Category Archives: US foreign policy

Latest comment on Russia: Obama, Medvedev, and human rights

Not to turn this site into full-time pimpage of my articles, but here’s the latest on Obama’s trip to Moscow and the human rights situation in Russia, from Forbes.com:

Obama goes to Moscow

And here’s Medvedev’s video blog entry on Obama’s visit and Russian-American relations:

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Filed under Barack Obama, human rights, Russia, Russian-American relations, US foreign policy

Mr. Obama goes to Moscow

My new RealClearPolitics.com column examines Obama’s upcoming trip and the debate between “realists” and “idealists” on Russia.

(And my other column today, in The Wall Street Journal, asks if Mr. Putin is going to Georgia.  Again.)

The Obama visit should be interesting.  Evidently, Obama is spending a lot of one-on-one time with Medvedev (who declares on his video blog today that “Today, we are united by the values of our civilization, the values of respect for human life and human rights and freedoms” — does he say this stuff with a straight face?) and a lot of time with “unofficial” activists.  On Tuesday, he breakfasts with Putin.  Obama’s remarks today suggest that his “narrative” for the Moscow trip is that he and Medvedev together will be leading their countries forward to cooperation and partnership, while Putin, who “still has a lot of sway” and keeps “one foot in the old ways of doing business”, needs to understand that the time of the old ways has passed.  Sounds like Obama’s message to Putin is, more or less, “Move out of the way, buddy, time’s up.”

Chances are, Putin is not going to like this, particularly in conjunction with the fact that Obama goes straight from breakfast with Putin to a day of meetings with representatives of unofficial Russia.  In EJ.ru, Alexander Golts writes that his conversations with “certain people who are involved in the [U.S.-Russian] negotiations in one way or another” have left with the impression that they are confident that Obama’s visit will be productive, but also extremely tense and nervous that something will go wrong.  And that “something” has a name.  According to Golts,

At one point, an impressively high-level diplomat blurted out, “What if Putin finally loses it completely and screws everything up?”

I go back and forth on how real or meaningful the rumored Putin-Medvedev rift really is, and to what extent Medvedev is really emerging as his own man (or a reformer).   We may learn a lot next week.

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Filed under Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia, US foreign policy, Vladimir Putin

Human rights and Khodorkovsky

A group of American pundits which includes people as different as William Kristol and Leon Wieseltier is appealing to Barack Obama to make democracy and human rights a priority on his Moscow visit.  Grani.ru reports (in Russian) that, according to Obama’s top Russia advisor, Michael McFaul, about half of the President’s time on his Moscow trip will be devoted to interaction with “unofficial” persons.  Specifically, nearly all of Day 2 of his three-day visit will be spent in meetings with activists, members of the business community, and youth groups (hopefully not Nashi!).   And Gazeta.ru reports that on the first day of the visit, July 6, Obama will attend a “Civic Summit” of non-governmental organizations including Memorial, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.  (Dmitry Medvedev is also expected to attend, though this is not officially confirmed.)   So far, this sounds like good news.

Meanwhile, a resolution urging the Russian government to dismiss the new charges against imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and co-defendant Platon Lebedev — a case that reeks of politics and outrageous injustice — has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Reps. James McGovern (D-Mass.)  and Frank Wolf (R-Va), co-chairmen of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission,  and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe.  A similar bipartisan resolution was submitted in the Senate earlier.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who was in Moscow this week as head of a visiting Congressional delegation, was asked about this on Ekho Moskvy radio (where he appeared with his Russian counterpart, Konstantin Kosachev).

Berman’s reply:

I am the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and I have never heard of this resolution.  There is a tremendous difference between resolutions submitted by members of Congress and the laws Congress actually passes.  I would not focus on the isolated proposals of isolated members of Congress.  We should focus on what constitutes U.S. policy, what legislators enact, not the statements of some politicians.

Not only does Berman not support his colleagues’ human rights initiative; he goes out of his way to dismiss it as an insignificant and isolated political move.  Nice work, Congressman.

By the way, here is the full text of the resolution’s concluding part.

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Filed under human rights, Russia, Russian-American relations, US foreign policy

New Russia article: Barack Obama’s Moscow trip and U.S.-Russian relations

In anticipation of Barack Obama’s Moscow trip, my new article on U.S.-Russian relations runs in The Weekly Standard.

Highlights:

Today, more than a year into the Medvedev presidency, it is obvious that there has been no change of course at the Kremlin. The extent of Medvedev’s true authority remains unclear, and Putin is still a figure to contend with. While Medvedev may seem more sympathetic to domestic liberalism–he doesn’t, for instance, share his patron’s open, visceral aversion to journalists and activists critical of the state–his rhetoric on foreign affairs has been no less aggressive than Putin’s. Any “reset,” then, would have to be based on a change in American policy.

Indeed, most American critics of the “new Cold War”–on both the left at the Nation and the paleocon right at the American Conservative–share the belief that the recent chill between the United States and Russia was caused primarily by American arrogance and insensitivity. In this view, Russia extended a hand of friendship to the United States after September 11 only to be repaid with repeated slaps in the face: the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the former USSR, support for regime change in ex-Soviet republics (particularly the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine), and plans for a missile shield that Russians fear is directed mostly at them. Supporters of a “fresh start” undoubtedly hope Obama’s Moscow trip will include apologies for at least some of these perceived wrongs.

The perception, however, is quite tendentious.

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Filed under Dmitry Medvedev, Russia, Russian-American relations, US foreign policy

Parsing Obama

So, here comes Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech to the Muslim world, to decidedly mixed reaction.  I am not going to dwell at the moment on the specifics of his Israel policy (for a very pessimistic assessment see this post by Ron Radosh, though there are many Israel supporters who do not share Ron’s endorsement of the settlements).  I also agree that the part of the speech dealing with Iran was rather weak, full of lofty sentiment signifying nothing.  But some of the scathing criticism directed at Obama strikes me as rather misguided.  For instance, Charles Krauthammer found it to be infected by “self-absorption”; but was Obama’s talk of the aspects of his personal story that were relevant to the issues at hand all that different from what, say, Ronald Reagan did?

Does it really matter that Obama never used the words “terror” or “terrorism,” referring instead to “violent extremism”?  The power of the T-word has been somewhat diluted by overuse; besides, to many (non-terror-sympathizing) Muslims it is undoubtedly a red-flag word, due to their common belief that the West looks at a Muslim and sees a terrorist.  I think it was a positive thing to say, and drive home the point, that terrorism by any other name would smell as foul.

The President’s powerful affirmation of the memory of the Holocaust, and firm condemnation of Holocaust denial, was a key part of the speech.  Some believe that, by transitioning immediately to the plight of displaced Palestinians, Obama drew a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and Palestinian displacement.  Re-reading the speech, I see no such equivalence (though someone who wants to believe the two tragedies are equal could read it that way).  I think Obama was simply saying that the Palestinians have their own history of suffering which cannot be denied.  Should he have said more to acknowledge the Palestinian (and Arab) leaders’ own responsibility for perpetuating this suffering?  Probably.  Did he go too far in suggesting that each side’s view of the conflict was equally valid?  Probably.  But here’s an important point: the speech was intended as outreach to the Muslim world.   To say “Israel is 100% right and the Palestinians bear 100% of the blame,” even if it were true (and I don’t believe it is) would not be very productive.  Confronting a Muslim and Arab audience with the fact that Israel’s stiff-necked stance has something to do with “the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond” is a pretty good start.

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Filed under anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, Barack Obama, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Middle East, Muslims, religion, religious freedom, September 11, terrorism, US foreign policy, West

These two things are not alike (another WWII thought)

In my last column on World War II, I mentioned some through-the-looking-glass similarities between Russian and American attitudes toward the war — such as the fact that both often act as if they single-handedly defeated Hitler.  

While working on the column, I thought of another parallel.  Russians “patriots” frequently wax indignant at the ungrateful people of Eastern Europe and the Baltics who fail to appreciate Russia’s role in liberating them from the Nazi yoke.  Many Americans, particularly conservatives, have the same attitude toward Europeans who fail to appreciate America’s role in saving them from Hitler.

But is there any kind of moral equivalence there?  

I would say no.

It’s not that I don’t find the “how dare they — we saved their butts during World War II!” attitude annoying.  I do, except in response to shrill , vicious anti-Americanism (rather than reasoned criticism of U.S. policies).  I think demanding gratitude for one’s good deeds is always somewhat unseemly, and takes away much of the value of the good deed.  

Still, there’s a difference.   Allow me to illustrate (with apologies for the gender-stereotypical script).

Scenario A: A man saves a woman from a homicidal maniac.   They start dating and end up getting married.  He can be a bit domineering at times and sometimes, when she questions something he does, self-righteously reminds her of the gratitude she owes him for saving her life.

Not very nice, right? But now consider …

Scenarior B:  A man saves a woman from a homicidal maniac.  He then proceeds to forcibly take her to his house and repeatedly rape her.  When she finally escapes and goes to the police, he proceeds to loudly complain about her ingratitude — after all, if it weren’t for him, she’d be dead now!

Any questions?

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Filed under Europe, Russia, US foreign policy, World War II

Thinking about World War II

I have two new articles out, both dealing with the legacy of World War II (the occasion being Victory in Europe Day on May 8, and Russia’s Victory Day May 9).

My debut on Forbes.com, Victory Day Festivities In Moscow, examines that legacy in Russia, where the very real pride and grief the  people feel over their country’s victory and sacrifice in the war against Nazi Germany are exploited for its own ends by the authoritarian regime in power.  Meanwhile, my latest RealClearPolitics.com column, Lessons From World War II, looks at the mythology of  the “Good War” that prevails in both Russia and the United States, with startling similarities in some cases, and at the enduring influence of that mythology in our own time — as well as the difficult and relevant questions WWII poses about war and morality.

My conclusion:

Despite its darkest moments, World War II remains “the Good War” – not because we were impeccably good, but because we fought an enemy that was as close as one can be to pure evil. It also belies the popular notion that if we cross certain moral lines to achieve our war aims, we will become just as bad as the enemy: the staggering casualties in the firebombing of Dresden notwithstanding, Churchill did not “sink to the level” of the leaders of the Third Reich.

World War II reminds us about the limits of idealism. Looking back, many people wonder if we would have won the war with the level of media openness and respect for human rights that we have today. That’s a legitimate question – but its seamy side is a dangerous nostalgia for a “simpler” time when soldiers could do their job without having to think of sissy stuff like rights and legalities.

Perhaps the real lesson of World War II is that a free, civilized society at war will always seek to strike some balance between self-defense and principle. Sometimes, it will err badly. To defend these errors as fully justified is to betray our own values and start on a road that leads to the kind of authoritarian mindset so rampant in Putin’s Russia. To condemn them with no understanding of their context is a self-righteous utopian posture that, in the end, does liberal values a disservice.

 

But please, do read the whole thing.

Much to my surprise, I got semi-positive feedback on this column from my frequent nemesis Daniel Larison of The American Conservative.  (Someone check the temperature in Hell!)  However, Mr. Larison takes issue with this passage:

The “Good War,” like the Good Book, can be put in the service of any agenda. Conservatives invoke it to justify military action: “What about Hitler?” is a devastating, if cliché, rebuttal to the pacifist insistence that there is never a good reason to start a war. It is, to some extent, an unfair argument that much too easily confers the status of Hitler on our enemy of the day. But it also makes a valid and important point: evil does exist (if usually on a smaller scale than Nazism), and to refuse to fight it is to ensure its triumph.

 

Specifically, he points out that it was Hitler who started the war, and that the need to fight Hitler does not disprove the wrongness of starting a war.   I stand corrected, and plead guilty to careless use of language: what I should have said was “go to war,” not “start a war.”  Or maybe it was a Freudian slip that reveals my inner militarist.

 

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Filed under Russia, US foreign policy, War