John R. Bolton | National Review
Less than two months after his inauguration, President Obama’s Russia policy has gone badly awry. His errors bode poorly for important American interests challenged by Russia, but there are broader implications as well. Many of the Obama administration’s misperceptions and mistakes in the Russian arena reflect pervasive flaws throughout its foreign policy.
The administration’s biggest mistake to date was suggesting that U.S. missile-defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic might go unbuilt if Russia could deliver an Iran without nuclear weapons. While the letter containing this trial balloon is not public, and both Moscow and Washington deny that it contained an explicit quid pro quo, media descriptions of its contents were revealing enough, and far from novel. Democrats have never felt comfortable with missile defense because it violates their Cold War precept that defense is destabilizing and vulnerability is good, an opinion central to their flawed approach to national security.
The proposed tradeoff harmed U.S. interests in three respects:
First, by showing, at best, ambivalence on national missile defense, President Obama signaled that the issue was in the souk and the bidding open. Russia now knows that missile defense is up for grabs. This is completely opposite to the strategy of Ronald Reagan, who refused to offer his Strategic Defense Initiative as a bargaining chip, thus driving the Soviet Union to despair and significantly contributing to its eventual destruction.
Second, missile defense is not just about Iran, but about other threats from that region, and elsewhere, such as North Korea. Pakistan already has many nuclear weapons that, in the hands of a radical Islamist regime, would be a grave peril for the United States and its friends. New radical regimes in this region, the world’s most volatile, could come to power and acquire nuclear weapons, posing a significant threat. If Obama believes Iran is the only nuclear-proliferation problem, he and his team are seriously misinformed.
Third, this kind of proposal could easily degenerate from what sounds initially like tough-minded realpolitik to diplomatic fecklessness. Especially in this administration’s hands, the actual result could well be that the United States gives up the Polish and Czech sites while Russia not only doesn’t deliver a nuclear-free Iran but doesn’t even try very hard. Thus, what starts out as a bad deal could easily end up being a catastrophic deal.
These errors reflect an Obama-administration diplomacy that will rely on promises from countries that have no intentions of carrying them out, an “innocents abroad” policy that will hearten our adversaries and appall our friends.
Then there is the famous “reset button” for relations with Russia. Embarrassing here is not the mistranslation on the cute little button Secretary of State Clinton presented to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at their March 6 meeting in Geneva, but the simpleminded intellectual basis underlying the very idea of “pressing the reset button.” Foreign policy by bumper-sticker slogan is hardly reassuring–but it is entirely consistent with the new administration’s endless-campaign mindset.
It is painful to have to recite the obvious, but one side cannot unilaterally reset a bilateral relationship without simply giving in to the other side’s positions. Even worse, the Obama administration seems to believe that difficulties in U.S.-Russian relations stem from attitudes and actions on our side, particularly the Bush administration’s manner and methods. Thus, in the Obama view, the problems can now be essentially eliminated simply because administrations have changed. This paradigm in Obama’s Russia policy epitomizes the broader policy theme that Bush’s “attitude” caused so many of our present difficulties in the world. The administration, in the glow of global Obamamania, believes that simply bringing a changed attitude will help realign fundamental international realities.
This position is not only erroneous, but dangerous. Nonetheless, repeated comments by Secretary Clinton during her recent Middle East/Europe tour demonstrate that it is manifestly the administration’s view. On March 6, referring to Condoleezza Rice, an NPR reporter observed in the media’s typically unbiased fashion that, “as you know, your predecessor had quite a testy relationship with [Foreign Minister Lavrov].” Said Clinton, obviously happy for the cue line: “We’re going to hit the reset button and start fresh.” In an interview with a Turkish journalist the next day, Clinton said:
“I know right now that the Turkish people are somewhat negative about America, I would argue, because of some of the decisions of the last eight years. I remember very well when my husband and I were here in ’99. The Turkish people were very positive about America. That’s what we want again.”
It is hardly “diplomatic” for an administration to take shots at its predecessor overseas while ignoring the negative impact on Turkish perceptions of America that increasing Islamicization of Turkish politics is likely to have. In the Obama view, however, it is all Bush administration, all the time.
In a March 5 BBC interview, Clinton was even more explicit, saying, “I think there was a rather confrontational approach toward Russia in the prior administration. How much that contributed to Russian behavior, I think, is a legitimate question to ask.” This is not quite blaming terrorist attacks on “confrontational” behavior by the targets, but it has the same odor, implying that Russia’s belligerent behavior is America’s fault. If so, Secretary Clinton might be more careful in her own remarks. On March 4, at a West Bank school, she called Sally Ride the first woman in space, when in fact it was the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova.
As we should all know, it takes two to have a testy or confrontational relationship. If Rice’s relationship with Lavrov was testy, it was because of Russia’s protecting Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and Russia’s threats to cut off oil and natural gas to Western Europe. Clinton may be glowing that Lavrov said the two of them “have a wonderful personal relationship” after their dinner in Geneva. But that wonderful relationship did not prevent Lavrov, at the press conference immediately afterwards, from standing defiantly behind Russia’s sale of the advanced S-300 air-defense system to Iran. Nor had he missed the chance earlier to say flatly in public “You got it wrong” when Clinton asked whether the Russian translation of the word “reset” was correct. No diplomatic obfuscation there, but a shiv straight in Clinton’s ribs. I have no doubt Lavrov thought that was really wonderful, too. Perhaps Secretary Clinton missed it.
U.S. relations with Russia in the next four years will be difficult because of Russian belligerence and assertiveness, not because Rice and Lavrov, or their respective bosses, didn’t each think the other was wonderful. Believing that less-than-ideal relations between Washington and Moscow stemmed from Washington’s “confrontational” approach shows an unprecedented bias toward the other side of the negotiating table in our own top negotiators. A weak knowledge of history, a lack of strategy and perspective, and a domestic political agenda of revanchism have so far characterized the Obama administration’s relations not only with Russia, but with much of the broader world as well. Without a dramatic improvement, and soon, there is trouble ahead.