The Corner

The Limits of Cheeseburger Diplomacy

President Obama’s “hot mike” comments to Dmitry Medvedev represented a classic Kinsley gaffe. Unaware he was being recorded, Obama assured the Russian leader that he would “have more flexibility” on missile defense after his reelection. Medvedev, in turn, promised to “transmit this information to Vladimir,” a reference to the once and future President Putin.

If anyone was still wondering why Republicans remain skeptical of Obama’s commitment to missile defense, now they understand. Yet the significance of the hot-mike incident goes beyond that one issue. In a broader sense, the president has indicated that he is doubling down on his “reset” policy toward Moscow, despite a mountain of evidence that the policy has largely failed.

The most recent evidence of its failure was Russia’s March 4 presidential election, which restored Putin to the top job — his former job — in the Kremlin. That election was sullied by “procedural irregularities,” not to mention a political and media environment that forestalled genuine democratic competition. The same could be said of Russia’s December 4 parliamentary elections, in which the government’s mischief was even worse. As the New York Times reported, OECD election observers said they “had observed blatant fraud, including the brazen stuffing of ballot boxes” — which makes it all the more remarkable that Putin’s United Russia Party suffered such major losses.

In short, the country is sliding deeper into lawless autocracy. Meanwhile, Moscow continues to resist imposing tougher sanctions on Iran and Syria, and it continues to supply Damascus with all sorts of weaponry that is being used to massacre innocent civilians. When Russia and China vetoed a recent U.N. resolution on Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called their actions “despicable.”

#more#Given all that, one might have expected the Obama administration to recalibrate its Russia policy and adopt a sterner, less conciliatory approach. Instead, the president has signaled his desire for more of the same. That is a big mistake.

Don’t just take my word for it. Even the Washington Post editorial page has expressed alarm: “The return of Vladi­mir Putin to the Russian presidency ought to have caused the Obama administration to reshape its policy toward the Kremlin,” and yet “President Obama has responded to Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency by strongly affirming his commitment to partnering with the strongman.”

The reset policy was originally predicated on a belief that U.S.-Russian relations had soured because of the Bush administration’s intransigence and ineptitude. In fact, President Bush worked hard to establish a friendly, constructive rapport with Putin. As late as July 2007, he hosted the former KGB officer at his family compound in Kennebunkport. Unfortunately, in August 2008, Russia chose to invade democratic Georgia, thereby poisoning bilateral ties with the United States. President Bush rightly condemned the invasion as “unacceptable,” and he also approved a $1 billion non-military aid package for Georgia.

Washington could not simply turn a blind eye to the cross-border incursion, nor could it stay silent about Moscow’s increasingly brutal domestic repression. Perhaps the most powerful human symbol of that repression is the late Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and anti-corruption whistleblower who was unjustly imprisoned, denied treatment for his medical conditions, and held without trial until his death at the hands of the government in November 2009. Last fall, a detailed report was published linking Russian officials to Magnitsky’s torture and murder. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens has compared him to Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who was beaten to death by police in 1977. I have co-sponsored legislation that would sanction those Russian officials responsible for the appalling and deadly abuse that Magnitsky suffered.

As Stephens notes, the Obama administration is worried that the Magnitsky scandal could complicate its reset policy. But what has that policy accomplished? White House officials frequently point to the 2010 New START arms-control treaty and Russian help on Afghanistan. Moscow has indeed become more supportive of NATO operations in Afghanistan, but mostly for reasons of self-interest. As for New START, the treaty was a giveaway that actually allowed Russia to increase the number of nuclear launchers and warheads in its arsenal while forcing the United States to make reductions. It also jeopardized the future of U.S. missile defense. For that matter, Medvedev has threatened to withdraw from New START if Washington doesn’t scale back its missile-defense plans. More menacingly, he has threatened to target U.S. missile-defense sites with offensive weapons. This is the same man with whom President Obama famously shared cheeseburgers back in June 2010.

Alas, cheeseburger summits won’t lead to permanent, substantial improvements in U.S. relations with Russia. A true “reset” will come about only when Moscow changes its hostile attitude toward democracy and the West.  

Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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