- - Sunday, January 1, 2017


Settling scores is always petty, whether by pouty teenagers, embittered ex-spouses or soon-to-be former presidents. Barack Obama is making himself look small and insignificant when he could be looking like a big man making a graceful exit.

His disgraceful performance last week at the United Nations, getting even with Israel for shunning suicide and his scheme to make permanent “peace” in the Middle East, will be the legacy he is remembered by.

This was followed by a challenge to Vladimir Putin, inviting a high-stakes duel, if not a duel to the death at least a duel to humiliation by diplomacy. The inevitable impression left by the exchange was that the American president was playing out of his league.

His expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and the closure of two diplomatic facilities in the United States was meant to be bold punishment for suspected Russian hacking into the Democratic presidential campaign, but it was widely mocked as a president getting to the game after all bets were down.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a defense hawk, applauded the expulsions as a needed rebuke of bad Russian behavior, but dismissed its effectiveness as “just more of the same failed foreign policy of the last eight years, a series of too little too late, half measures designed to appear tough, with minimal practical impact. Sanctioning Russian entities associated with the intrusion of the Democratic National Committee sounds bold, but it’s unclear what the practical impact will be on organizations that likely don’t have holdings in the United States.”

Timing, in love as in war, is everything, and Mr. Obama long ago made it clear that he has little appetite for foreign statecraft. He might have acted when boldness would have made a positive impact, but he let opportunity after opportunity slip past.

The Russians looked at first to be playing Mr. Obama’s game, to answer the expulsion of the Russian diplomats with an order expelling 35 Americans from Russia. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, early on said “we cannot leave such acts unanswered. Reciprocity is part of diplomatic law.”

But Vlad the Imparter was playing the subtle game, and when Mr. Obama was expecting tit for tat, the Russian president struck. Russia has the right to do that, Mr. Putin said, “but it will not engage in irresponsible diplomacy.” He pushed the needle in a little deeper. “It’s a pity that the current U.S. administration is finishing their work in such a manner, and Russia refuses to sink to the level of this irresponsible ‘kitchen diplomacy.’”

Taking note of the difficulty Russian diplomats in the United States are having with travel arrangements in the busy holiday season, trying to meet Mr. Obama’s 72-hour deadline for leaving the country on short notice, he dispatched a government plane to take them home.

Then he wished the president-elect “and the American people” a happy new year, and invited the children of American diplomats in Moscow to the Kremlin for a holiday party. The score was settled.

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