Is There a Problem With the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow?
Edward LOZANSKY, President, American University in Moscow
According to standard, generally accepted rules of diplomacy, an ambassador’s responsibilities include meeting officials, attending government ceremonies, receiving and analyzing reports from his staff and operatives, and sending regular correspondence back home with his/her comments and advice.
Mike McFaul, however, apparently finds this diplomatic routine too boring and does not intend to stick within its limits during his tenure in Moscow. Mike is by nature an activist who likes to work in the field and who has never concealed his dedication to the idea of democracy promotion throughout the world – despite the pretty dismal record of “color revolutions” throughout the post-Soviet space. One does not have to read all his books, just look at titles like the self-explanatory “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution,” to realize what his priorities in Russia are.
McFaul definitely understands that Russia, democratic or not, is an important international player whose help America often needs to meet global security challenges. In many observers’ view he is the chief architect of the “reset” policy to improve U.S.- Russian relations after eight years of George Bush’s disastrous presidency. At the same time he has to keep his guard up if he wishes to please many folks back home who consider the “reset” to be Obama’s greatest failure and a policy of appeasement to Moscow. To pacify those critics McFaul resorts to what is known as a “dual track policy” – that of talking both with government officials and the opposition.
Torn between his own interests, an ambassador’s obligations and domestic infighting among different pressure groups, McFaul is clearly in a very difficult position. Life at Stanford must surely have been much more quiet and comfortable.
I foresaw some of McFaul’s future troubles already at the time of the nomination hearings at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Having the privilege of attending those hearings, I must admit I was a little bit puzzled by his statement regarding the way he saw his future responsibilities as U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Confirming that he would do what he thought was best for America he also added that Washington was not in the business of pleasing Moscow.
Indeed, U.S. ambassadors have to care first and foremost about American interests. That goes without saying. Still, they usually do not publicly demonstrate their disregard for the country’s interests where they are posted. It is just not done. Professional diplomats can always be relied on uttering some platitudes.
Not so with McFaul. A few days ago, when asked about the meaning of Obama’s private remarks to Medvedev that were supposed to appease the Kremlin’s missile defense fears and were overheard by reporters, he bluntly said: "It means we are going to build whatever missile defense system we need." Such, mildly speaking, problematic statements may score him some points with “reset” critics –but will president Obama approve of this rhetoric?
Again, McFaul is absolutely right when he says that his job is to do what is best for America. The real question is, though, what particular role played by an ambassador will benefit America most? Searching for pragmatic and mutually beneficial approaches to common global challenges, pleasing the Mitt Romney – John McCain crowd, or hopelessly trying to reshape Russia to his liking?
Let us admit that McFaul has a tough job ahead of him and he deserves our full support and sympathy. However, if he wants to succeed in Moscow, his transition from scholar-activist to diplomat has to be completed sooner rather than later.