A couple of events over the past few weeks have renewed my interest in the role American Vice Presidents play in defining government's policies.
First, I've learned that 8 years ago, the CIA was told not to inform Congress about a clandestine counter-terrorism program the agency had created in the wake of 9/11. I see absolutely no crime in keeping the Hill in the dark: the very moment it gets involved, any CIA program ceases being clandestine. The only sexy part of the whole story was that the order to stay mum came not from then-President George W. Bush, but from then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
There is no point in repeating stories about the enormous influence exerted by Cheney in the years of Bush's presidency, especially in the areas of national security, foreign policy, and energy (remember the Energy Task Force controversy?); they're still fresh in everyone's memory. Besides, only a total amnesiac wouldn't remember pictures depicting relations between Cheney and Bush as the ones between a puppetmaster and a puppet, respectively. And yet, I don't remember that visiting heads of foreign states requested a special meeting with the Vice President. It was always assumed that it was the President who was making decisions. A Decider, so to speak.
Then, I read about an interview the current Vice President, Joe Biden, gave to The Wall Street Journal. While Biden's boss, President Obama, claimed, on a recent trip to Moscow, that the U.S. wants a "strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia", Biden implied instead that U.S. national interests will be better served with Russia weakened by the ongoing economic crisis.
Biden's point of view carries certain merits. Besides, one can easily imagine that Biden has articulated — inadvertently or not – a true White House position vis-a-vis Russia. (As Russians would say: "Что у Обамы на уме, то у Байдена на языке"). The question though is whom, Obama or Biden, is the Kremlin supposed to listen to? Or, saying it differently, who is the boss in the Obama-Biden "tandem" as far as the U.S. policy toward Russia is concerned?
And then, there is Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton who couldn't simply sit on the sidelines in the middle of this happening. Commenting on Biden's interview, Clinton swung the pendulum back by calling Russia a "great power." (I think the Kremlin should demand that the White House take great care of Clinton so that another injury won't prevent her from attending the next Obama-Medvedev summit).
And then, there is the U.S. Senate, populated with a hundred supersized egos, each of which believing in their ability to shape international agreements the president is negotiating. A nonbinding "sense of the Senate" resolution has been approved demanding that any follow-on START treaty be stripped of limitations on ballistic missile defense, a provision that will certainly shrink Obama's maneuvering room in his dealing with the Russians.
The power of Congress to derail presidents' ability to "deliver" on their promises isn't to be underestimated. Both presidents Clinton and Bush Jr. promised to graduate Russia from the anachronistic Jackson-Vanik amendment. In both cases, Congress said no. President Obama has promised the same to President Medvedev, and so far, there has been no indication that this time around, the outcome will be any different.
With the official Washington's Russia policy lacking common denominator, it seems only fitting — in some ironic way – that so much attention in the U.S. is being paid to the question of who is in charge in Russia. Is it President Dmitry Medvedev — as written in the country's Constitution — or his powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, unquestionably the most celebrated contemporary Russian (and, as we have recently learned, the world's fifth sexiest politician)?
Here we read Peter Reddaway's article on this hot subject published in the usually no-nonsense National Interest. Supplied with a tasteful headline ("Two-Part Czar") and high-quality pictures of Medvedev and Putin, the article begins with calling the Medvedev-Putin tandem (Reddaway actually has another, more sophisticated, term for it: "the system of dual-executive leadership") "unnatural" and warning that, due to "the awkward tandem-leadership arrangement", "[t]he Russian leadership is becoming unstable…"
(I have to say that, for some reason, Reddaway's calling the Medvedev-Putin duo "unnatural" bothers me. It sounds almost as if Reddaway considers only a "one-part czar" arrangement — being it with a Tsar or a General Secretary – as natural for Russia. Hopefully not, for I believe that Reddaway — just like the rest of us — wants Russia to be a democracy.)
Reddaway proceeds with painting a scary picture of Russia going to the brink of a disaster:
"If, as seems plausible, the recession and the clumsy tandem structure should make the Putin-Medvedev leadership increasingly erratic, the implications would be many—a deteriorating economic policy…regional governors asserting more autonomy, the spread of popular discontent…"
"…the two men could, before too long, lose the public trust that they now enjoy, which is a crucial linchpin holding a fragile state and society together."
Tellingly, Reddaway didn't back his dire predictions with facts, and today, four months after the publication of his piece, we still see little evidence of the perils of "the clumsy tandem structure." The Russian economy hasn't collapsed; in fact, it even shows some signs of a timid recovery. Popular discontent has never materialized as a serious threat to the regime, and both Medvedev and Putin still enjoy high approval ratings. Unless, of course, you take seriously the following Reddaway's assertion:
"With the Putin-Medvedev duo distracted by the recession and their complex relations with each other, [the] regions have increased their autonomy with impunity. For example…Tatarstan practiced regional protectionism by favoring local companies over outsiders."
(The "Buy Tatar Act", so to speak. What a blow to the stability of the regime!).
With the same unburdened-by-facts attitude, Reddaway settles on the question of the leadership in the Medvedev-Putin "complex relations." Referring to largely unnamed "observers" and "critics", he concludes that Putin behaves as "the real czar" whereas Medvedev remains "essentially subservient to his longtime boss."
Reddaway's "academic" piece could be easily dismissed as a modern-day burp of ye olde Kremlinology. Unfortunately, the time-honored art of reading Russia tea leaves happens to be practiced right up in the White House. Or, at least, so we're told by the Washington World Security Institute's Nikolai Zlobin. In a late July article in Vedomosti, Zlobin described intense White House deliberations, on the eve of President Obama's visit to Moscow, on how Obama was to split his time between Medvedev and Putin. According to Zlobin, the very schedule of Obama's talks with both Russian leaders was supposed to send a message: whom the Obama administration considers "the real head of state."
(I find this absurd. Anyone even remotely familiar with the diplomatic protocol knows that a visiting party has only a limited influence with regards to whom — and for how long — they'll be communicating with on a receiving team. Demands "We'll talk to Putin (Medvedev) only!" would have gone nowhere.)
A fateful decision had been made, continues Zlobin, for Obama "to bet on Medvedev", that is, to "discuss all principal questions with Medvedev only." And why? Here comes the explanation:
"Obama's aides' way of thinking was that such an approach…would both forward the rule of law in Russia and help Medvedev become a truly independent…president, and strengthen his prestige internationally. That would do good to to the Russian democracy…"
Now, let me get this straight. Since becoming president in May 2008, Medvedev has attended one G20 and two G8 summits, made 35 foreign trips, signed numerous treaties, agreements and protocols, and met with dozens of foreign leaders (6 of them in the month of August alone, including the German Chancellor Angela Merkel— their third meeting this year). But it wasn't until Medvedev hosted President Obama in the Kremlin – sticking to the schedule so brilliantly designed by "Obama's aides" – that the whole world began treating Medvedev as "a truly independent president." Ingenious!
The problem isn't that by trying to take care of the international prestige of the Russian president, "Obama's aides" betray a bit of megalomania. The problem is that they give Obama bad advice by dragging the president into ridiculous discussions or putting into his mouth comments about Putin's body parts. The problem is that a senior Obama Russia adviser still confuses his previous job, which was to promote "democracy" and "the rule of law" in Russia , with his current job, which is to promote America's national interests.
True, the Medvedev-Putin "system of dual-executive leadership" is a long-due challenge to Russia's highly centralized and monopolistic power structure. State bureaucrats and special interests, who used to have only one place, the presidential administration, to demonstrate their loyalty or apply their lobbying to, are now forced to make difficult choices every single day.
However, when it comes to Russia's security interests, the crucial decisions are not made by Medvedev. And not by Putin. These decisions are being made by a consensus of Russian political elites. That's why Medvedev will surely "deliver" on whatever START treaty he is to sign with Obama.
I wish I could be so sure about our president.