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Jackson Diehl's Quest for a Hypocritical and Ineffective Russia Policy
The Washington Post editorial page is now one of the most bellicose and uncompromising in the entire country, a few small steps away from becoming a southern branch office of the Wall Street Journal’s. While it’s still true that the WSJ’s editorial staff and contributors are a bit more excitable in their verbiage, and a bit more interested in hippy-punching, there’s a broadly similar ideological zeal and a distressingly familiar disregard for the messiness of the real world. While quite a few people still think, wrongly, that the Post is an outpost of establishment liberalism, the fact of the matter is that the differences between people like Brett Stephens and James Taranto and people like Fred Hiatt and Jackson Diehl are vanishingly small (indeed, they’re almost purely rhetorical).
Jackson Diehl has been extremely dissatisfied with Obama’s mostly but not overwhelmingly successful Russia policy for quite awhile now. Indeed Diehl is not just dissatisfied with Obama’s timorous handling of Putin, he’s really unhappy with virtually the entirety of Obama’s foreign policy record. A quick scan of his recent columns shows that Diehl is consistently appalled by the weakness and accommodation of US policy in a truly bewildering array of countries: “Why the U.S. should intervene in Syria,” ”Obama is lagging on Egypt,” “Obama’s policy on Venezuela leaves Chavez’s victims paying price,” “Obama’s Mideast peace gaffe,” ”Obama’s dubious claim of leadership in Libya.” So Obama’s not just cowardly bungling Russia, he’s bungled Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Israel too! With all that bungling, it’s a wonder Obama can even get out of bed in the morning, indeed it’s a wonder he’s able to exist at all since he’s apparently constitutionally incapable of doing anything successfully.
As a very brief digression, part of what makes American politics so bothersome and infuriating is that when you defend a politician in a particular instance, in this case Obama’s relatively reasonable Russia policy, you are automatically assumed to be carrying water for them in a more general sense. I’m not an Obama partisan and have no interest in becoming one. I won’t defend the man’s bellicose Iran policy, his bizarre insistence on ABM in eastern Europe, his non-war war in Libya, or his massive escalation of drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and wherever else we have yet to learn about because I don’t think that these policies are worth defending. I have cautiously defended, and will continue to cautiously defend, Obama’s Russia policy because it has been a too-rare instance in which there has been a persistent focus on actual, real-world results and an eschewal of meaningless, cliche-ridden happy talk.
So what is Diehl’s complaint? Let’s consider his latest article “Obama’s Misguided Wooing of an Uninterested Putin”
Either way, Putin appears lukewarm at best about the main cause of Obama’s focus on him: his ambition to conclude a groundbreaking nuclear weapons accord in 2013. The deal would go well beyond the New START treaty of 2010 and aim at a radical, long-term reduction of the U.S. and Russian arsenals. It would be Obama’s legacy achievement on the foreign-policy issue that most engages him, and the retroactive justification for his Nobel Peace Prize.
Putin, however, doesn’t seem terribly interested. A seven-point directive on relations with the United States he issued last week listed “further reduction of strategic offensive arms” sixth, and said they “are possible only within the context of taking into account any and all factors influencing global strategic stability.” That means missile defense: Point seven reiterates Moscow’s demand for “firm guarantees” about U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems.
Diehl doesn’t provide any argument for why, exactly, the Russians shouldn’t link missile defense with the “further reduction of strategic offensive arms.” Isn’t it obvious that the Russians will, understandably, be a bit wary about massively reducing their nuclear stockpile if the United States will continue to aggressively pursue ballistic missile defense? Right now the general argument is “the Russians have hundreds upon hundreds of ICBM’s, there’s no way we can intercept them all so ABM doesn’t post a threat.” But if the Russians agree to Obama’s proposed “radical, long term” reduction in their arsenal, the calculus obviously changes. The only “guarantee” the United States will currently give the Russians about missile defense are statements of “trust us, guys!” Understandably, the Russians would like something a bit more firm. I truly don’t understand why the Russian position on the “linkage” of ABM and strategic arms reduction is considered wrong-headed or radical, I can only imagine what the Washington Post editorial page would say if the Chinese started building a worldwide system of missile defense targeted at hypothetical future threats, but, at an absolute minimum, this has been the Russian position for quite awhile and it’s not going to change any time soon. Therefore, it doesn’t seem worth worrying about.
But the meat of Diehl’s criticism, his most serious complaint about Obama, is that the president’s policy unduly ignores “human rights:”
What’s striking about this strategy is its disregard for the biggest foreign-policy lesson of Obama’s first term. The Arab Spring showed that “engagement” with autocratic leaders isn’t wise if their grip is slipping. With thousands of opposition demonstrators roaming the streets of Moscow and clashing with his security forces, Putin looks more than a little like Hosni Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad when Obama was courting them three years ago: For now he’s in control — but his governing model is broken, and his country is beginning to turn on him.
A little bet-hedging would seem to be in order, particularly given Putin’s stiffing of a presidential invitation. That’s why the most wrongheaded piece of the administration’s policy may be its continuing and stubborn opposition to the “Magnitsky bill” — a piece of legislation, authored by Democrats, that aims to restore human rights to the center of U.S.-Russian relations.
The Arab Spring is not a cohesive whole, it is an incredibly diverse set of uprisings in a number of different countries that have had radically different outcomes: an apparently stable and liberal-ish democratic regime in Tunisia, a chaotic, chronically unstable, and militia-dominated government in Libya, a substantially unreformed military dictatorship that might soon be taken over by Islamists in Egypt, an incipient civil war in Syria, the complete and utter defeat of the demonstrators in Bahrain (aided, of course, by our good friends the Saudis), and a one-candidate election in Yemen (where the candidate got a North Korea-like 99.8% of the vote). How in the hell can one draw any firm lessons whatsoever from outcomes that diverse? Based on what happened to countries that actually a part of the Arab Spring, if Russia experiences a “Slavic Spring” the outcome is far more likely to be sustained civil conflict and economic collapse than the creation of liberal democracy. Indeed if, as seems more likely than not, Egypt turns into a Salafist-dominated nightmare, it won’t be long before the Washington Post itself is filled with paeans to the good, old, and eminently predictable days of Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed if, as Diehl seems to suggest, Russia is headed for a domestic political situation that is in the same universe as Egypt or Syria, we should all be getting ready to meet our maker. Russia, in case anyone’s forgotten, possesses thousands of nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them anywhere on earth at short notice. One of the very best books about the collapse is Stephen Kotkin’s “Armageddon Averted,” which makes the point that a Yugoslav-like end to the Soviet Union was averted in no small measure because of happenstance and good luck. Would we be so lucky if the Russian Federation also underwent a messy and chaotic collapse? I have my doubts, but would argue that it would be preferable to avoid rolling the dice altogether. Indeed the Russian opposition itself has been broadly in agreement on the need to avoid a violent, revolutionary rupture and to pursue an evolutionary path that, although less emotionally satisfying, will be better for the country and its citizens.
Also I know that I am quite young, especially when compared to your typical newspaper columnist, but I must have been too young to remember when human rights were ever at “the center” of US-Russian relations. How can we “restore” something to “the center” when it has always been a marginal consideration, one that is dusted off when it’s convenient for American interests and put back in storage when it’s not? Is Diehl referring to George W. Bush’s administration? Clinton’s? George H.W. Bush’s administration? Clinton, of course, kept quiet about Yeltsin’s multitudinous transgressions, particularly the horrifically botched war in Chechnya, because of the understanding that Yeltsin was “our guy” in Moscow and that any other Russian leader was likely to be far less positively disposed towards American interests. George W. Bush, of course, started to emphasize human rights in his Russia policy only after Putin opposed the Iraq war: he was perfectly content to cooperate with Putin during the initial stages of the “war on terror,” a time when Putin was most dramatically consolidating his power and would have been most vulnerable to American pressure. Even in the most confrontational days of the Bush administration when tensions between the US and Russia were almost at a Cold War level, human rights was not at “the center” of US-Russian relations but was merely one of an extremely large number of considerations.
Far more troubling, Diehl is essentially arguing in favor of bald moral relativism, a relativism so glaring and obvious that it’s scarcely believable. We’re supposed to place human rights at “the center” of our Russia policy, and subsume all other considerations to the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, and expect to be taken seriously when we actively cooperate with far more dramatically repressive and backwards regimes, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan, among others, when it comes to confronting Syria and Iran?* A certain amount of hypocrisy is unavoidable in great power politics, but a United States foreign policy that is predicated on aggressively promoting democracy only in countries that happen disagree with us will never be effective. Indeed, by so clearly linking “democratization” with “receptiveness to American geopolitical interests” such a policy can only serve to delegitimize the underlying concept. And that would be a travesty because democratization is a positive thing, and something which I support. However, as should be clear, there is no inherent relationship between “democratization” and “support for American policy:” as just one of many such examples, Turkey has become far more independent of American policy precisely as its domestic political system has become more democratic and representative.
Human rights have never been and will never be at “the center” of the Unites States’ relationship with any large country because the world is a chaotic, messy place and there will always be tension (and in many cases outright conflict) between the United States’ interests and its values. We don’t have to celebrate this fact, but we need to acknowledge it. Obama’s Russia policy has been modestly successful at getting the Russians to cooperate on Afghanistan, Libya, and Iran, often against their better instincts. A policy that is deliberately designed to antagonize and marginalize the Russians will scuttle these, admittedly paltry, accomplishments and swiftly return the US-Russia relationship to the dysfunctional and antagonistic state that it was in before “the reset.”
* I did find the naivete of this Diehl column about Saudi Arabia and Bahrain particularly touching, especially the bit where Diehl thinks that the Americans would somehow prohibit the use of force to disperse the protests in Manama. I also find the difference in tone to be remarkable, particularly the exceedingly kind treatment of Adel al Jubeir.