Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia reset

Finish the Sentence, Mr. Vice President

With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

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With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

If the substance of Biden’s remarks was to encourage the Ukrainians to defend their territory against Russian aggression, as they have every right to do, the most important question facing the West now is: what exactly is President Obama prepared to do to back them up if, as seems entirely possible, Putin responds by sending in troops to seize whatever parts of Ukraine he covets? The answer from the administration isn’t exactly a secret. Since the U.S. won’t supply Ukraine with weapons or make credible threats to enforce real sanctions on Russia—as opposed to the laughable sanctions on individual Putin cronies that have already been enacted—there is no reason for Moscow to view Biden’s visit as a deterrent to further aggression. Indeed, by making those empty statements, Biden may have actually helped Putin further justify his slanders about the dispute with Ukraine being largely the result of American interference.

American diplomacy on the subject has been equally risible as the agreement worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has proven to be worth as much as the agreements he previously worked out with them on Syria and Iran.

No sane American would choose to ignite a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine. But the U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend those former outposts of the Russian empire that are now NATO members. Yet, like Biden’s bloviating, the decision to send a token number of U.S. troops to Poland for military exercises isn’t likely to impress Putin.

If this dilemma seems familiar, it should. Much like the position that the U.S. finds itself in with regard to Syria, President Obama has few options and none of them are good. Years of sending the wrong messages to Moscow can’t be undone with a few weak gestures at this late date. Just as the situation in Syria might have been improved by decisive U.S. action in the early stages of that civil war, making sure Putin understood that the U.S. would regard any repeat of Russian aggression against Georgia elsewhere as a game changer might have made a difference this year when a pro-Moscow puppet was toppled in Kiev. Instead, the farcical “Russia reset” championed by Hillary Clinton and continued by Kerry only made the current debacle more likely.

It bears repeating that the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine provided Putin with the same opportunity to seize Ukrainian territory he had this year. But he was then uncertain about international reaction to projecting force beyond his borders. Now he has no such doubts. And it is almost certainly too late to create any reason for Putin to hesitate in time to save Ukraine, though clearly the U.S. can and should do what it can to aid Ukrainian self-defense.

The debate about what to do about the crisis in Ukraine is a frustrating one and, because of the lack of decent options for the U.S. at this point, it could be used to bolster support for neo-isolationist positions that would call for Americans to stop caring about the fate of countries that are marked for partition by their more powerful neighbors. But the moral of the story is not that the U.S. shouldn’t seek to restrain Russia. It’s that Obama’s years of weakness have made it impossible for us to defend our interests and our friends. As Biden’s empty rhetoric echoes across Eastern Europe this week, those allies who look to their alliance with the U.S. as a foundation of their defense may be forgiven for worrying about the value of American promises.

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Dems Realizing Hillary’s Record Matters

Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential candidacy rests on two pillars: gender and resume. Just as electing the first African-American galvanized the country in 2008, Democrats think, and not without reason, that nominating the putative first female president would, in and of itself, be a conclusive argument in 2016. But at the same time, Clinton is also running on what is now a rather lengthy resume as a first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Yet after years of basking in the almost universal adulation of the mainstream media during her four years at Foggy Bottom, some rather pointed questions are starting to be asked about what it is she did–or didn’t do–while serving as the chief architect of American foreign policy.

As a front-page New York Times feature on the subject points out today, the crisis in Ukraine and the attention being given to other foreign-policy quagmires, such as Iran and the Middle East peace process, are forcing Democrats to ask themselves a question they had hoped not to have to ask, let alone answer: does Hillary’s record in office matter? Defining Clinton’s “legacy in progress” is a delicate question for the Times, and the story does its best to pose it in a sympathetic manner.

But while it might have once seemed plausible to think that she could merely coast to the presidency by touting her frequent flyer miles earned as secretary of state and mouth meaningless jargon about “soft power,” the unraveling of Obama administration foreign policy during a disastrous second term is bound to have an impact on her ability to win a general election. Though many Democrats see her as too hawkish for their taste, her farcical Russian “reset” and the failure of her attempts to appease Vladimir Putin are looking like a distinct political liability right now. The chances of another explosion in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon (developments made far more likely by her incompetent successor, John Kerry) are also undermining Clinton’s resume narrative. While none of this is likely to derail her coronation by the Democrats or encourage a serious primary opponent, the Times piece indicates that the media establishment is aware that she is a far more flawed candidate than many liberals are willing to admit.

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Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential candidacy rests on two pillars: gender and resume. Just as electing the first African-American galvanized the country in 2008, Democrats think, and not without reason, that nominating the putative first female president would, in and of itself, be a conclusive argument in 2016. But at the same time, Clinton is also running on what is now a rather lengthy resume as a first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Yet after years of basking in the almost universal adulation of the mainstream media during her four years at Foggy Bottom, some rather pointed questions are starting to be asked about what it is she did–or didn’t do–while serving as the chief architect of American foreign policy.

As a front-page New York Times feature on the subject points out today, the crisis in Ukraine and the attention being given to other foreign-policy quagmires, such as Iran and the Middle East peace process, are forcing Democrats to ask themselves a question they had hoped not to have to ask, let alone answer: does Hillary’s record in office matter? Defining Clinton’s “legacy in progress” is a delicate question for the Times, and the story does its best to pose it in a sympathetic manner.

But while it might have once seemed plausible to think that she could merely coast to the presidency by touting her frequent flyer miles earned as secretary of state and mouth meaningless jargon about “soft power,” the unraveling of Obama administration foreign policy during a disastrous second term is bound to have an impact on her ability to win a general election. Though many Democrats see her as too hawkish for their taste, her farcical Russian “reset” and the failure of her attempts to appease Vladimir Putin are looking like a distinct political liability right now. The chances of another explosion in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon (developments made far more likely by her incompetent successor, John Kerry) are also undermining Clinton’s resume narrative. While none of this is likely to derail her coronation by the Democrats or encourage a serious primary opponent, the Times piece indicates that the media establishment is aware that she is a far more flawed candidate than many liberals are willing to admit.

Clinton ran for president in 2008 as the more responsible of the two leading Democrats on foreign policy and lost, in no small measure, because Barack Obama positioned himself to her left on the war in Iraq as well as the war on Islamist terror. Yet once he appointed her as secretary of state, Clinton became the person delegated to execute his policies rather than her own. That contradiction has led to furious efforts on the part of Clinton supporters to depict her as the hawk in administration councils who urged the president to order the strike on Osama bin Laden as well as to intervene in Libya. This is exactly the profile Clinton will find useful in a general election—as opposed to a Democratic primary—but it is undermined by the fact that Clinton was the front for Obama policies that not only didn’t work, but which arguably set the stage for genuine disasters.

Obama administration defenders claim that the failure of the Bush administration to stop Putin’s Georgia adventure in 2008 demonstrates that the 44th president is not to blame for the mess in the Ukraine. But it needs to be remembered that when Ukrainians rose up in revolt in 2004-5 against the same Putin puppet in Kiev, Moscow didn’t intervene. It was only after Clinton demonstrated to Russia that the U.S. was no longer interested in opposing its adventurism and would give them a veto over efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program that Putin felt emboldened to strike.

Democrats may have believed that Clinton’s exasperated reply to questions about the lies told about the Benghazi terrorist attack—What does it matter?—was enough to ignore conservative sniping about a disaster that took place on her watch. But the violence in Ukraine and the possibility that worse is to come there and perhaps also in the Middle East only add to the doubts about her supposedly inevitable progression to an inauguration in January 2017. Now that she is re-entering the political fray, her poll numbers are beginning to decline. Stuck between her pose as the Democratic hawk and the reality of the failure of her efforts at appeasement, Clinton can no longer skate by with talk about flying about the world promoting American values.

If even the New York Times cannot assemble a coherent argument for her time as secretary of state as a success, then that is a poor omen for a general election in which she will have to account not only for her own political baggage but also the failures of a lame duck and increasingly unpopular Obama administration. Gender may remain a Clinton trump card in 2016, but the resume she built up so carefully over the last decade and a half since her husband left the White House is looking more like a problem than an asset.

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Hillary’s Dubious Iran Credentials

Last night Hillary Clinton spoke at a dinner for the American Jewish Congress and continued her effort to attempt to craft a narrative in which her four years at the State Department are depicted as making her uniquely qualified for the presidency. The centerpiece of this argument is that during her time as America’s top diplomat she was a leader in the struggle to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This is a delicate task that demands both exaggerations and outright fibs, especially when it comes to her position on sanctions. It also requires her to both embrace President Obama’s foreign-policy record while at the same time position herself slightly to his right. But while her cheering section may be buying her sales pitch, a closer examination of what Clinton did on the issue undermines any notion that she was anything but an enabler of an Obama policy of engagement that has led to the current diplomatic dead-end.

Clinton’s claim is that her toughness toward Iran and diplomatic skill helped create the international sanctions that brought the Islamist regime to the negotiating table. Though she expressed some skepticism about Iran’s willingness to listen to reason, the former first lady endorsed the interim nuclear deal signed by her successor and agreed with Obama’s opposition to the passage of any more sanctions even if they would not be put into effect until after the current talks fail. But it’s no small irony that Clinton would be bragging about her tough stand on Iran in the same week that the blowup with Russia led to the almost certain collapse of the diplomatic solution that she had banked on.

It was Clinton, after all, who was the primary champion of the comical “reset” with Russia that convinced Vladimir Putin that the Obama administration could be discounted in conflicts involving his ambition to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But even more importantly, the conceit of Clinton’s efforts to build the international coalition for Iran sanctions was that she would be able to harness Russia and China to American foreign-policy objectives. That assumption has been blown out of the water by the conflict over Crimea. Any idea that Russia would stick with the West to pressure Iran to give up its drive for a nuclear weapon or keep them isolated via sanctions is no longer realistic.

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Last night Hillary Clinton spoke at a dinner for the American Jewish Congress and continued her effort to attempt to craft a narrative in which her four years at the State Department are depicted as making her uniquely qualified for the presidency. The centerpiece of this argument is that during her time as America’s top diplomat she was a leader in the struggle to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This is a delicate task that demands both exaggerations and outright fibs, especially when it comes to her position on sanctions. It also requires her to both embrace President Obama’s foreign-policy record while at the same time position herself slightly to his right. But while her cheering section may be buying her sales pitch, a closer examination of what Clinton did on the issue undermines any notion that she was anything but an enabler of an Obama policy of engagement that has led to the current diplomatic dead-end.

Clinton’s claim is that her toughness toward Iran and diplomatic skill helped create the international sanctions that brought the Islamist regime to the negotiating table. Though she expressed some skepticism about Iran’s willingness to listen to reason, the former first lady endorsed the interim nuclear deal signed by her successor and agreed with Obama’s opposition to the passage of any more sanctions even if they would not be put into effect until after the current talks fail. But it’s no small irony that Clinton would be bragging about her tough stand on Iran in the same week that the blowup with Russia led to the almost certain collapse of the diplomatic solution that she had banked on.

It was Clinton, after all, who was the primary champion of the comical “reset” with Russia that convinced Vladimir Putin that the Obama administration could be discounted in conflicts involving his ambition to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But even more importantly, the conceit of Clinton’s efforts to build the international coalition for Iran sanctions was that she would be able to harness Russia and China to American foreign-policy objectives. That assumption has been blown out of the water by the conflict over Crimea. Any idea that Russia would stick with the West to pressure Iran to give up its drive for a nuclear weapon or keep them isolated via sanctions is no longer realistic.

Of course, Clinton’s boasts about her record on Iran sanctions are also misleading. Though it is true, as Clinton said yesterday, that she “voted for any sanction on Iran that came down the pipe” when she was in the Senate, like many of her other stands on Israel-related issues, that changed once she became secretary of state. While the administration now claims that it is these tough sanctions that enabled them to make diplomacy work with Iran, it should be remembered that Clinton and her boss President Obama fiercely opposed these same sanctions when Congress was considering them.

As much as she may be trying to differentiate herself from the incumbent while trying not to sound disloyal, an honest look at Clinton’s term at Foggy Bottom is not flattering. On the two issues that count most today—Russia and Iran—she must bear a great deal of the responsibility for the current mess. Even more to the point, she was as much a champion of Iran engagement as anyone else in the administration, a point that she conveniently omits from her resume, especially when speaking to pro-Israel groups.

A lot can and probably will happen on foreign policy in the two years between now and the 2016 presidential campaign. But the likely Democratic nominee must understand that events may ultimately make her record on Iran and Russia look even worse than it does today. On her watch, Iran moved closer to a nuclear weapon while Clinton earned frequent-flyer miles assembling a coalition in favor of weak sanctions dependent on her Russian reset partner for success. Though Democrats may not care much about her actual record, the facts about Iran and Russia hardly make for the sort of credentials that will enhance her chances of prevailing in a general election.

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Hillary’s Russia Problem More Than ‘Reset’

Hillary Clinton, a presumptive contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, chose Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, to be a top aide for Clinton’s presumptive run. Tauscher is a long-time loyal ally to Clinton, who brought her in to handle arms control during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State. As they say in Washington, personnel is policy, as Clinton presumably wanted a Russophile to be her top aide. While working for Clinton, Tauscher was a key advocate for the START agreement.  At the time, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, outlined several concerns, which Tauscher pooh-poohed. After all, Tauscher argued, the Cold War was over and the Russians could be trusted. The need to work with divergent interests and views necessarily constrains government officials. Seldom does anyone have enough power to push his or her views in their entirety over career bureaucrats and political appointees who might have different views. The true test of one’s opinion, therefore, is what they do when they are outside government.

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Hillary Clinton, a presumptive contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, chose Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, to be a top aide for Clinton’s presumptive run. Tauscher is a long-time loyal ally to Clinton, who brought her in to handle arms control during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State. As they say in Washington, personnel is policy, as Clinton presumably wanted a Russophile to be her top aide. While working for Clinton, Tauscher was a key advocate for the START agreement.  At the time, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, outlined several concerns, which Tauscher pooh-poohed. After all, Tauscher argued, the Cold War was over and the Russians could be trusted. The need to work with divergent interests and views necessarily constrains government officials. Seldom does anyone have enough power to push his or her views in their entirety over career bureaucrats and political appointees who might have different views. The true test of one’s opinion, therefore, is what they do when they are outside government.

Tauscher joined the Atlantic Council; there is nothing wrong with that: The Atlantic Council is home to an impressive array of former officials.  Tauscher, however, used her perch to launch a project to push her personal re-set even further. Here is the press release announcing her initiative:

The Atlantic Council and the Russian International Affairs Council today launched a new initiative to help reframe US-Russia relations and get past the Cold War-era nuclear legacy in our relationship, particularly the dominant paradigm of “mutual assured destruction.” The goal is to reconfigure the bilateral relationship towards “mutual assured stability” and refocus arms control and disarmament toward the development of reassuring measures, and thus help promote closer cooperation between Russia and the West.

The problem, in Tauscher’s view, was that President Obama hadn’t gone far enough in pushing détente with Russia. “We are committed to help our respective authorities revitalize US-Russia relations in this direction,” she declared. She did, however, continue in the same statement to praise the Obama administration’s decision to cancel missile defense projects promised to Poland and the Czech Republic.

What isn’t quite as obvious from the statement is the apparent funding for Tauscher’s “Mutually Assured Stability” initiative. She (and the Atlantic Council, at the time chaired by Chuck Hagel, Obama’s subsequent pick to be Defense Secretary) entered into partnership with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). That sounds innocuous enough, unless one realizes that RIAC is actually funded by the Kremlin and remains a Kremlin-front. Alas, it would not be that much of an exaggeration to say that the woman whom Hillary Clinton considers her top advisor on Russia, arms control, and perhaps more broadly foreign policy effectively put herself partly in Russia’s pocket. Her actions were legal, but there is a sharp difference between legality and good judgment.

Where does Clinton really stand on Russia? Russia’s invasion of Crimea should be pause to consider what lessons should be learned. Alas, if her reliance on Tauscher is any indication, Clinton’s “re-set” moment was not simply a photo-op gone awry; it is symptomatic of bad judgment and a continuing self-destructive embrace.

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Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Putin Problem

Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

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Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

Clinton is heading toward 2016 in an even stronger position vis-à-vis her potential rivals for the president than the formidable advantage she possessed in 2008. This time there is no Barack Obama-type challenger waiting in the wings to steal the prize from her. After eight years of our first African-American president, the desire to follow that up with our first female commander-in-chief provides a compelling story line to the election that will be difficult for any Republican, let alone a fellow Democrat, to try to override.

But she will discover that running for president as a U.S. Senator who could talk about every issue but had responsibility for nothing is a lot easier than having to defend a less-than-stellar record as secretary of state. Though she spent her four years at Foggy Bottom as an administration cipher with little will of her own as President Obama imposed his own foreign policy views on the department and then left it praising him, things have since gotten complicated. The debacle over Syria and now Ukraine as well as the unraveling of the American position in Iraq and Afghanistan undermines the notion that she was a successful secretary of state. Merely accumulating frequent-flyer miles — her claim to fame as a public official — is no substitute for success.

But the deterioration of American relations with the dictator that Obama promised that he would treat with more “flexibility” if he were re-elected in 2012 poses a unique problem for Clinton. If pictures are worth a thousand words, a viral video must be valued at an infinite number of printed pages. The film clip of Clinton and the “reset” button will be played over and over again in the next three years and, fairly or not, may paint her as even more of a dupe for the Russians than Obama or Kerry.

Calling Putin a new Hitler seems like a smart way to distance herself from a lame duck president who looks weak. Hence, the always-savvy Clinton machine is already rolling into action seeking to demonstrate that Hillary is as tough as she would like us to think she is. But like so much of her 2008 campaign, the chest beating Clinton will always be seen as lacking in authenticity. The stronger she tries to appear, the weaker her supposedly invincible campaign machine may start to look. 

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Obama Wasn’t Alone Misreading Putin

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.

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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.

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