Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michael McFaul

The McFaul Era in Moscow Draws to a Close

Michael McFaul has announced he is leaving his post as United States ambassador to Russia after the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. In many ways, his troubled tenure in Moscow has been representative of broader trends in U.S.-Russia relations during Vladimir Putin’s leadership. McFaul is easily among the most qualified American ambassadors to any country under any administration, as a Rhodes scholar who studied in the Soviet Union, prolific author on Russian politics, and finally National Security Council-based presidential advisor on Russian affairs before being nominated to the ambassador’s post two years ago.

But Moscow is where theory bows to reality. And the reality for McFaul, architect of the failed “reset,” was bitter. He went to Russia with high hopes and an open mind, yet the abuse leveled at him by his hosts “didn’t even happen in the Soviet Union,” in McFaul’s own words. Worse than the Soviet Union? It’s not an easy thing to admit for a representative of the Obama administration, which had spent years deluding themselves and mocking conservatives as being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” as President Obama said in his 2012 convention speech, which sounded like it was written by a Berkeley freshman, and not a particularly clever one at that.

But McFaul didn’t have the luxury of basking in the administration’s delusions. He was too busy dodging Kremlin mouthpieces he accused of hacking his phone and email, subject to harassment and a mammoth disinformation campaign. And his farewell message, posted on his blog, shows the defensiveness U.S. officials have when addressing “successes” of the two countries’ bilateral relationship:

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Michael McFaul has announced he is leaving his post as United States ambassador to Russia after the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. In many ways, his troubled tenure in Moscow has been representative of broader trends in U.S.-Russia relations during Vladimir Putin’s leadership. McFaul is easily among the most qualified American ambassadors to any country under any administration, as a Rhodes scholar who studied in the Soviet Union, prolific author on Russian politics, and finally National Security Council-based presidential advisor on Russian affairs before being nominated to the ambassador’s post two years ago.

But Moscow is where theory bows to reality. And the reality for McFaul, architect of the failed “reset,” was bitter. He went to Russia with high hopes and an open mind, yet the abuse leveled at him by his hosts “didn’t even happen in the Soviet Union,” in McFaul’s own words. Worse than the Soviet Union? It’s not an easy thing to admit for a representative of the Obama administration, which had spent years deluding themselves and mocking conservatives as being stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” as President Obama said in his 2012 convention speech, which sounded like it was written by a Berkeley freshman, and not a particularly clever one at that.

But McFaul didn’t have the luxury of basking in the administration’s delusions. He was too busy dodging Kremlin mouthpieces he accused of hacking his phone and email, subject to harassment and a mammoth disinformation campaign. And his farewell message, posted on his blog, shows the defensiveness U.S. officials have when addressing “successes” of the two countries’ bilateral relationship:

But I also will leave with a feeling of accomplishment.  Since we set out to reset relations with Russia five years ago (yes, I am not afraid to use the word “reset”!), we have achieved a lot.  We signed and now are implementing the New Start Treaty.  We worked closely with the Russian government to expand the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which has developed into a vital transit route for supplying our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan and will now play an important role in withdrawing our military equipment from there.  We established the Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC), which now has more than two dozen working groups between our governments to nurture cooperation on everything from agriculture to innovation. We worked closely with our colleagues in Moscow to facilitate Russia’s accession into the World Trade Organization, and now continue to cooperate with the Russian government on ways to expand trade and investment between our two countries.

Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization was a legitimate accomplishment, and long overdue. The rest is spin: the “reset” is a punch line, and deservedly so, and the limited Russian cooperation on Afghanistan was in Russia’s own interest, which Putin readily acknowledged. New START was a useless distraction, though Russia doesn’t appear to be complying with missile agreements anyway.

None of this is because McFaul is a fool; he isn’t. It’s just that he was the representative of an administration that doesn’t take world affairs seriously. Indeed, one reason Americans should be sad to see McFaul leave the government is because of the second-term stream of incompetents the president has nominated to fill foreign-policy related posts. This is a pattern from the secretaries of state and defense, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, on down to plum ambassadorships.

For example, our new ambassador to Norway is a major Obama donor who appears to have first heard of Norway in his confirmation hearing:

To recap: Tsunis described Norway as having a president (“apparently under the impression that the country is a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy,” as the Local Norway’s News notes dryly). And he characterized the anti-immigration Progress Party as being among “fringe elements” who “spew their hatred” and have been denounced by the government.

That prompted McCain’s disbelieving answer: “The government has denounced them? The coalition government — they’re part of the coalition of the government.”

McCain, already flummoxed by the apparent inability of Obama’s choice to be ambassador to Hungary to list strategic U.S. interests there, closed his questioning with a bit of sarcasm: “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees.”

Confirmation hearings of Obama nominees have gotten quite painful to watch. They were funny at first, but now simply provoke gallows humor and sarcasm. McFaul was an exception: intelligent, experienced, often politically incorrect, and–unlike, apparently, some of our other esteemed ambassadors–previously aware of the existence of the country to which he was assigned.

McFaul’s nomination raised the bar, but that seems to have been temporary. It will also leave Russia-watchers pondering the missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential had McFaul served a president more prepared to confront reality.

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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.

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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.

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Russia Ambassador “New to Diplomacy?”

Last week, President Obama won fulsome praise from outgoing Russian President Medvedev, this after the Obama administration spent four years ignoring how the Russians were by turns intimidating and outflanking our diplomats.

With impeccable timing, last week was also when U.S. diplomacy in Russia slipped into some kind of foreign policy Twilight Zone, in which naive geopolitical plotting merged with bumbling incompetence merged with admitted inexperience merged even with the State Department’s now-tired but still obnoxious fascination with Twitter – all covered with a thick coat of irony.

It was like a cosmic convergence of every criticism ever leveled about how the Obama administration conducts foreign affairs. Even the really churlish and tangential ones.

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Last week, President Obama won fulsome praise from outgoing Russian President Medvedev, this after the Obama administration spent four years ignoring how the Russians were by turns intimidating and outflanking our diplomats.

With impeccable timing, last week was also when U.S. diplomacy in Russia slipped into some kind of foreign policy Twilight Zone, in which naive geopolitical plotting merged with bumbling incompetence merged with admitted inexperience merged even with the State Department’s now-tired but still obnoxious fascination with Twitter – all covered with a thick coat of irony.

It was like a cosmic convergence of every criticism ever leveled about how the Obama administration conducts foreign affairs. Even the really churlish and tangential ones.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the architect of the “reset” by which President Obama would use his personal charm to get Russia to cease pursuing its national interest, thew something of a fit. Hostile Russian journalists kept ambushing him at events, which he took – correctly – to mean they were getting his schedule in advance. In the midst of a longer rant about said ambushes, the ambassador accused the reporters of tapping his phone and email. The meltdown was preceded and followed by tweets similarly implying that Russian media organizations were diving into his personal communications.

Eventually someone explained to the ambassador that he was actually the target of a harassment campaign coordinated with Russian officials, ergo, press access to his schedule. McFaul tweeted an apology to the journalists whom he had accused of spying on him, reminding everyone that – hey – this whole diplomacy thing is new to him. Seriously:

McFaul seemed relieved to hear that Russian journalists are not tapping his phones. But he emphasized that the U.S. government does not tip off reporters in Washington about the travels of his Russian counterpart. “I am new to the world of diplomacy and did not [know] this fact. Thanks. I know we do not do the same with Russian ambo in U.S.,” McFaul tweeted. “Maybe I should start publishing my schedule? I am always happy to interact with press.”

Now it’s not impossible the ambassador was being sardonic, and he isn’t a dangerously inexperienced diplomat naively invested in a bonny fantasy of international harmony. Maybe the upshot of his tweet was “of course I know it’s the Russian government you guys; I’m obviously being passive-aggressive about naming names.” But the tweet’s overall tone, coupled with the earnest offer at the end, makes that interpretation unlikely. And as Seth recently noted, the kinds of conversations that Obama officials have with their Russian counterparts are in stark contrast to how petulant Russian power plays were dealt with during the Bush years. If the ambassador was sarcastically addressing Russian officials, it would be a departure.

Historians will wonder how the Obama administration could possibly have ignored all the evidence cutting against hopes for Russian good behavior. This minor but revealing affair with McFaul, where ideology insulated by inexperience prevented him from drawing some fairly obvious conclusions about Russian behavior, probably won’t make an appearance. But it should.

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Kasparov, Nemtsov call McFaul’s Bluff

On Tuesday, I wrote about U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul’s objection to tying America’s economic interaction with Russia to the promotion of human rights. McFaul was in Washington for a conference and also to push for repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation that sanctioned Moscow’s trade status for restricting Jewish emigration. Now that Russia is joining the World Trade Organization, Jackson-Vanik disadvantages American businesses, and so it’s time to repeal it.

But I argued that McFaul’s emphasis on repealing Jackson-Vanik was a dodge, since its repeal is uncontroversial. The real issue is whether it should be replaced by legislation that would hold Vladimir Putin’s administration accountable for its atrocious human rights record. Were McFaul not representing the Obama administration, I added, he might very well support such action–McFaul is the author of several books on promoting democracy in the post-Soviet space. Today, Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, two outspoken Russian opposition figures, take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make those points, and a few others.

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On Tuesday, I wrote about U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul’s objection to tying America’s economic interaction with Russia to the promotion of human rights. McFaul was in Washington for a conference and also to push for repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a piece of Cold War-era legislation that sanctioned Moscow’s trade status for restricting Jewish emigration. Now that Russia is joining the World Trade Organization, Jackson-Vanik disadvantages American businesses, and so it’s time to repeal it.

But I argued that McFaul’s emphasis on repealing Jackson-Vanik was a dodge, since its repeal is uncontroversial. The real issue is whether it should be replaced by legislation that would hold Vladimir Putin’s administration accountable for its atrocious human rights record. Were McFaul not representing the Obama administration, I added, he might very well support such action–McFaul is the author of several books on promoting democracy in the post-Soviet space. Today, Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, two outspoken Russian opposition figures, take to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to make those points, and a few others.

The authors note that McFaul challenged a crowd on Monday to ask Aleksei Navalny, a popular Russian activist and blogger who has become a vocal leader of the protest movement, what he thinks. McFaul was certain his interlocutors would decline to accept the challenge. Kasparov and Nemtsov called McFaul’s bluff:

So we asked Mr. Navalny, who, along with several other members of the opposition leadership, signed a letter cited by Mr. McFaul calling for the removal of Russia from Jackson-Vanik. “Of course no one in Russia is foolish enough to defend Jackson-Vanik,” he told us. “But we also understand that it should be replaced with something else. And we said as much in our letter when we recommended the passing of the Magnitsky Act, as has been done in Europe.”

Mr. Navalny is referring to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate last May with wide bipartisan support. Named for the Russian attorney who died in police custody in 2009 while investigating official corruption, the Magnitsky Act would bring visa and asset sanctions against Russian government functionaries culpable of criminal and human rights abuses.

Kasparov and Nemtsov also challenged the administration’s realpolitik approach to the “reset” policy, arguing that McFaul’s devotion to his own policy (the “reset” is McFaul’s handiwork) is causing the erstwhile defender of human rights to subjugate his own value system in the mad dash to defend his legacy. What’s more, the authors point out the assault on logic the administration must conduct in order to justify its behavior:

Moreover, if economic engagement is the best way to promote an open society, why does the Obama administration not forge a free-trade pact with Iran instead of levying sanctions? Russia will be joining the World Trade Organization regardless of what the U.S. does. But WTO membership will not undo Mr. Putin’s monopolization of political and economic power. If Mr. Putin and his oligarchs believed for an instant that the WTO might weaken their grip, they simply would stay out.

The Obama administration is not only attempting to overturn a law, but also its spirit. As Mr. Kissinger did 39 years ago, Amb. McFaul is trying to make the case that human rights should not get in the way of realpolitik and the business of doing business. He reminds us that the State Department already has its own secret list of banned Russian officials, and so nothing more need be done. But the entire object of such laws is to publicly shame and punish the rank and file of Mr. Putin’s mob so they know the big boss can no longer protect them.

The Obama administration talks a lot about human rights. Kasparov and Nemtsov are right to ask if those speeches are, as the president himself might say, just words.

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End of Jackson-Vanik Shouldn’t Be the End of Russian Accountability

Vladimir Putin’s brazen election fraud, conducted twice in the last few months, has put the Obama administration in an uncomfortable position politically. The administration touts its “reset” policy as a success, but with Russia’s recent attempts to shield Iran’s nuclear program and protection of Bashar al-Assad at the Security Council–not to mention the election-year efforts to stir up anti-Americanism–that policy is increasingly defined by American concessions to Russia.

The reset has also put its architect, current Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, in the unenviable spot of having to defend his signature achievement. McFaul has a long and distinguished career writing about Russian democratization, and the inherently political job of a diplomat requires him to either excuse or ignore behavior by the Putin administration that he has been warning against all along. But the issue that put McFaul on the defensive is the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which punished the Soviet Union’s trade status for its restrictions on Jewish emigration.

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Vladimir Putin’s brazen election fraud, conducted twice in the last few months, has put the Obama administration in an uncomfortable position politically. The administration touts its “reset” policy as a success, but with Russia’s recent attempts to shield Iran’s nuclear program and protection of Bashar al-Assad at the Security Council–not to mention the election-year efforts to stir up anti-Americanism–that policy is increasingly defined by American concessions to Russia.

The reset has also put its architect, current Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, in the unenviable spot of having to defend his signature achievement. McFaul has a long and distinguished career writing about Russian democratization, and the inherently political job of a diplomat requires him to either excuse or ignore behavior by the Putin administration that he has been warning against all along. But the issue that put McFaul on the defensive is the Cold War-era Jackson-Vanik amendment, which punished the Soviet Union’s trade status for its restrictions on Jewish emigration.

Since Russia was finally granted admission to the World Trade Organization, the Jackson-Vanik amendment–still on the books–now disadvantages American companies. The law has outlived its usefulness, and McFaul supports its repeal, the process of which could begin in the Senate Thursday. But while even Putin’s opposition (for the most part) supports the repeal of the amendment, they would like its legacy to be upheld. Specifically, they would like legislation addressing Russia’s deepening human rights crisis.

As it happens, there is bipartisan legislation with broad support sitting in Congress right now. Called the “Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011,” it would impose a visa ban on Russian officials involved in particularly heinous rights violations. It is named for the Russian attorney who was jailed without trial and left to die painfully in his cell as Russian officials, aware that he was in desperate need of medical attention, stood by. It is not only the proud owner of bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress, but that rare piece of legislation that is the subject of broad agreement around the world. As Robert Kagan and Freedom House President David Kramer wrote in October:

Like no other initiative in memory, this legislative push in both Congress and in Europe (the Dutch parliament in July unanimously endorsed a Magnitsky-like effort, and the European parliament has done the same) has struck a chord in Moscow and forced Russian authorities to reopen the Magnitsky case. Several prison officials where Magnitsky had been held are now the focus of investigations. In the absence of accountability and rule of law in Russia, American and European parliamentarians have made it clear that if Russian officials engage in major human rights abuses, they and their immediate families cannot enjoy the privilege of traveling to, living or studying in the West, or doing their banking in Western financial institutions.

This draft bill has already done more for the cause of human rights in Russia than anything done by the Obama administration (or by the Bush administration before it). It also caused the State Department to ban certain Russian officials implicated in the Magnitsky case, though this is not sufficient, and these individuals should also be added to an asset-freeze list.

McFaul, however, is vocally opposed to the legislation and to tying Russia’s dismal human rights record to either the reset or trade relations. Yesterday in Washington, at an event organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative, McFaul was challenged on this by Kramer and by one of Magnitsky’s former clients, Bill Browder. McFaul rejected their arguments, repeating only that Jackson-Vanik should be repealed. This was a clear evasion, because repeal of Jackson-Vanik isn’t the issue. Throughout the day, McFaul became increasingly irritated by the discussion. At a separate event later yesterday, McFaul was asked about it again:

“If you want to do something constructive, that’s an area where we should be focusing on our attention, not on this weird linkage, like somehow holding Jackson-Vanik is going to make Russia more democratic or is going to help us with Syria,” McFaul said. “I dare somebody to stand up today and tell me how not lifting [Jackson-Vanik] helps the cause of promoting rule of law, democracy, and human rights. We just don’t see it that way.”

The tetchy dodge aside, McFaul is minimizing the legacy of Jackson-Vanik. It has certainly been about pegging human rights progress with upgraded trade status (and McFaul talks about this in his book, Advancing Democracy Abroad). Russia’s admission to the WTO without a concurrent replacement for Jackson-Vanik–especially in light of Putin’s recent behavior–would represent a break with the bipartisan status quo in Putin’s favor. McFaul knows better and so do his critics.

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Obama’s Denigration Reflex

In his response to Jen and me, Max writes: “But in this particular instance, I would cut Obama some slack. It does sound as if the president raised human-rights issues with Nazarbayev, as he should have.”

The relevant question, of course, is not whether the issue of human rights was raised at all, but specifically what was said when the subject was broached. None of us were in the meeting between Obama and Nazarbayev, but here’s the report of what Michael McFaul, NSC senior director (who may well have been in the meeting), said:

In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights,” NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.”

We also have this:

In an interview, Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov told [Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal], “There was no pressure at all in the meeting,” and that Obama quoted Winston Churchill as saying that democracy is “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, and you don’t need to have worked in the highest branches of the federal government, to understand what transpired in the Obama-Nazarbyev meeting. Rather than put any pressure on Nazarbyev, Obama decided to make the banal observation that none of us have reached perfection in our quest for the Ideal State, and to prove the point, America’s president highlighted America’s imperfections. And McFaul, when pressed on whether Obama was making a moral equivalence comparison, insists that wasn’t the case – and then proceeds to cite the presidency of Obama as evidence that we are in the process of perfecting American democracy.

These kind of exchanges are actually quite helpful in a certain way; they reveal a particular cast of mind. And Obama’s reflex often involves denigrating America in public and in private, to – well, to do what exactly?

I quite understand, as I’m sure Jen does, that, in Max’s words, “in this imperfect world some short-term compromises are necessary.” And neither of us is insisting that Obama should have cut off relations with Kazakhstan, which is playing an important role as it relates to Afghanistan. I just don’t think that Obama, who has a well-established habit of (a) downplaying human rights and (b) bashing our allies and showing remarkable deference to our enemies, is striking anything like the right balance here. Which is why I’m not inclined, in this particular case, to cut Mr. Obama any slack at all.

My former White House colleague Will Inboden, who worked in the NSC, weighs in with an intelligent post here [http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/].

In his response to Jen and me, Max writes: “But in this particular instance, I would cut Obama some slack. It does sound as if the president raised human-rights issues with Nazarbayev, as he should have.”

The relevant question, of course, is not whether the issue of human rights was raised at all, but specifically what was said when the subject was broached. None of us were in the meeting between Obama and Nazarbayev, but here’s the report of what Michael McFaul, NSC senior director (who may well have been in the meeting), said:

In connection with the OSCE, the presidents had a very lengthy discussion of issues of democracy and human rights,” NSC senior director Mike McFaul said on a conference call with reporters Sunday. “Both presidents agreed that you don’t ever reach democracy; you always have to work at it. And in particular, President Obama reminded his Kazakh counterpart that we, too, are working to improve our democracy.”

We also have this:

In an interview, Kazakh Ambassador Erlan Idrissov told [Jonathan Weisman of the Wall Street Journal], “There was no pressure at all in the meeting,” and that Obama quoted Winston Churchill as saying that democracy is “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, and you don’t need to have worked in the highest branches of the federal government, to understand what transpired in the Obama-Nazarbyev meeting. Rather than put any pressure on Nazarbyev, Obama decided to make the banal observation that none of us have reached perfection in our quest for the Ideal State, and to prove the point, America’s president highlighted America’s imperfections. And McFaul, when pressed on whether Obama was making a moral equivalence comparison, insists that wasn’t the case – and then proceeds to cite the presidency of Obama as evidence that we are in the process of perfecting American democracy.

These kind of exchanges are actually quite helpful in a certain way; they reveal a particular cast of mind. And Obama’s reflex often involves denigrating America in public and in private, to – well, to do what exactly?

I quite understand, as I’m sure Jen does, that, in Max’s words, “in this imperfect world some short-term compromises are necessary.” And neither of us is insisting that Obama should have cut off relations with Kazakhstan, which is playing an important role as it relates to Afghanistan. I just don’t think that Obama, who has a well-established habit of (a) downplaying human rights and (b) bashing our allies and showing remarkable deference to our enemies, is striking anything like the right balance here. Which is why I’m not inclined, in this particular case, to cut Mr. Obama any slack at all.

My former White House colleague Will Inboden, who worked in the NSC, weighs in with an intelligent post here [http://shadow.foreignpolicy.com/].

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