The second day of the summit is now over and President Obama, apparently convinced of the good will of his Russian interlocutors, has doubled his bets. In the process, he is ignoring what the former British defense minister, Denis Healey, described as the first law of holes, “If you are in one, stop digging.”
Having committed himself to a useless arms-reduction treaty and vouchsafed his faith in the Russian legal system, the president has gone on to:
* Acknowledge the “extraordinary work” that prime minister Vladimir Putin has done for Russia, describing him as “sincere, just, and deeply interested in the interests of the Russian people,”
* Promised to take into account Russia’s “peculiar” view of its relations with Georgia and Ukraine [that it should dominate them], and
*Vowed to keep the Russian leaders informed about a U.S. evaluation of whether the anti-missile shield planned for Eastern Europe will actually work. (This was immediately described by Kremlin spokesmen for the Russian television audience as a prelude to an American decision to drop the missile shield entirely.)
The upshot of all this is that the task of keeping Russia’s imperialist pretensions under control has just gotten harder. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to allow the U.S. to transport military supplies and personnel destined for Afghanistan across Russia. But this should never have been an issue in the first place. The Taliban threatens Russia as much if not more than it threatens the U.S. At the same time, this “favor” can be withdrawn at any time if relations worsen, as they inevitably will. On the basis of the summit, the president and his advisers will conclude that they are on the verge of a breakthrough that eluded Bush, whereas the Russians will conclude that the new administration naïvely misreads their intentions, is ready to jettison previous U.S. positions, and can be counted on not to resist meaningfully if Russia tries to expand its “zone of special interests” by force.
Obama is not making mistakes that other presidents have not made before him. But after six months of dealing with foreign countries, he’s not learning from experience either. We can only hope that the learning process won’t be too traumatic.
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State.