Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.
It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.
One of the revelations learned while writing my new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, a study of a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the U.S. military spends more time in the classroom identifying and discussing mistakes than they often do in the field so that they can become better soldiers, sailors, and pilots. The State Department, however, has never convened a lessons learned exercise to determine why its approach on any episode has failed. If John Kerry is truly serious about being a diplomatic leader, he could do nothing better than convene a deep review of the “Reset” with Russia, its origins, the metrics by which the State Department planned to judge it, if they even bothered with metrics, and where they might have caught Putin’s insincerity. It’s not shameful to examine mistakes; it is crucial.
Alas, absent such a measure, expect the United States to get played far more in the coming years by enemies like Putin not because of the current occupant of the Oval Office, but rather because the philosophy he represents is taken as unquestioned wisdom among America’s professional diplomats.