Commentary Magazine


Topic: reset

The Wrong Kind of Russian Reset

Over the weekend the Washington Post reported this:

The Obama administration lashed out at Russia on Friday ahead of a visit to that nation next week, blaming Moscow for standing in the way of the United States’ attempt to build an international coalition for potential military intervention in Syria. …

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this week that personal relations between Obama and Putin are worse than any U.S. president with their Russian, or even Soviet, counterparts in history.

“There’s a deep degree of disrespect,” Kuchins said. “It’s very likely that we could see this relationship muddle along at this, very, very kind of unpleasant level for the next three years until we’re looking at a new administration in the United States.”

So just for the fun of it, let’s return to the early days of the Obama presidency, shall we? How about February 2009, when Vice President Biden told an international security conference that the White House was determined to “press the reset button” with Russia.

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Over the weekend the Washington Post reported this:

The Obama administration lashed out at Russia on Friday ahead of a visit to that nation next week, blaming Moscow for standing in the way of the United States’ attempt to build an international coalition for potential military intervention in Syria. …

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this week that personal relations between Obama and Putin are worse than any U.S. president with their Russian, or even Soviet, counterparts in history.

“There’s a deep degree of disrespect,” Kuchins said. “It’s very likely that we could see this relationship muddle along at this, very, very kind of unpleasant level for the next three years until we’re looking at a new administration in the United States.”

So just for the fun of it, let’s return to the early days of the Obama presidency, shall we? How about February 2009, when Vice President Biden told an international security conference that the White House was determined to “press the reset button” with Russia.

“The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and members of our alliance,” Biden said in a speech that the White House advertised as a guide to the Obama administration’s foreign-policy goals. “The U.S. and Russia can disagree but still work together where its interests coincide.”

It sure sounded easy, didn’t it?

And let’s not forget when that same year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva and presented him with a red button with the Russian word “peregruzka” printed on it and said, “I would like to present you with a little gift that represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying and that is: We want to reset our relationship, and so we will do it together.” (It was perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come that the incorrect Russian word was printed on the red button. The Russian word for reset is “perezagruzka,” not “peregruzka,” which means “overcharged.”)

So we’ve gone from a reset to endless diplomatic conflicts, increased tensions, deep disrespect, and the worst relations between a leader of the United States and Russia or the Soviet Union in history. Just like Mr. Obama promised things would be like during his enlightened rule.

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In Putin’s World, Everyone’s a Spy

The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.

How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

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The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.

How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.

But that, wrote Edward Lucas, the longtime Economist scribe and Eastern Europe expert, is “an oddly complacent approach.” Of course a sleeper agent should appear harmless and their activities mundane if they are ever to get close enough to gain valuable information. He continued:

That Russia is running such agents in America, Britain and Europe (and elsewhere) should be cause for alarm. Imagine that someone who loathes you has a key to your front door. It will be little comfort if he has not yet got round to burning your house down, stealing your valuables, or planting drugs. The worry is that he could.

The difference in post-Cold War attitudes, however, is only evident on one side of the Atlantic. Vladimir Putin continues to behave as if he thinks the U.S. and Russia are locked a global struggle. As such, while to many in the U.S. no one, not even an admitted Russian spy, is an actual Russian spy, to Putin everyone is an American agent working clandestinely to undermine his government. So perhaps the FSB caught an American spy, but as with Russian warnings about the Boston Marathon bombers, there is a credibility issue when a crime syndicate starts identifying enemies.

In December 2011, as Putin’s party prepared to instigate massive election fraud on the eve of parliamentary voting, he stepped up a campaign against Russia’s high-profile election monitoring group Golos, calling them traitors and accusing them of “interfering with elections on behalf of foreign governments.” Then came the push to designate human rights groups like Memorial, who receive some grants from agencies like USAID, as registered “foreign agents.” And if you’re a foreign corporation, buying into a major Russian firm–nominally state-owned or not–can be dangerous for everyone involved.

There is also the timing. Putin’s government has been open about its intention to retaliate for slights–real or perceived. The retaliations usually take one of two forms: the classic Soviet-era “whataboutism,” in which the subject is turned to the chutzpah and hypocrisy of the West, or tactics made to undermine Western trustworthiness.

So when the U.S. Congress finally went around President Obama’s objections and Secretary of State (at the time Senator) John Kerry’s stonewalling to pass a bill targeting Russian human rights abusers, the Kremlin responded with its “Guantanamo List” of Americans banned from Russia for their own supposed human rights crimes. That was an example of the whataboutism whose charm has always possessed some appeal to the self-flagellating Western left.

And today’s announcement of the arrest–and the array of photos released by the Russian government trumpeting the catch–comes at such a time. In fairness, here is the FSB’s side of today’s story:

According to information provided by the Russian security service to Russian news services, FSB agents caught Fogle in possession of “special technical devices,” typewritten instructions for the recruit, a “large sum” of cash and various means of disguise….

“The CIA has made several attempts lately to recruit officers of Russian law enforcement services and agencies, which were tracked and monitored by the FSB’s counterintelligence service,” an FSB spokesman told the Interfax news agency.

Yet it comes on the heels of three important stories of U.S.-Russian diplomacy. First was last week’s meeting between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, centered on a renewed push to get Russia’s cooperation to end the Syrian civil war and remove Bashar al-Assad from power. The pleas had echoes of last year’s efforts by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to shame Russia into taking control of a conflict on whose sidelines the U.S. also sat.

The second story followed within a day of the Kerry-Lavrov meeting, when word came that Russia was planning to sell ground-to-air missile systems to Assad to stave off Western air attacks. And third was the story Max referred to yesterday: the Washington Post’s report laying out extent to which Assad was turning the tide and demonstrating the key role Russia is playing in keeping Assad in power. The story was doubly damaging to U.S. credibility because of the conclusions some are starting to draw about the Obama administration’s decision not to effectively take sides early on. The Post reporter who wrote the story, Liz Sly, tweeted out a link to her story with the following description:

Assad gaining the advantage in Syria. Did the US dither on Syria long enough to let him win? Was that the point?

That is of course speculation, but it’s worth noting that to those on the ground, that’s the way it looks. Regardless, Russia had a bit of a PR issue on its hands. The American secretary of state came begging for diplomatic scraps from Putin’s table, and then news broke making Putin look like he was operating in bad faith. So today comes his response: how can he trust the Americans when they are pretending to beseech him while attempting to spy on him?

Still, the problem for Kerry and the Obama administration’s architects of the spectacularly failed “reset” with Putin remains that the volume of stories calling Putin’s reliability into question far exceeds the complaints about American snooping. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Russian authorities withheld what were characterized as “the most important in a series of missed signals between the two countries” leading up to the Boston Marathon bombing. It is true that the combination of Putin’s history of inventing enemies of the state and the FBI’s need to excuse missing warning signs means we should take attempts to shift blame to the Russians with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the evidence the FSB withheld from the FBI does seem to be valuable, and there does not seem to be any obvious justification for withholding that information.

It should be noted that the cratering of U.S.-Russia relations coincides with years of one-sided American concessions to Putin, putting the lie to the always incongruous belief that American weakness will be rewarded with compassion. Kerry may be the perfect diplomat to carry out such a strategy, but that makes neither the policy less imprudent nor the diplomat less inept than they both quite obviously remain.

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Why the Chill in U.S.-Russia Relations Matters

One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

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One of the most common mistakes made by American “realist” analysts with regard to Russia is, in the words of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Lilia Shevtsova, that they have too often “accepted the Kremlin interpretation of Russia’s national interests.” It is not Vladimir Putin, she said, but the Russian society he disregards that shares values and interests with the West. Russians want openness, an independent judiciary, and cultural ties to the West: “That in turn requires America and the West as a whole to take a values-based approach to Russia.”

Shevtsova was commenting after the Obama administration announced its “reset” and specifically on the report of a commission on the “right direction” for U.S.-Russia policy, co-chaired by Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel, the latter going through his confirmation hearings for defense secretary today. The disparity between Putin’s interests and those of the Russian people is in part why Putin has pulled back on so many forms of mutual cooperation. It is easy–and partially accurate–to see Putin’s adoption ban as retaliation for the American human rights legislation, the Magnitsky Act. But the adoption ban was preceded by Putin’s decision to expel USAID and end cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, and it was followed by the expansion of the Guantanamo list banning about 70 Americans from Russia and ending a joint U.S.-Russian project on crime prevention.

The disparity is also why respected economists and analysts like Nouriel Roubini and Ian Bremmer have advocated strong civil society cooperation and communication between the U.S. and the pro-democracy and pro-modernization members of the Russian public–something the administration may set back by pulling out of one such group in response to Putin’s actions–and why it matters that U.S.-Russia cooperation is at a post-Cold War low. In their study of 35 hybrid regimes between the end of the Cold War and 2008, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way conclude:

Where linkage to the West was high, competitive authoritarian regimes democratized. Where linkage was low, regime outcomes hinged on incumbents’ organizational power. Where state and governing party structure were well organized and cohesive, regimes remained stable and authoritarian; where they were underdeveloped or lacked cohesion, regimes were unstable, although they rarely democratized.

All of which makes the Obama administration’s decision, as reported by Josh Rogin, to focus its attempt to reset the “reset” on reducing nuclear stockpiles–a replay of the early stages of the first failed reset–all the more baffling. Russian nukes aren’t being aimed with a finger on the trigger at the U.S.; they are a relic of a bygone era and a symbol of great power status.

Additionally, why follow a failed game plan? New START was supposed to be a largely symbolic opening to more advantageous U.S.-Russia cooperation on real threats to nuclear nonproliferation, such as Iran, that never materialized. Putin’s support for Bashar al-Assad and his crackdown on pro-democracy activists and protesters are just more evidence that “reset” skeptics like Shevtsova, who wrote “that we must tie foreign policy to Russia’s domestic development, not untie it,” were right on the mark.

There are nations whose existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons remain of great concern, like Pakistan and North Korea. There are rising would-be great powers expanding their existing nuclear forces, like China. And there are unstable or violent, anti-Western regimes seeking to join the nuclear club, like Iran and Syria. The focus on Russia’s weapons seems like a distraction. More importantly, the one benefit to President Obama’s obsession with offering unrequited concessions and a carrot-only engagement strategy was that when it failed he would have the credibility to change direction. The president may count these symbolic agreements as accomplishments, but they will more likely stand as a testament to his missed opportunities.

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The Russian Adoption Ban and the Return of Kremlinology

The historian Robert Conquest once wrote that one of the fundamentally flawed assumptions of political scientists seeking to establish a “scientific” approach to understanding the Soviet Union was that they insisted the tension between the United States and the USSR stemmed from the two countries misunderstanding each other. In fact, Conquest wrote, the opposite is true: “U.S.-Soviet relations have always been good when the United States misunderstood the USSR.” FDR and Jimmy Carter were his prime examples. One of the pitfalls of “Kremlinology,” however, was that “members of the Politburo themselves do not know which way they are going to jump tomorrow.” They would wait “to see how the political wind blew.”

Many things have changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Conquest’s observations retain surprising relevance to us. Today, the government of Vladimir Putin has made no secret of Putin’s intentions and his attitude toward the U.S. And as Conquest would have it, relations between our two countries are considerably sour. And Putin’s bureaucratic drones in his “power vertical” are today still waiting to see which way the wind blows before knowing how to carry out their orders. Both these seemingly eternal truths are evident in the fallout from Putin’s horrifically cruel ban on American adoption of Russian orphans. The New York Times today builds one story about the ban around the Preeces, a couple from Idaho who are in Moscow to (hopefully) take home a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome they are adopting. Their adoption was approved before the ban, and Putin has since suggested that the moratorium on adoptions would be postponed a year. But he has sent mixed signals, and the Russian bureaucracy has no idea what to do about cases that should be straightforward, like those of the Preeces:

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The historian Robert Conquest once wrote that one of the fundamentally flawed assumptions of political scientists seeking to establish a “scientific” approach to understanding the Soviet Union was that they insisted the tension between the United States and the USSR stemmed from the two countries misunderstanding each other. In fact, Conquest wrote, the opposite is true: “U.S.-Soviet relations have always been good when the United States misunderstood the USSR.” FDR and Jimmy Carter were his prime examples. One of the pitfalls of “Kremlinology,” however, was that “members of the Politburo themselves do not know which way they are going to jump tomorrow.” They would wait “to see how the political wind blew.”

Many things have changed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but Conquest’s observations retain surprising relevance to us. Today, the government of Vladimir Putin has made no secret of Putin’s intentions and his attitude toward the U.S. And as Conquest would have it, relations between our two countries are considerably sour. And Putin’s bureaucratic drones in his “power vertical” are today still waiting to see which way the wind blows before knowing how to carry out their orders. Both these seemingly eternal truths are evident in the fallout from Putin’s horrifically cruel ban on American adoption of Russian orphans. The New York Times today builds one story about the ban around the Preeces, a couple from Idaho who are in Moscow to (hopefully) take home a 4-year-old boy with Down syndrome they are adopting. Their adoption was approved before the ban, and Putin has since suggested that the moratorium on adoptions would be postponed a year. But he has sent mixed signals, and the Russian bureaucracy has no idea what to do about cases that should be straightforward, like those of the Preeces:

But instead of making plans for the return flight home, the Preeces and at least five other families are now caught in legalistic limbo, as various officials within Russia’s sprawling bureaucracy try to figure out precisely what the ban means, and — perhaps more important — what higher-ups at the Kremlin actually want and expect them to do.

At a court hearing on Tuesday, Judge Alexandra S. Lopatkina said she could not sign a decree finalizing the Preeces’ adoption without further guidance from Russia’s Supreme Court. Even if she signed the decree, she said, there was no guarantee that other officials would issue the boy a passport. And even if he was granted a passport, she said, immigration agents might block his departure at the airport.

The ban is not universally supported in Russia. There have been impressive public protests against it, and some lawmakers oppose it as well. But other lawmakers and Russian media push back against the supposed cruelty of the adoption ban, some going as far as claiming Americans adopt Russian children to steal their organs or force them into the army. But in fact the ban is cruel, because as one official at an adoption facilitation service told the Times, “only Americans really volunteer to adopt special needs children.”

And the Russian bureaucracy is nothing like what Americans think of when they have to wait in line or press 1 for English. Read Miriam Elder’s story of how the Russian dry-cleaning bureaucracy drove her to tears, and imagine how much harder it would be to adopt a Russian child after Putin has banned the activity. You can circumvent the Russian bureaucracy’s arbitrary hostility if you’re a world-famous actor fleeing French taxation, as Gerard Depardieu learned when he received his Russian passport in about one day, when a simple perusal through the requirements for an internal passport make it seem almost not worth the effort. (When asked by a Russian news service how Depardieu got a passport so fast, a spokeswoman from the Russian Federal Migration Service responded: “It was an exceptional case by decree of the President. And what you have a problem with this?”)

But of course the real problem with all this is that Putin is confident he can torment American families at his whim, because the Obama administration no longer holds any leverage in the bilateral relationship and would like Putin’s cooperation on several foreign policy related issues in Obama’s second term, as the Washington Post reports. And Kommersant reports that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is heading to Russia to meet with Putin after Obama’s inauguration. Donlion would like to “reset” the “reset,” and he will come bearing a some more concessions to sweeten the pot:

The source said that the White House does not include the post-Soviet space in its list of foreign policy priorities, as its main focus is on Asia (“containing China”), the Middle East and Europe.

That is a reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent comments that the U.S. planned to disrupt and stop Putin’s plans for a “Eurasian Union,” warning that it was Putin’s attempt to “re-Sovietize” the region. Perhaps the Obama administration plans to fall back on Conquest’s point about FDR and Carter and “unlearn” what it has found out about Putin’s Russia. After all, knowing what we know now, how could Obama justify that “flexibility” he promised Putin–a promise he seems dispiritingly eager to keep?

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Obama on Autopilot: The President Can’t Stop Campaigning

Yesterday, Abe wrote that “Barack Obama ushered in America’s first large-scale experiment in personality-cult politics. The experiment continues apace.” The experiment really has two parts to it, and only one of them continues. Electorally speaking, it was a success–Obama was elected and then reelected with a majority of the popular vote both times. But the other side of the experiment is how a personality-driven campaign incentivizes governing. Because President Obama ran on personality more than policy, the latter has been shaped throughout his presidency with the former in mind, producing not so much a governing philosophy as a slogan factory.

One of the more interesting aspects of the president’s health care reform legislation is how many liberals hate it. Conservatives don’t like it on constitutional grounds and on policy grounds. But liberals I meet often tell me how much they hate the bill on ideological grounds, because it took an idea that sprang forth from the perceived failure and greed of the insurance companies and then forced everyone in the country to buy their product. The left wanted universal health coverage; they got a bill that encourages the young and healthy, who currently often don’t buy health insurance, to continue not buying health insurance. But the left misunderstands Obama’s intent: he is not a detail man, nor a policy wonk. He is a man in constant search of a slogan, and saying he reformed health care was all he wanted out of the bill, even if the end result was a logical and regulatory nightmare. And health care is far from the only such issue.

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Yesterday, Abe wrote that “Barack Obama ushered in America’s first large-scale experiment in personality-cult politics. The experiment continues apace.” The experiment really has two parts to it, and only one of them continues. Electorally speaking, it was a success–Obama was elected and then reelected with a majority of the popular vote both times. But the other side of the experiment is how a personality-driven campaign incentivizes governing. Because President Obama ran on personality more than policy, the latter has been shaped throughout his presidency with the former in mind, producing not so much a governing philosophy as a slogan factory.

One of the more interesting aspects of the president’s health care reform legislation is how many liberals hate it. Conservatives don’t like it on constitutional grounds and on policy grounds. But liberals I meet often tell me how much they hate the bill on ideological grounds, because it took an idea that sprang forth from the perceived failure and greed of the insurance companies and then forced everyone in the country to buy their product. The left wanted universal health coverage; they got a bill that encourages the young and healthy, who currently often don’t buy health insurance, to continue not buying health insurance. But the left misunderstands Obama’s intent: he is not a detail man, nor a policy wonk. He is a man in constant search of a slogan, and saying he reformed health care was all he wanted out of the bill, even if the end result was a logical and regulatory nightmare. And health care is far from the only such issue.

The president initiated the Russian “reset” to accomplish a fairly superficial goal: as long as the president and his administration were nice to Vladimir Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev, when Medvedev was pretending to be in charge) no matter what, the reset would be considered a success. The reset was never about a more productive U.S.-Russian relationship; it was about a change in our tone. Russia’s tone only changed for the worse, but we took the abuse silently, and so the personality-cult president is much better personally liked by Putin than his mean cowboy predecessor, who had no such need to be flattered.

What would the personality-cult president’s military policy look like? It would be “leading from behind,” never mind that the phrase just means “following.” It’s catchy, it sounds thoughtful. “Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive” makes a great bumper sticker. But try to expand that into a full-fledged governing philosophy and you get a dedication to corporate bailouts and the pretension that al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been nearly defeated–two very disastrous ways of looking at things.

And so the New York Times reports today that with the “fiscal cliff” looming and the need for negotiations with Republicans, Obama is… hitting the campaign trail:

As he prepares to meet with Congressional leaders at the White House on Friday, aides say, Mr. Obama will not simply hunker down there for weeks of closed-door negotiations as he did in mid-2011, when partisan brinkmanship over raising the nation’s debt limit damaged the economy and his political standing. He will travel beyond the Beltway at times to rally public support for a deficit-cutting accord that mixes tax increases on the wealthy with spending cuts.

The president knows one thing: campaigning, and so that’s what he does even when he’s got no more elections to win. No doubt he’ll have his slogans at the ready, as he leaves Congress to figure all this fiscal stuff out while he basks in the glow of a shallow adoration. Can the personality-cult president govern? Who knows? But he sure can campaign.

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Obama’s Second-Term Obstacle: His First

By all accounts, given President Obama’s focus on domestic policy initiatives in his first term, he will play the “flexibility” card he promised the Putin/Medvedev tandem and seek to cement a foreign policy legacy in his second term. But there are serious challenges to this, flexibility or no flexibility.

The immediate challenge that comes to mind is that, as has been exhaustively chronicled by a usually adoring media, Obama is not only terrible at diplomacy, but it’s the part of his job description he most loathes. He doesn’t like building relationships at home or abroad, which may very well put statesmanship far beyond his reach. But there is a more fundamental problem, and it’s not one limited to Barack Obama: For all the talk of a second-term “clean slate,” which exempts the president from electoral considerations, a president cannot undo his first term. There is no true clean slate abroad on any issue, or with any country, that was part of the first term agenda.

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By all accounts, given President Obama’s focus on domestic policy initiatives in his first term, he will play the “flexibility” card he promised the Putin/Medvedev tandem and seek to cement a foreign policy legacy in his second term. But there are serious challenges to this, flexibility or no flexibility.

The immediate challenge that comes to mind is that, as has been exhaustively chronicled by a usually adoring media, Obama is not only terrible at diplomacy, but it’s the part of his job description he most loathes. He doesn’t like building relationships at home or abroad, which may very well put statesmanship far beyond his reach. But there is a more fundamental problem, and it’s not one limited to Barack Obama: For all the talk of a second-term “clean slate,” which exempts the president from electoral considerations, a president cannot undo his first term. There is no true clean slate abroad on any issue, or with any country, that was part of the first term agenda.

Take Russia, for example. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports on the Putin administration’s continued suspicion toward Obama and opposition to missile defense in Europe. Obama’s big gamble at the beginning of his time in office was to discard the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Not only can he no longer offer that to the Russians, the lesson Putin learned was that the defense of Europe was negotiable. It took no effort for Putin to chase missile defense out of Eastern Europe, so he figured he’d next chase them out of the rest of the continent.

Sanctions to which Putin was willing to agree on Iran haven’t stopped its nuclear program, and Putin’s desperate desire to keep NATO in Afghanistan–which keeps the Americans bogged down defending Russia’s near-abroad for them while working to stem the drug trade–now seems hopeless. Without a serious Western presence in Afghanistan, Putin is now threatening to end all cooperation with NATO’s mission there, meager as it was to begin with. Next, Putin expelled USAID and moved to end the historic Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction regime. RFE/RL offers a revealing quote:

“The low-hanging fruit has already been picked, so [cooperation] will be less substantial than before,” Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Petersen Institute of International Economics in Washington, says. “And the Russian suspicions about missile defense — rather Putin’s suspicions about missile defense — will be quite strong.”

Indeed, Russia’s accession to the WTO–a genuine accomplishment for the Obama administration, which should be especially beneficial to the U.S. during a down economy–has already been secured. The point is, Obama cannot simply “reset” relations with the world. This is especially true in places where the administration has already tried such a reset, like Russia.

But it’s also true in other places. Take the Middle East, where former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is hoping a second-term peace process escapade is in the offing. But Obama can’t undo the damage he’s done by picking fights with Israel over Jerusalem or by pushing the Palestinians as far away from the negotiating table as they’ve ever been by telling them to demand a bouquet of silly preconditions that no Israeli governing coalition–as Evelyn pointed out this morning–would agree to. Obama’s astounding failure in the Middle East can’t be erased, so on this issue the president is his own worst enemy. Reuters unwittingly gives the game away on the prospects for peace in the Middle East:

Blair represents the so-called “quartet” of Middle East peacemakers — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — and has visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories some 90 times since taking the job in 2007.

He’s the West’s primary diplomatic representative in the region, and he’s been there ninety times in the last five years. And the two sides are farther apart than they’ve been in two decades–thanks, by the way, to Western policymaking in the time Blair has been at his post. I’m not blaming Blair; I’m simply making the point that he’s been spending a tremendous amount of time there and produced absolutely nothing to show for it.

Iran is another example. Thanks to the failure of diplomacy, Obama actually has the political capital to order military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Polls show such a move would have the support of the American people, and Obama would have all the credibility in the world if he declared that diplomacy had finally failed precisely because he has been the poster president for engagement at all costs. But he can’t go back to 2008, when he let himself be strung along, or 2009, when he ignored a brewing democratic protest movement there. And trying to do so would make him look foolish.

So while I can understand Obama’s desire to set a new legacy abroad–after all, his current foreign policy legacy is the Benghazi debacle–he has plenty of room for improvement and almost no room to maneuver. And he only has himself to blame.

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Putin Demands End of USAID in Russia

President Obama, upon taking office, promised “A New Beginning” for U.S. relations in the Middle East. We know how that’s working out. Yet another pillar of his foreign policy is faring no better–the “reset” with Russia. Vladimir Putin has kicked metaphorical sand in Uncle Sam’s face by demanding that the U.S. government end all assistance for civil-society organizations in Russia, which totals some $50 million a year.

This is more bad news for Russia’s future. As Yelena Panfilova, head of the Moscow branch of Transparency International, told the New York Times: “What is the list of other countries that have expelled U.S.A.I.D.? It’s not about money — we can cope somehow — the problem is about this whole feeling that we have been brought together with Venezuela, Somalia and Belarus.”

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President Obama, upon taking office, promised “A New Beginning” for U.S. relations in the Middle East. We know how that’s working out. Yet another pillar of his foreign policy is faring no better–the “reset” with Russia. Vladimir Putin has kicked metaphorical sand in Uncle Sam’s face by demanding that the U.S. government end all assistance for civil-society organizations in Russia, which totals some $50 million a year.

This is more bad news for Russia’s future. As Yelena Panfilova, head of the Moscow branch of Transparency International, told the New York Times: “What is the list of other countries that have expelled U.S.A.I.D.? It’s not about money — we can cope somehow — the problem is about this whole feeling that we have been brought together with Venezuela, Somalia and Belarus.”

But this is also bad news for Obama’s policy. As John McCain noted in a statement: “The Russian government’s decision to end all U.S.A.I.D. activities in the country is an insult to the United States and a finger in the eye of the Obama administration, which has consistently trumpeted the alleged success of its so-called reset policy toward Moscow.”

One struggles now to recall the heady days of the 2008 campaign when Obama was promising to sit down with every dictator under the sun on the apparent assumption that exposure to his awesome powers of persuasiveness would repair years, even decades, of friction with the United States and other democracies. Obama has indeed had sit-downs with some dictators, though thankfully not all (no Obama-Ayatollah summit!) but the results of his parlays have been, in a word, meager.

In the case of Russia, Obama was actually caught reassuring Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s sock-puppet, that he would have “more flexibility” to deal on missile defense after the election–and Putin in turn has praised him as a “very honest man.” But, lo and behold, that hasn’t produced a turnaround in U.S.-Russia elections. If, indeed, there is any sign of a revolution wrought by Obama in foreign policy, we are still waiting to see it.

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