Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Who is Thomas Graham?

Last Friday, I caught the morning session of the American Enterprise Institute's day-long symposium on the future of Russia, organized by Dr. Leon Aron. The first panel was made up of Russians talking about Russia, moderated by Dr. Aron. It was very nice, like a trip back to Moscow. They knew what they were talking about, even though one might disagree with some of their statements. It had a genuine Russian flavor in the philosophical and sometimes pessimistic presentations by Yuri Levada, Lelia Shestova, and Nikolai Zlobin. I liked Zlobin best, because he told the most jokes. He also says he has a "raspiska" signed by Putin himself, promising to resign in 2008. Shestova joked Zlobin can sue Putin if he changes his mind. It was a lot of fun.

The second panel featured two Bush administration policy-wonks responsible for Russia at the National Security Council, Thomas Graham and Angela Stent. They sat on either side of Andrei Kortunov, a Russian expert on America, which led him to joke that he felt "encircled"--although presumably moderator Nicholas Gvosdev was not part of this strategy, as the National Interest (which he edits) appears sympathetic to Russia's problems.

In any case, both Stent and Graham stated the Bush administration position that only democracy can bring stability in the fight against terrorism. They did not engage with Russian fears of destabilization caused by Islamist extremism. Graham was more mechanical than Stent, who spoke spontaneously. Graham read from notes, while Stent seemed to have given some thought to her statements. Both agreed the US would pursue a "compartmentalized" approach to Russia. Incredibly, Stent gave a summary of the Cold War without crediting Ronald Reagan's strategy of support for authoritarians vs. totalitarians. And neither answered questions about America's relationship with Saudi-backed Islamist guerrillas in places like Chechnya and Central Asia, despite repeated queries from members of the audience.

The AEI event took place the day after Shamil Basayev's guerrillas attacked Nalchik, ending in tragedy. Russia had earlier complained of US support for the Chechen guerillas, including a Radio Free Europe reporter's interview broadcast on ABC television.

Given the mechanical performance by Graham, the top-ranking Bush appointee present, it seemed that the Bush administration is not listening to Russian concerns.