Friday, February 20, 2009

Obama's Russia Policy: "Turn Down The Temperature"

That's the bottom-line, as far as I can figure it out from yesterday's Brookings Institution coming-out party for Steven Pifer's policy paper Reversing the Decline: An Agenda for US-Russian Relations in 2009. The panel consisted of Pifer, former US Ambassador to the Ukraine; Daniel Benjamin, former Clinton official; Robert Kagan, leading neo-conservative Russia-basher; German ambassador Klaus Scharloth, representing the EU and NATO; and Strobe Talbott, Brookings headman and intimate of the Clintons. Benjamin announced at the start that Pifer's paper was currently being read in buildings all over Washington. I read it, and didn't find too much "smart" or "creative" diplomacy...but I did at least find a little bit of common sense. Pifer wants to ratchet down the rhetoric and confrontation between the US and Russia. A very good idea, considering what is going on in Iran and the Ummah these days. Strobe Talbott said the answers were, "No, and No," to Russia's desire for a sphere of influence or an end to NATO expansion. Too bad the USA promised Russia when the Berlin Wall came down that no NATO troops would be on her borders. The German ambassador felt expansion was necessary. Well, I hope it doesn't turn out to be Russian expansion. Turning down the heat is a good first step, but when I thought I heard Talbott threatening to unleash more Chechen, Ingueshetian, and Dagestani separtist attacks in order to break up the Russian Federation if Putin and Medvedev don't accept the US position, I had to wonder if these guys realize that the US has already been burned by the Islamist extremist fire that the world has been playing with since, say, 1979? (This was the theme of Vladimir Sinelnikov's Russian documentary film, The Terror Casino: World War III.) Threatening more Islamist extremist terrorism backed by the US against Russia, while the US is fighting the same phenomenon in Afghanistan, strikes me as a misreading of the nature of the current Clash of Civilizations. Those 20th Century tricks are unlikely to work again, and Tablott's stridency in saying "No" reminded me of a joke I heard somewhere in the post-Soviet space, though I don't remember who told it to me: "The conservatives hate Russia because it was once Communist--and the liberals hate Russia because it no longer is..." That's what seemed to unite Kagan and Talbott and the German ambassador.

What is needed, during the simmering phase, is for someone to come up with a new recipe entirely that doesn't include the toxic ingredient of Russia-hatred. When I was at the Heritage Foundation in 1991, Amb. Charles Lichtenstein told me that NATO should be disbanded immediately, that it had served its purpose and would only cause problems looking for a role in a changed world. Time has confirmed his prediction.

What was missing from this presentation, IMHO, was a Russian voice. Maybe a first step to developing "smart" and "creative" ideas would be for Brookings to set up a Center for the Study of the US and Russia to balance their Center for the Study of the US and Europe? Hire some Russians and Russian emigres. Ask them to work with Americans on a totally new framework. And yes, Gazprom could pay for it...