Politics & Policy

The Mugging of Ambassador McFaul

He refuses to acknowledge that “reset” failed.

‘A conservative,” the old cliché goes, “is a liberal who has been mugged.” But some liberals who are mugged refuse to admit that it happened.

Observe the rough treatment to which the new American ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, has been subjected since his appointment last January. Since his arrival, the ambassador has been constantly accused in the media of stirring up anti-government protests, and lately he has been ambushed by Russian state-TV crews at his meetings, official and unofficial, suggesting that his phone was tapped. This comes on top of numerous other strong indications that the Obama administration’s attempts to “reset” relations with Russia — a policy spearheaded by Mr. McFaul — have failed. But while McFaul has complained loudly about his recent treatment, he does not seem to realize that he has been mugged in a much broader sense.

Designed ostensibly for three main purposes — to secure Russian cooperation in thwarting the nuclear ambitions of Iran, promote disarmament, and assure supplies to Afghanistan from the north — the “reset” policy has failed miserably, with the partial exception of the last item. Russia now protects Iran’s nuclear ambitions rather openly. It also supports and arms the genocidal regime in Syria, and has succeeded in postponing missile defense in Europe, to the great detriment of our relations with the pro-American Eastern Europeans. It continues to display its neo-imperialist designs, from South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia to Transnistria in Moldova, as well as in its new Eurasian Union scheme.

All of this has been accompanied by a strident anti-American rhetoric, the likes of which we have not heard since the Brezhnev days. America, says Putin, is a country of “parasites” with a “hooligan” as a central banker. It has a “bellicose itch” and provoked the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East in order to intervene there — in a “medieval crusade” manner — to advance its interests.

Faced with this mugging, Ambassador McFaul has done everything possible to deny that his “reset” policies are a shambles. He does not see Iran as “a fundamental issue of disagreement” between the U.S. and Russia; indeed, he claims that “our cooperation on Iran has been one of the successes” of the reset. McFaul acknowledges that the Putin regime’s anti-Americanism is “shocking,” but promptly dismisses it as a temporary phenomenon linked to the Russian presidential campaign.

Noting the great wave of protests following the rigging of the Duma elections this past December, McFaul rightly sees a society “taking their constitutional rights more seriously.” But then he argues that “the state is responding to that,” implying that somehow the regime is becoming more tolerant of dissent. Nothing could be farther from the truth: Russia is governed by a close approximation of fascism, with a strongman, complete with a personality cult, sitting on top of a cabal of closely intertwined political, security, and corporate interests that control the country and its resources. It is a state where election results are changed as needed, inconvenient journalists are murdered with impunity, and dissent is brutally crushed, while courts, legislatures, and the various institutional trappings of democracy all play their bogus parts in a giant Potemkin tableau.

To hope to “reset” relations with a regime like that is a hope as illusory as that of the “détente” purveyors of yesteryear, who yearned to turn the Soviets into cuddly peaceniks through negotiations. Russian officials will now ask you why the Americans were the ones who proposed the “reset” — doesn’t that imply that they were to blame for the previous bad state of the relationship? And thus the whole dubious exercise has had but one real effect, and that is the further legitimization of a thuggish regime.

Ambassador McFaul said in a recent speech that, in Moscow, he represents the Obama administration and the national interest. He is undoubtedly right about representing the president and his administration, but on current evidence, it is difficult to see the president’s policies in Russia as congruent with America’s national interests.

— Alex Alexiev (follow him on Twitter here) is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

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