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.