He was doing so well there for a while. And then it all fell apart, almost as if he’d never done this sort of thing before.
Writing on PJM back in March, I issued a warning to the Republican Party: You have a golden opportunity to seize back the political initiative by focusing on foreign policy, and there is no better place to start than with neo-Soviet Russia. You can invoke the legacy of Ronald Reagan and become the voice of morality and democracy once again, and you can use that as a foundation to rebuild your power base.
Republicans did not take my advice, but it seemed over last weekend that President Obama was listening closely. Traveling to Moscow for his first summit with the Kremlin, he took a series of steps which could have stolen the thunder from the GOP with a direct attack on the KGB-dominated regime of Vladimir Putin. These moves could be seen as beginning a process of depriving the Republicans of their bread-and-butter national security issues. Obama began the attack with an Associated Press interview a few days before he was due to arrive in Moscow. In it, Obama sounded as if he were trying to step directly into Reagan’s shoes. He praised Russia’s figurehead “president” Dmitri Medvedev and castigated Putin in brutal fashion, saying: “I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new, and to the extent that we can provide him and the Russian people a clear sense that the U.S. is not seeking an antagonistic relationship but wants cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation, fighting terrorism, energy issues, that we’ll end up having a stronger partner overall in this process.” Seemingly, Obama was seeking to drive a wedge between the figurehead and the real ruler. It was a thrilling moment for all those of us hoping to see democracy revived in Russia.
Obama’s Russia advisor Michael McFaul, a tough critic of the Putin regime with ties to the conservative Hoover Institute, implied that the “divide and conquer” strategy could go further still: Obama would in turn try to split Medvedev from Putin and then to split the people of Russia from Medevev, with a direct appeal that could include reaching out to human rights groups and opposition political figures. This was not just talk. Days later, it was announced that Obama had given an interview to firebrand opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta (increasingly gaining recognition and reputation in the West) and would meet with opposition political leaders Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov. Kasparov crowed with delight, and Putin was surely stunned by the intensity and multi-front nature of the attack he suddenly faced, while state-sponsored propaganda outlet Russia Today immediately launched a smear attack on him. Nemtsov, the author of a series of white papers which my blog La Russophobe translated into English which Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute recently praised, is a former Kremlin insider and now an arch foe of the Putin regime who is building a considerable reputation in the West.
Obama was blunt in speaking to Novaya Gazeta, a paper Putin reviles but which Medvedev has praised. He stated: “I agree with President Medvedev when he said that ‘freedom is better than the absence of freedom.’ I see no reason why strengthening democracy, human rights and the rule of law cannot be included as part of our ‘reset’ in relations. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
These are words that Republicans, as heirs to Reagan, should not have allowed Obama to say first. Before even arriving in Moscow, Obama had seemed to set a genuinely new foreign policy tone that offered the possibility of reestablishing American moral leadership. Where George Bush met with and honored Putin’s homicidal goons in the White House — namely Chechnya war criminal General Vladimir Shamanov, who also led the Russian invasion and annexation of Abkhazia last August — Obama offered defiance of neo-Soviet aggression.
Obama and Medvedev met on Monday and announced a “framework agreement” on cutting nuclear weapons. The agreement works overwhelmingly in America’s favor. The Russian economy is experiencing a massive recession bordering on a depression, and nuclear missiles are a far more cost-effective way to wage military confrontation than conventional armies, which in Russia are rife with corruption and abuse and which are preposterously expensive for the crude Russian economy (when they invaded Georgia, many Russian officers were reduced to communicating with each other via personal cell phone). Moving away from nuclear weapons means a massive tactical advantage for the far more powerful and professional U.S. conventional forces, unless of course Obama later supports drawing them down as well.