Overshadowed by a pop hysteria over the death of Michael Jackson, the first bona fide summit between presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev took place in Moscow on July 6-8. The way Obama's visit to Russia was covered in the mainstream U.S. media suggests that his administration's attempts to "reset" U.S.-Russia relations will be met with profound skepticism, if not outright hostility, in certain corners of the U.S. political beau monde.
Given the frenetic activity demonstrated by the Post's authors on the eve of the first Obama-Medvedev meeting in London in April – and a suspicious lack, in May and June, of any interest in their second in Moscow – I expected a bit of passion from the Post's "regulars" in the early days of July. I was wrong.
Only David Ignatius showed up, which was already unusual: the sophisticated Ignatius – he has a strange, for a Post's columnist, habit of traveling to a country before writing about it — was an unorthodox choice for the pre-summit Kremlin bashing.
"As Barack Obama packs for his trip to Russia next week, he should bring along a copy of "The Brothers Karamazov." For the modern Russia of Vladimir Putin is still struggling with the same political riddles that Fyodor Dostoyevsky described 130 years ago."
This is how Ignatius began his July 2 piece. I kind of see his point: Ignatius has just returned from Moscow, where he took part in a conference under the somewhat shrinkish headline, "What Does Russia Think?" It appears that some of the Russian participants of the conference did sound as having just stepped out of the pages of Dostoyevsky's novels. Consider this:
"Nervous Russians are 'running away from their freedom', offered a leading sociologist."
"[A] Russian who is a prominent politician suggested: "The real problem is that we don't understand what we want."
Indeed, in the country featuring such "leading sociologists" and "prominent politicians", Fyodor Mikhaylovich would be an island of a mental stability.
Hiding behind quotes of unnamed "key advisers" to Medvedev and Putin, Ignatius seems to be at least mindful of a popular complaint in Moscow that "America's past actions had threatened Russia's security and the Kremlin wasn't about to forget it." And this is how he finishes his second piece of July 5:
"The Obama magic, so evident in his other trips abroad, isn't likely to work in Moscow this week. A real reset of Russian-American relations will require intense discussion and some serious give-and-take — something that neither side is ready to offer."
Nice prediction about "the Obama magic", and a correct one (see below).
Continuing the Dostoyevsky theme (albeit without calling him by name), Mark Medish, a former National Security Council official, laments that "[t]he whole Obama phenomenon does not translate well into Russian", for "Obama is a visionary pragmatist, while the Russian political elite is full of cynical realists." Medish then plunges into an adventurous excursion to the depth of the Russian language:
"Empathy — the centerpiece of Obama's philosophy — does not have an exact Russian counterpart. The words "sochuvstvie" and "soboleznovanie" are closer to sympathy. The word "sostrandanie" means compassion. But empathy, the idea of putting yourself into somebody else's shoes as a way to think about the world, is a distinct concept. And it is not one that can be elegantly rendered into Russian."
Having established Obama's moral superiority over his Russian counterparts and having warned the Russians not to confuse Obama's "intellectual solitude" for "weakness", Medish surprisingly proceeds with a call on Obama to "urge Russians to put away Cold War thinking" and to "show that Americans are doing the same" (by repealing, for example, the Jackson-Vanik amendment).
(You never know with these Post's authors — just like with Dostoyevsky's characters. And, by the way, Mr. Medish, the Russian for "empathy" is "soperezhivanie") .
Michael Fletcher was dispatched to Moscow to help Philip Pan cover the summit, and for the next couple of days, the two didn't seem to have had much sleep. On July 5, they produced their first article with a broad outline of the summit's agenda. The next day, Pan specifically elaborated on the challenges faced by the two countries in the area of nuclear arms control. Later the same day, Fletcher and Pan reported on the set of joint documents signed by Obama and Medvedev after their first day of talks. On July 7, Fletcher covered Obama's mini-summit with Putin, his address to the New Economic School, and his meeting with Russian opposition leaders. He also expressed the common among American journalists feeling — a peculiar combination of a surprise and disappointment — about the lack of any signs of "Obamamania" on the streets of Moscow. (Ignatius was right). Finally, showing obvious signs of fatigue, Pan mumbled about the Obama-Medvedev-Putin love triangle.
On July 8, Fletcher and Pan began to wrap it up by quoting officials and pundits:
"I can't think of a summit that was so comprehensive in what we are trying to do as a government," said Michael McFaul, special assistant to the president…"
"Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, said Obama's visit was more successful than most in Russia had expected. Obama "made all the right sounds in a very respectful way" and did much to reduce mistrust in Moscow, he said."
In a touching parallel track, Robin Givhan was following the first lady Michelle Obama's part of the visit, beginning with her arrival in Moscow "wearing a bright coral dress, jacket and flats that splashed color into a teeth-chattering, overcast afternoon." Repeating, in a sense, a surprise at Muscovites being immune to Obamamania, Givhan sounds puzzled that the "street chatter here have focused on her [Michelle's] White House kitchen garden rather than her clothes, her Ivy League pedigree or her interest in promoting public service."
"Her clothes, her Ivy League pedigree or her interest in promoting public service." Is this the order in which Robin Givhan rates Michelle Obama's remarkable qualities?
(I too was somewhat puzled with Givhan's description of Moscow streets as "filled with grand czarist architecture." Could it be that Givhan was writing her reports sitting in a hotel room and watching a video about my beloved St-Petersburg?).
Givhan concluded her Michelle Obama trilogy with describing the first lady's visit to the St. Dimitriy Orphanage and expressing regret that Mrs. Obama's activities in Moscow didn't include a major public speech. (I concur).
It wasn't until July 7 that the Post published its first and the only editorial covering the summit. The editorial was a net positive in its assessments of what Obama has achieved in Moscow, giving him guarded praise for "a good-faith attempt to work pragmatically with…reality." But the Post's editors didn't mince words renouncing what they called the Kremlin's desire to use the results of the summit to "cling to the illusion that Moscow's imperial power can somehow be recaptured."
The editorial called on Obama to keep pressure on the Russians (in particular, in "an effort to coax Russians away from their leaders' misguided ideology") and urged him not to sacrifice "relations between the United States and its Central European NATO allies" when negotiating with Moscow the future of missile defence.
In a couple of more days, the creme of the Post's Russophobia team, Anne Applebaum and Charles Krauthammer, reminded us that they are still alive and didn't stop thinking about Russia.
If Applebaum wanted to be ridiculous with her July 9 piece, she definitely has succeeded. Read this:
"Forget the nuke deal, forget the speech, forget even the Russians' lack of interest in Michelle: The real surprise of President Obama's trip to Moscow this week was that he spent most of his time talking to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and took only a couple of hours to pay a courtesy call on the Russian prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin."
In the core of Applebaum's contrarian approach is a not-so-original point of view that one doesn't need to waste time talking to President Medvedev because everything in Russia is being decided by his prime minister. But Applebaum offers a fresh, absolutely irrefutable, argument to prove this point again:
"Someone who took part in a meeting with them some months ago told me afterward that Putin did all the talking while Medvedev took notes."
Brilliant! Has it occurred to Applebaum that the described "meeting" could have been a Cabinet report with the head of the Cabinet — and who else? — doing "all the talking"?
(Could it be that Applebaum is trying, if even subconciously, to elevate the status of Putin's visit to Poland this coming fall, the visit that her husbund, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, is organizing?).
Breaking with the Post's editors, Krauthammer asserts that Obama's (whom Krauthammer calls a "foreign policy neophyte") visit to Moscow wasn't simply a failure. Krauthammer insists that the "Joint Understanding" signed by the two presidents is outright detrimental to U.S. national security. Why? Because by agreeing to proceed with a new START treaty, Obama has allowed Moscow to link offensive and defensive nuclear weapons.
An apostle of the zero-sum-game approach, Krauthammer believes that any talks with Moscow that take into account Russia's concerns is a sign of American "weakness." (But let's just wait for a few weeks until Krauthammer will be fuming that Russia doesn't take seriously U.S. security concerns). And nuclear arms control negotiations are in particular meaningless given the U.S. "huge…technological advantage in defensive weaponry" ("the decisive strategic factor of the 21st century", in Krauthammer's words). Krauthammer sees the future of U.S.-Russia relations in remarkably crystal terms:
"We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot."
Listen carefully to this line. We'll be hearing it often in the months to come: from Krauthammer himself and those who, like Krauthammer, are upset with the Obama administration's budget cuts on missile defense.