For the first time since Barack Obama entered the White House, America finally has a competent and qualified ambassador to Russia in Mr. John Tefft, a tough and seasoned defender of American values in Eastern Europe. Obama’s first two choices for the job, John Beryl and Michael McFaul, left our Russia policy a smoking ruin, a horrific mess for Tefft to start cleaning up.
“Russia is part of the European culture. And I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilised world. So it is hard for me to visualise NATO as an enemy. I think even posing the question this way will not do any good to Russia or the world.”
Those were the words of Russian “president” Vladimir Putin to BBC interviewer David Frost back in March 2000, just as Putin first took the formal reins of power. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul recently tweeted them (sloppily without linking to the source material) as if for the purpose of showing that his “reset” policy towards Russia was not nearly as insane when it was implemented as it now appears.
The question Putin was referring to was: “Do you see NATO as a potential partner, or a rival or an enemy?” In order to believe that Putin might not see NATO as an enemy, one had to disregard Putin’s entire life history and all of his actions since joining the administration of Boris Yeltsin in Moscow precisely three years before the Frost interview.
And that, incredibly, was exactly what Michael McFaul was prepared to do when he assumed office in December 2011. It was one of the lowest moments in U.S. diplomatic history, following on the heels of Hillary Clinton’s humiliating use of a “reset button” physical prop to announce the policy that was incorrectly labeled in Russian.
Putin began serving Yeltsin as deputy chief of staff, and in just over one year was named head of the FSB, successor to the KGB, the agency where Putin began his government service after graduating college in St. Petersburg. Less four months after taking over at the FSB, Russia’s leading human rights activist Galina Starovoitova was murdered, and her murder has never been solved. A horrifying litany of unsolved killings of such activists and journalists followed, including Anna Politkovskaya, Natala Estemirova, Stanislav Markelov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Nikolai Girenko Andrei Kozlov, Alexander Litvinenko and Paul Klebnikov. Putin’s leading political rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was jailed.
Nobody who was paying attention could fail to understand what these killings meant: Vladimir Putin was declaring war on the “civilized world” he referred to in his quote. Russians have never seen themselves as part of Europe, and they have always bristled furiously when Europeans refer to themselves that way, clearly meaning to exclude Russia. Putin’s statements to Frost had one purpose, and one purpose only: Exactly the same way Hitler misled Chamberlain, Putin wanted to lull the West into a false sense of security, to get it to drop its guard so he could consolidate power and rebuild Russia’s precariously weak military power.
Given this chance, Putin knew, he’d be able to take aggressive measures like the annexation of Crimea and the partition of Ossetia and Abkhazia.
And naive simpletons like McFaul and Obama bought this Madoff-like flimflam hook, line and sinker. They told us, for example, that we should sign a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Putin, that he would not violate such a treaty and could be a partner in supporting nonproliferation. But last month, we learned that Putin had been ritualistically violating his nuclear arms obligations, and that Obama has finally adopted a new foreign policy that “assumes that Russia is out to take as much territory and control as he can, and that letting Russian scientists into America’s nuclear complex is unwise.” And he’s brought in Tefft to implement that policy. Better late than never.
David Remnick of the New Yorker recently published spectacularly misleading puff piece on McFaul in which he desperately struggles to help the disgraced ambassador rehabilitate himself. The piece begins with the subheadline: “Ambassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia—and when it began to fade.” Even by the ridiculously low standards of the New Yorker, this was truly sorry stuff.
The magazine once provided blogging space to Julia Ioffe, who I consider to be the single worst Russia journalist of the past decade. Ioffe breathlessly reported from Moscow that Alexei Navaly was leading Russia to a new birth of freedom, that the people of Russia were rising up against Putin’s repression. This was the exactly opposite of the truth. Navalny was a highly dubious nationalist figure with many unsavory views and no real support at all in the national electorate. he was crushed at the polls when he ran for mayor of Moscow against Putin’s handpicked candidate, and now he’s under house arrest, all but forgotten.
Remnick means well, I’m sure, but his column about McFaul is a disgrace to the Russia-watching profession. There never was any “promise of democracy” under Vladimir Putin, and never any reason to do anything other than confront him just as the USSR was confronted by Ronald Reagan. But McFaul acted is if there was such a promise, and did the exact opposite fo what Reagan would have done. McFaul and Obama embraced the disastrously failed policy of craven weakness pursued by Jimmy Carter, and the invasion of Ukraine was the predictable result. And Remnick suffers from the fact that as the editor in chief of the magazine there’s obviously nobody willing to call him on his laffers.
Remnick states: “Obama and Medvedev did solid work on arms control.” Solid work? Obama and McFaul were suckered by Putin into believing Medvedev was a real leader when in fact he was Putin’s proxy, and Russia has no more intention of honoring its nuclear arms obligations than the USSR ever did.
Remnick writes: “As a new Ambassador, McFaul was hardly ignorant of the chill, but he launched into his work with a characteristic earnestness.” But ignorant is exactly what McFaul was, and the collapse of the reset with the invasion of Ukraine is proof positive of that. Extreme liberals like Remnick are still hypnotized by the Chamberlainian concept that if you just talk sweetly enough to a maniac, he’ll leave you alone because of the power of your ideals and your earnestness. Again and again, this notion has lead the world to disaster.
Remnick points out that McFaul met with anti-Putin activists while ambassador, but he doesn’t understand what this signified: McFaul and Obama gave the U.S. the worst of all possible worlds. They alienated Putin with such meetings, but they embraced a Vietnam-style limitation on their conduct such that they never actually provided the kind of support for democracy on the ground that was necessary to actually achieve it. The U.S. policy failed spectacularly on both fronts. The democracy movement collapsed and Putin went wilding.
Remnick quotes McFaul thusly: “That’s me. Mr. Anti-Cynicism. Mr. It Will All Work Out.” This is the man Obama sent to speak for American to a proud KGB spy! Has there ever been a lower moment in the history of U.S. diplomacy? I opposed the confirmation of McFaul loudly and repeatedly when it was announced, but Republicans failed to realize the danger and he sailed through almost unscathed.
Remnick also repeatedly documents McFaul’s abiding liberalism, making it rather odd to find him at a place like the Hoover Institution, where he appears to be some kind of Trojan horse.
Remnick does at least offer readers this tidbit of criticism: “McFaul has written and edited many books on Russia and political transition—some of them useful, some pedestrian, none enduring.” Then he states that Obama hired McFaul because of his (pedestrian, ephemeral) scholarship, and lets McFaul brag that his scholarship influenced Obama’s policy and his speeches. It’s amazing carnival of drivel, and would be hilarious if the fate of the world did not hang in the balance.
And in the end, of course, there’s no hint in Remnick’s piece that Obama, beloved by the New Yorker beyond words, and McFaul have led the United States to the brink of disaster on Russia. Towards the end of his diabolically long treatise, he notes that after being dismissed by Obama McFaul wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he stated that our country “does not have the same moral authority as it did in the last century.” And McFaul emphasized this view by telling Remnick: “Putin has a theory of American power that has some empirical basis.” Like Obama, in other words, McFaul is willing and even eager to trash American values and ask America to bow before brutal dictators like Putin.
Putin saw this from the start, and so although he was outwardly hostile to McFaul, as Remnick describes, in fact he was smiling underneath it all from ear to hear. “Here,” Putin must have cooed to himself, “I have another American fool. Maybe even dumber than ‘looked in his eyes’ Bush. I’ll eat him like a caviar sandwich.”
And so he did.