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Michael McFaul’s Revealing Interview

It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for Michael McFaul. He is extraordinarily qualified for his job–perhaps among the most qualified American ambassadors to any country. He has found himself in trouble recently for speaking “undiplomatically” too often, which means he lacks the PC-filter that dumbs down so much of our public diplomacy. And he has been treated with such suspicion by the Kremlin and the FSB precisely because he has been writing books for decades on establishing democracy in the post-Soviet space. And now the man who was once the darling of nearly every ideological subgroup in U.S.-Russian relations finds himself doubted or criticized by those same groups.

That is because of McFaul’s handling of the U.S.-Russian “reset,” about which McFaul opens up in an interview with GQ Russia, in which he offers some surprisingly frank assessments of the policy. The reset got off to a famously clumsy start, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov a red button on which the State Department thought they had written the Russian word for reset. They had not; the button said “overcharge.” Clinton, apparently unaware of the mistake, said to Lavrov: “We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” They clearly had not worked hard to get the word, as there should be a Russian speaker or two at Foggy Bottom.

But apparently Clinton’s awkward, sheepish question was meant to hide the fact that the State Department already knew the word was wrong–they had shown the button to McFaul too late to be changed. McFaul recounts this episode in the 6,000-word profile for GQ Russia, which was then translated into English and reprinted by Foreign Policy. The latter seems to have omitted this story (among other things) from the English translation, but it’s a shame, because it is actually something of a metaphor for McFaul’s time in Russia–at least as he recounts it in the interview. McFaul is harassed mercilessly, causing him to lose his temper repeatedly. That leads to the following exchange in the interview:

Given all that’s happened, does he feel that the reset is stalling, or dead? Or, given the extent to which simple spite and wounded pride factor into Russian foreign policy, that it was a naïve endeavor to begin with?  “Our policy is that we think it’s in our national interest to have governments that are open, more transparent, and more accountable to their people,” he says, citing the widely held theory that democratic countries are more likely to be at peace with each other.

The obvious takeaway from this is that had there been any way to claim that the reset was still extant, McFaul–the architect of the reset and the ambassador charged with carrying it out–would have made it. Instead, he didn’t even answer the question. Thus, the argument now pits those who believe the reset is over against those who don’t believe it ever got off the ground.

McFaul, interestingly enough, says the reset surely existed and accomplished some of its aims, but talks like a man who doubts there ever was a reset. He claims his treatment has been far worse under Putin than during the Soviet Union, and when a Russian television reporter ambushed him unexpectedly, taking his last bit of composure, he yelled: “This turned out to be a wild country! This isn’t normal!” (He later claimed he misspoke.)

Yet McFaul is an unlikely target for such abuse–a fact he freely admits. He’s been advocating for the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment without a bipartisan replacement bill that is favored here in the U.S., in Europe, and among Russia’s opposition–but is opposed by Putin’s government. And McFaul played a significant role in pushing Georgia to lift its opposition to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. He talks about these successes often, the article notes:

But the virulent attacks clearly stung him in a personal way, and at times he sounded like a lover scorned. “They’re the ones who have changed,” he said, shaking his head and spreading his arms in a kind of stunned helplessness. “We’ve changed nothing. Zero.”

The Russian government, meanwhile, speaks of the reset in almost ridiculous terms:

“The reset has fulfilled its mission, which was to remove the foolishness of the Bush era,” [Sergei Markov, a high-ranking Russian official close to Putin] said, inhaling a mushroom pastry in one bite. “Now it’s time for the Americans to meet us halfway.” That means: Get rid of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, develop their military strategy with Russia’s interests in mind, and change the anti-Russian “regimes” in Latvia and Estonia. (How? Well, that is up to the Americans, he told me.)

Hey, as long as they’re taking orders, Markov thinks, why not hand them the Christmas list?

Markov and McFaul are old friends, so this type of talk must be especially insulting to McFaul. Markov is speaking about McFaul as if he is Markov’s butler, and the Americans as if they are patsies. And it must be particularly difficult for McFaul to carry out a policy that leaves this impression.