Commentary Magazine


Obama’s First Test

Barack Obama has been weak on Russia. When Russian tanks and planes invaded Georgia in August, Obama strongly condemned “the outbreak of violence in Georgia,” as if the exploding bombs and missiles were manifestations of an insentient Caucasian virus. He followed that up with an unhelpful dig at the sitting U.S. president, offering “We’ve got to send a clear message to Russia and unify our allies. They can’t charge into other countries. Of course it helps if we are leading by example on that point.” Because we know how faithfully Russia follows our example. To make matters worse, Obama’s position on a proposed American missile defense shield in Eastern Europe is contradictory and incoherent. He was at first against it, but seemed to endorse it in the last presidential debate, while his campaign website now states his promise to “prudently explore” the “possibility of deploying” missile defenses on Eastern European soil.

So it’s no surprise that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev (it’s time we gave the two of them one of those compound monikers–Putvedev?) saw the election of Obama as a softening of American resolve to be exploited immediately. Within hours of Obama’s win, Medvedev announced Russia’s intention to place short-range missiles in Kaliningrad, near Poland’s border, and to renege on its commitment to pull intercontinental ballistic missile regiments from western Russia.

In fairness to Obama, he has not been as instinctively wrong as George W. Bush, who found a good soul in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, nor as exquisitely wrong as Henry Kissinger, who wrote in July, “In many ways, we are witnessing one of the most promising periods in Russian history.” What ways?

For one thing, the emerging power structure seems more complex than conventional wisdom holds. It was always doubtful why, if his primary objective was to retain power, Putin would choose the complicated and uncertain route of becoming prime minister; his popularity would have allowed him to amend the constitution and extend his presidency.

What Kissinger did not see was that Putin and Medvedev had more-or-less morphed into a two-headed entity and Medvedev’s fresh face would give Putin’s old tricks the cheap gleam of reform. Today, Reuters reports that Medvedev may be planning to change the constitution, increase the term of presidency from four years to six, and step down in 2009, paving the way for Putin to “rule for two six year terms, so from 2009 to 2021.”

The gullibility of George W. Bush must not be compounded by the relativism of Barack Obama. Obama cannot ditch his old habits of mind soon enough. Putin’s spokespeople deny the above plan, but no American leader can afford to give the Kremlin the benefit of the doubt. Obama needs to start working on our allies, using his powers of persuasion, and making good on his promise of increased international cooperation. But before he does that, sadly, he still needs to make a statement about Medvedev’s missile announcement, which is now almost a day-and-a-half-old. Let’s hope he finds the right tone this time. Obama’s first test has come far sooner than Joe Biden predicted.