Michael McFaul with President Obama. White House photo by Pete Souza
Washington’s unwillingness to use diplomacy to resolve international conflicts has proven remarkably consistent over the past 13 years. Even chalking it up to ineptitude would let the Bush and Obama administrations off the hook for what are apparently more systemic failures. I am referring to an inability to think outside the box, coupled with a kind of policymaking cronyism that automatically limits any ability to craft a careful and proportionate response to developing situations. Ukraine is the latest example of American failure to see what is plainly visible, but one can go through an entire catalog of misconceived policies starting with Bosnia and continuing through Georgia and the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, all of which have turned out poorly. If the current pattern is repeated, catastrophe awaits as involvement in Ukraine deepens and the drive to somehow confront Iran gains momentum in Congress and the media.
Part of the problem is psychological. The United States has not experienced war on its own soil in any serious way since 1865, nor have many congressmen or journalists actually served in the military. For them war is an abstraction, something that is inflicted on other people but not on the United States. Unfortunately, that assessment of American invulnerability is increasingly fragile. Russia is one of the few world powers that can actually hit back at the U.S. with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, a threat that should not be considered outside the realm of possibility should Moscow be pushed into a corner.
Meanwhile the likely failure to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program will only encourage Tehran to build a weapon, which will in turn likely lead to a profusion of nuclear states in response, including unstable regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As the number of nuclear weapons in the hands of governments with internal security problems increases, so too does the risk that a stray weapon or weapons will wind up in the hands of genuine terrorists, whose own numbers are also increasing as U.S. policy creates blowback in a number of countries through its poorly thought-out interventions. It is not unthinkable that the devil’s brew of more weapons and more enemies could eventually lead to Condoleezza Rice’s fantasy vision of a mushroom cloud over Washington.
President Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been characterized by stops and starts, perhaps not surprising coming from an intelligent man who nevertheless lacked any real understanding of what goes on in the world outside of academia and the Chicago wards. He has been forced to rely on reliably Democratic cronies and frequently self-styled experts to guide him, an understandable if not particularly successful approach that creates little in the way of healthy internal debate. A recent New York Timesop-ed by Michael A. McFaul, until recently Obama’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation, very clearly illustrates the problem.
It is undeniable that McFaul knows a lot about Russia. He is a former professor of political science at Stanford and a fellow at the Hoover Institute. He was a Rhodes Scholar and holds degrees from both Stanford and Oxford in Russian and Slavic studies. He speaks the language and has lived there. After serving on the National Security Council as Special Adviser to the President, he was named Ambassador to the Russian Federation, serving in that post from January 2012 until February of this year.
Appointment to Moscow generally goes to a career diplomat given the complexities of the relationship and the possibility that the wrong choice could have serious consequences. Obama opted to go with someone he was comfortable with instead of State Department professional John Beyrle, who was generally regarded at Foggy Bottom as the best choice for the post, having already served as both Deputy Chief of Mission, the number two position in the embassy, and as acting ambassador. McFaul, unlike Beyrle, is an unrepentant democracy activist. He even wrote a book called Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can. When he was appointed ambassador he noted that “the United States can speak out on democracy and Georgia while still seeking cooperation with Moscow in other areas,” setting the stage for confrontation with the Russian government.
McFaul believes that the Cold War never ended satisfactorily because Russia did not become an institutional clone of the United States, a thesis elaborated in his book Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. In his writing McFaul is particularly hard on Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as a reactionary figure seeking to recreate the Soviet Empire, ignoring the fact that the Russian president is very popularamong his countrymen if not among some American academics. McFauldescribes other scholars who see the Russian leader more favorably than he as “Putin apologists,” while indicting Putin’s government as “Russia’s new autocratic regime.” McFaul’s writings make clear that he believes that U.S.-style democracy, capitalism, and press freedom are universal rights, and that the United States should impose those standards on Russia as a condition of it joining what McFaul refers to as the “international order.”
From the start of his tenure in Moscow, McFaul was sending the Russian government a message. During his first week he met with opposition politicians and groups, even before presenting his credentials at the Foreign Ministry. He was ambassador in October 2012 when the Russian government began to clamp down on foreign government agencies and nongovernment organizations that were active in “democracy promotion” in Russia, noting that many of the groups were little more than pressure groups directed against the freely elected regime in power. In his op-ed McFaul protests against Russian attempts “To continue to spook Russians about American encirclement and internal meddling…” when that is what precisely has been taking place since 1991.
McFaul is a kindred spirit with Obama’s other favorite foreign policy advisers, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. All of them believe that the United States has some civilizing mission to bestow on the rest of the world, and it is all tied up with convincing countries to become democratic. In reality it is little more than a lazy formulation asserting a unique right for America to remake the world in an image of itself, while blatantly ignoring international law and the world opinion.
McFaul’s op-ed is illuminating in that it rests on a number of assumptions derived from the democracy promotion imperative that are at a minimum questionable. He accepts that the United States has license to involve itself in the internal politics of other countries even when their governments object. He also assumes that spreading democracy by whatever means necessary must be a major priority for any American government.
McFaul does not even argue that democracies are less inclined to go to war, which has sometimes been falsely asserted, but instead appears to believe that democracy is a good thing intrinsically. His assumption is, of course, very much dependent on what he means by democracy. Since he is promoting the American brand, it is quite easy to note how U.S.’s democracy is essentially dysfunctional on many major issues like providing accessible health care and balancing the budget. It is also riven by corruption of various kinds from top to bottom. It is hardly a model for the rest of the world and McFaul even admits that its current incarnation does not “inspire,” but he nevertheless argues that it must be imposed on the willing and unwilling alike.
Being an ideologue like McFaul, Rice, Power, and, presumably, Obama makes one choose not to see or recognize certain realities. McFaul writes that “We did not seek this confrontation [with Russia over Ukraine].” He then elaborates, “A revisionist autocratic leader instigated this new confrontation. We did not.” Really? Then the actions undertaken by successive U.S. presidents to deliberately advance NATO into Eastern Europe in spite of pledges not to do so did not occur? Or the $5 billion worth of “investing” or meddling by Ms. Nuland and company in Ukraine, most recently to remove an elected government and replace it with something more to Washington’s taste did not take place? Or the introduction of new missile systems into Eastern Europe was not a provocation? Or the encouragement of the rape of the Russian economy by American and European “entrepreneurs” aided by domestic oligarchs after the fall of the Soviet Union in a rush to create a capitalist economy is a fantasy? I could go on, but it think the point is made that Russia had and has very good reasons to fear an aggressive and frequently out of control United States.
McFaul writes about “Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008…,” undoubtedly a bit of a stretch unless one has been spending too much time with John McCain, and he decries Moscow’s propaganda deriding “American imperialism, immoral practices and alleged plans to overthrow the Putin government.” Surely the suggestion of overthrow is too strong as Washington has no such capability, but the United States has made clear its intention to reform Russia by maneuvering“around the Kremlin.” Most governments would demur at being subverted by paid minions of a foreign state, and is attributing imperialism and immorality to Washington really inaccurate?
McFaul indicts Putin because he wishes “…confrontation with the West, no longer feels constrained by international laws and norms, and is unafraid to wield Russian power to revise the international order.” But surely if one plays with the context a bit, those charges are much better applied to Washington than to Moscow. After calling for considerable international pressure on Russia to punish it, McFaul concludes that democracy will triumph in Russia because “democracies have consolidated at a remarkable pace, while autocracies continue to fall.”
If that is true, and there is inevitability to the transition, it is likely something we all can welcome. And if it will happen anyway, it is certainly not worth restarting the Cold War to hasten the process.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.