Republicans Criticize Obama for Talking to Putin

Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama speak during a luncheon at the United Nations on September 28. Obama has been criticized by his GOP opponents for meeting with the Russian president. Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged subtle barbs in speeches before the U.N. General Assembly ahead of a one-on-one meeting in New York Monday evening.

Before sitting down with Putin, Obama was also being criticized by key GOP leaders, who accused him of playing into the Kremlin's hands.

Senator Marco Rubio told NPR news early Monday morning that if he was president, "I'm not sure we would meet with [Putin]" or Iranian leaders. Rubio, a presidential candidate and Republican establishment favorite, received praise for his performance in the second GOP presidential debate, during which he said that the United States needed to take a tougher approach to Russia. Obama and Putin have not met since 2014, when Russia escalated its involvement in Ukraine by supplying weapons to pro-Russian separatist forces.

"Here's the argument the Russians are making: The United States broke the Middle East," Rubio told NPR. He faulted the Obama administration for leaving a power vacuum in Iraq by withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011, attributing the rise of ISIS and the destabilizing Syrian civil war to Obama's foreign policy. In the absence of a strong American military presence, Rubio said, regional powers would continue to look to Russia for help.

"He has in fact strengthened Putin's hand" by leaving Iraq destabilized, Rubio claimed.

The perception that Obama has rolled out the red carpet for Putin is a key part of Republican candidates' complaints about current U.S. foreign policy, as Jeb Bush noted on Twitter:

Obama allows Russia & Iran more influence in Syria & Iraq. Not good for US, Israel, or our moderate Muslim partners

— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) September 27, 2015

Obama told the U.N. General Assembly that the U.S. is willing to cooperate with any country in order to defeat terrorists like ISIS. But in the estimation of the president's critics, talking with Putin as Russia attempts to exert greater influence over the Middle East is tantamount to waving the white flag.

Senator John McCain put out a statement declaring Obama's meeting with Putin "misguided" and "unnecessary," adding that the meeting would "legitimize" Russian actions in Syria. McCain lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election in no small part because the two differed on the unpopular Iraq War, with the latter favoring an end to the American occupation. Current Republican candidates—the hawkish Lindsey Graham excepted—have been reluctant to directly suggest putting more American boots on the ground to defeat ISIS and re-stabilize Syria.

There is no room for accommodating an "apocalyptic cult" like ISIS, Obama told the General Assembly.

Iraq recently declared its intention to share intelligence with Iran, Russia and Syria in combating ISIS. Regional governments appear to be united against the common enemy, though going around the U.S.'s back rarely sits well with American leaders.

The multilateral Iran nuclear deal also looms over the General Assembly session. Rubio called the Iran nuclear deal "apocalyptic," while former Vice President Dick Cheney labeled it "madness." In the second GOP presidential debate, the candidates seemed to agree that Obama's foreign policy had made the world a dangerous place while increasing the chances of an attack on American soil.

As Donald Trump put it, "Do you feel safe?" Heading into the election season, the eventual Republican nominee will benefit if the American people answer no.

In his General Assembly speech, Obama made a pre-emptive strike at his Iran deal opponents, saying that a distrust of the international order has infected democracy in America, producing domestic political gridlock and "a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries."

"We see an argument made that the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and show of military force...that cooperation and diplomacy will not work," he said.