elections, and we like penalized a few of them. Whatever they’re doing underground, we don’t know. No, this is going to be a big issue.
And I have to say the Obama — the Trump position is, A, mystifying, but, B, doomed. He has a nice little Putin romance going on right now. I think we’re going to get out the hankies, because this is going to turn into an ugly relationship within a year or two.
The things that make them similar — their machismo, their expansionary braggadocio — is going to turn them I think into bitter and dangerous enemies. We will look back on this moment where we thought Putin and Trump were sort of close as a moment of bitter irony, when they get into a schoolyard display against each other, amping up each other’s worst tendencies and putting the two countries in some sort of scary position.
That’s just my feel of how things are going to get in the next year.
DAVID CORN: That may be the best-case scenario.
I don’t necessarily see things going that way. I still am mystified, to use your word, about why Trump is out there tweeting praise of Vladimir Putin these days, and still kind of denying and dismissing whether the hacking happened or the seriousness of it.
And people out there keep asking, what is behind this bromance? Before the election, I reported on a story about a counterintelligence officer from another service sending reports to the FBI saying that his sources in Russia were saying that Moscow tried for years to cultivate and co-opt Donald Trump.
I’m not saying that happened. I’m saying I hope the FBI took a strong look, because it is really hard to believe that a president-elect would be so callous in how he approaches this issue and so dismissive of the seriousness of it.
And so maybe he will turn on Putin, as you suggest, but maybe there is something else there in which he is enamored with Putin for some reason that we really don’t understand yet.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the president-elect’s position that we have got to move on, these are all essentially ploys to try delegitimize my win?
DAVID CORN: Well, I think he should be delegitimized for many reasons.
And his response to this hacking is also cause for delegitimization. But to say we should move on, when the bedrock of American democracy, the sanctity of our elections, has been messed with, just raises suspicions.
It would be so easy for him to say the obvious thing: This is terrible. We’re going to look into it. And then we’re going to try to prevent this from happening again in the future.
But his denial of it happening or its seriousness shows that there is something really amiss from his end of it.
HARI SREENIVASAN: David Brooks, what happens in that conversation with intelligence officials that Donald Trump said he is going to take in order to get to the bottom of this or get to a common set of facts? It’s already a fairly tense relationship with the intelligence community.
DAVID BROOKS: Of course I don’t know what’s going on in that meeting on in the mind of Donald Trump.
But I do know one of the things President Obama was struck by was how much time he spent on cyber-security as president. It was one of the big surprises as president. And one of the things he said was that, in the years ahead, the next president will be spending even more time.
And cyber-security isn’t a thing that goes away after this election. It’s a constant flow. And Russia has a very sophisticated, advanced attack on U.S. businesses and U.S. government and U.S. institutions. And it’s not like Donald Trump is going to be walking away from this. He will be spending a lot of time on it, if he’s any sort of normal president.
DAVID CORN: Well, maybe, but we don’t know.
He keeps dismissing the seriousness and even tweets out or puts a statement saying, you know, computers, it’s kind of complicated. You know, a lot of things happen.
It remains to be seen what he is serious about on any policy level.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, speaking of policy level, one of the things that we saw was that the U.N. Security Council was allowed to go forward with the condemnation of Israeli settlements, that the United States didn’t use its veto power.
DAVID CORN: I think it’s a policy that’s very defensible, in that, right now, the settlements are a complete obstacle or a threat to a two-state solution.
Now, I think Netanyahu and the far right of Israel don’t believe in a two-state solution, and they just can’t come out and say it yet. Now, Donald Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel has said that quite clearly.
But if there’s no two-state solution, then Israel is on the path to being an occupying nation without full political rights for all its inhabitants. And, you know, there have been other Israeli leaders who have talked about the prospect of a form of apartheid in Israel.
So, I think the Obama position and the majority position of American Jews and a lot of Americans is a two-state solution. Settlements get in the way of that. If they’re not stopped soon, there is no prospect for that type of solution.
DAVID BROOKS: Now we disagree.
I think it’s a completely indefensible policy. Settlements are an obstacle to peace and to a two-state solution. There’s no question about that. They are about the fifth or sixth most important obstacle right now.
The fact that there could be an ISIS West Bank, the fact that the Palestinian government in Gaza doesn’t even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, the fact of constant terror, delegitimization campaigns in the Palestinian schools, these are all much bigger facts.
And for the Obama administration to focus on this one fact, almost, not to the expense, but to diminish some of the others which are much more important, is to cast all the blame on Israel and to take the U.N. policy toward Israel, which has been longstanding, and sort of surrender to it.
Netanyahu, Bibi Netanyahu, froze the settlements and offered to go toward a two-state solution. The Palestinians didn’t take him up on it. Historically, we have had a series of these offers. And the settlements themselves are not the keystone here.
And it seems to me myopic and bizarre that at the last moment, the Obama administration would surrender the whole balanced array of policies that are obstacles to peace and focus on the one that is most detrimental to Israel.
DAVID CORN: Well, I think John Kerry’s speech was not just about settlements. It was about the whole large path to peace and what’s been happening to it.
And it was one of the — I think one of the most thorough policy statements that you have seen from any secretary of state on a contentious issue. So, I think that it’s not just myopia.
The vote obviously was not scheduled by the administration. I’m sure they would rather it had not happened. But I think they also wanted to send a clear signal, because they don’t believe Netanyahu is serious about a two-state solution. And the rapid expansion of the settlements is something that actually could be stopped, and may not even be up for negotiation, but would be a good unilateral move on Israel’s part.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What about the choice of David Friedman as the ambassador? What does that do to the situation?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, that just shows how polarized the whole situation has become, because the Obama administration has focused the onus on Israel and the settlements.
And then the Trump potential administration apparently is pro-settlement, and almost against a two-state solution. So we have got two polar opposite Israel policies, which really break what had been a pretty decent bipartisan consensus that we have got to have a two-state solution, we sort of know what the border is going to look like, we sort of know what East Jerusalem is going to look like.
And no administration has ever said, as the Obama administration sort of implied, that Israel wouldn’t have access to the Western Wall, to the East Jerusalem. And that was also in the resolution. And all administrations have not really gone on the U.N. train.
And so what we’re seeing is a complete bifurcation to two wrong Israeli policies.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, finally, staying in the neighborhood, does it matter that the U.S. is not a part of whatever this cease-fire in Syria is at the moment?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it matters, in that, if you withdraw from the game, you’re out of the game. And we have withdrawn from the game. And we said Assad has to go. He’s going to stay. So we’re out of the game. And they don’t have to deal us in when it comes to finding a solution.
But that was our choice. That was our choice to withdraw from that particular game.
DAVID CORN: We were behind two cease-fires this year, one in February that lasted a few months, and one in September that lasted about a week.
We have no idea how long this is going to last. There’s a great possibility that some on the rebel side will start fighting amongst themselves, because some of the rebel groups, the more fundamentalist, are not part of the cease-fire.
So, if there is anything that stops the fighting and stops the civilian casualties, that’s a good thing now for a pause. But I’m not very optimistic this is going to last.
And I do think John Kerry has tried awfully hard to work with Russia and others to have a lasting, significant cease-fire.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Corn of “Mother Jones,” David Brooks of The New York Times, David and David, thank you very much.
DAVID CORN: Happy new year.
DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Happy new year.