The Ambassador Of Better Will

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

On Oct. 11, a day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate was to begin hearings on the nomination of Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama’s top Russia adviser, as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, the Washington Post published an op-ed by David Kramer, president of Freedom House, and Robert Kagan, of the Brookings Institute. In their piece, Kramer and Kagan called on the Senate to confirm McFau

Uh-oh! When two sworn enemies of the Obama administration’s policy of the “reset” voice their support for a man widely considered as one of its architects, something must be going on.

The intense media coverage of McFaul’s nomination, first announced by the White House in May, is somewhat unusual: after all, no one in Washington, DC was bubbling with excitement when John Beyrle, the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia, was sent to Moscow in 2008. And, honestly, how many American journalists know the name of the Russian Ambassador to the United States? For the record, it’s Sergey Kislyak.

Besides, the reasons for replacing Beyrle, a career diplomat, with diplomatic novice McFaul have never been clearly articulated, although it's true that during his tenue, Beyrle commited a couple of faux pas. In August 2008, shortly after the beginning of military activities in South Ossetia, Beyrle irritated his superiors at the State Department by claiming that Russia’s response to the attack by the Georgian military on Russian peacekeepers was justified; he later backtracked from this statement. This “error of judgment,” however, didn’t cost Beyrle, a George W. Bush appointee, his job. Impressed with Beyrle’s credentials, the newly elected President Obama asked him to stay in Moscow. In December 2010, Beyrle was in hot waters again: classified diplomatic cables posted by WikiLeaks revealed some unflattering opinions he had about the MedvedevPutin tandem. Obviously offended, Moscow nevertheless made it clear that it was ready to leave the WikiLeaks story behind. Neither incident, however, had prevented Beyrle from taking part in all important bilateral meetings over the past four years, including presidential summits.

Some Russian analysts, pointing to McFaul’s experience in security issues, took his nomination as a sign that Washington is going to pay more attention to U.S.-Russia relations – exactly at a time when these relations are particularly troubled by seemingly irreconcilable differences over European missile defense. Others are not so sure: they argue that if Obama needed McFaul for help in defining Russia policy, he would have kept McFaul in the White House in Washington rather than in Spaso House in Moscow where McFaul will be inevitably overwhelmed with numerous administrative chores.

The second point of view does seem to hit the nerve: should the Obama administration pursue the policy of the “reset” in its current form, why would there be any need to replace Beyrle with McFaul — or anyone else, for that matter? Instead, it appears that by dispatching McFaul to Moscow, the White House is sending a message that its policy toward Russia is about to change.

The shift in U.S. policy toward Russia seems to grow from purely domestic roots. Preparing for a tough re-election campaign next year – and weathering a tsunami of criticism for his economic policies – President Obama has chosen the path many of his predecessors have traveled: he has begun promoting his national security and foreign policy successes. The policy of the “reset” with Russia is one of the administration’s most obvious achievements in the international area: Obama can point to a new arms control agreement and also to increased cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan and Iran. Yet, critics of the “reset,” such as Kramer and Kagan, keep arguing that its benefits came at a price: willful ignorance of what they call “Russia’s deteriorating human rights situation.” To deflect this criticism, the Obama administration has apparently decided to shift the focus of its Russia policy on human rights issues.

HereMcFaul's credentials of an academic with a strong track record of "democracy promotion" come in handy. So does his scathing criticism of then-President Vladimir Putin's policies in 2000-2008. And the title of McFaul's latest book — "Advancing democracy abroad: why we should and how wew can" — must have had the same effect on Kramer and Kagan as the sound of a horn on a hunting horse.

Evidently, the White House decided not to wait until McFaul’s confirmation by the Senate to introduce the new “twist” in its policy vis-à-vis Moscow. A couple of weeks ago, Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, went to Russia on a six-day trip. While traveling in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan and meeting with Russia’s civil activists, Posner played the role of a Goodwill Ambassador of sorts, delivering a preachy message that ”the United States would 'redouble' its efforts to make sure Russia heeded international norms on human rights.” If Posner’s “goodwill” mission is an example of what the White House expects of the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia, then there is no doubt that McFaul – who, unlike Posner, lived in Russia and speaks fluent Russian – will be even better Goodwill Ambassador than Posner. Whet will happen to the "reset" McFaul reportedly helped to architect, remains to be seen.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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14 Responses to The Ambassador Of Better Will

  1. Futility says:

    One step forward, two steps back.
    As per usual.

  2. Eugene says:

    Right, and then the perennial question: who lost Russia?

  3. The role of the diplomat has changed, with the more known of diplomats taking a hard hitting stance.
    Beware of the spin on such matter.
    The Russian ambassador to Serbia is being inaccurately and hypocritically scrutinized. At a recent “liberal” slanted forum in Belgrade, Konuzin was depicted as an undiplomatic hothead, in a way that downplayed what transpired. He sat thru a pro-Western neolib to neocon take of former Yugoslavia, inclusive of negatively inaccurate comments against his country. Konuzin decided to shoot back.
    Since then, he gets criticized for taking political sides in Serbia, in a way overlooking how this has been standard procedure for a number of Western diplomats involved with that country. Go back to how some of them carried on prior to the last Serb presidential election. In contrast, their Russian counterparts took a neutral route.
    Much of the reporting and commentary on this kind of issue is akin to the crooked ref only calling fouls on one of the two fouling teams.
    McFaul’s signing of Freedom House/AEI promoted open letters came in handy for him.

  4. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mike,
    McFaul comes out as someone who, while caring about American national interests, doesn’t forget his own.

    • Emri says:

      For all your fevered deatil-policing, none of you ever bothered to even notice that the months are out of order! November and December are switched. Much more obvious than the etymology of the religious icon hanging from the Mexican’s rearview, I dare say.

  5. You’re welcome Eugene.
    Thinking about “number one” (self) can be productive when it truly serves as a basis to improve things.
    IMO, caring for American interests includes going against the predominating establishment misconceptions, in a way that likely compromises the efforts for one to seek personal gain.

  6. Mark says:

    Well, according to Mr. Kagan himself;
    he has a warm feeling around where the heart would be in a normal human being for Michael McFaul because “he is a very passionate supporter of democracy…he’s part of a larger pro-democracy community, so the opposition in Russia will feel like it has somebody they can talk to, which isn’t always the case”.
    Ding, ding ding!!! Sorry, folks: despite support for McFaul’s work toward repealing Jackson-Vanik (a ridiculous piece of legislation that did diddly toward the Soviet policy on the emigration of Jews, and remained in place only as a gratuitous irritant, like keeping Russia out of the WTO), the real reason for Kagan’s and Kramer’s giddy excitement is the prospect of getting somebody in Russia who is going to give opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov not only support, but a good ol’ American stirring-up.
    McFaul does have some impressive business and trade chops, and God knows more trade would be good for Russia, provided it could be conducted without majority western ownership and provided everybody could make a decent profit instead of the western owners making crazy money while eveyone else gets left holding the bag.
    Russia should certainly enter into trade alliances with the west that have the potential to be mutually beneficial – but it should not ever trust the west or put itself in a position where it is vulnerable to the west, because political forces in the west crave its destruction. Self-serving pieces of jingoistic legislation like the Sergei Magnitsky Act, and western business and political support for crooks like William Browder tell you all you need know about western intentions for Russia. The west can’t afford to ignore it, because it’s a huge market and offers tremendous opportunity for western businesses, but is certainly not going to do anything to empower it, either.
    And all the time, behind the scenes, McFaul and as many democracy-promotion NGO’s as the state will permit to operate in the country will be beavering away, shoring up the liberal opposition and trying to sell the public on selling out. No wonder they’re trying to get all this nailed down before Putin is in the driver’s seat again.

  7. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks Mark,
    I feel that the choice of McFaul was a smart move on the part of the Obama administration. He’ll certainly be confirmed without any scandals in the Senate — as many were afraid of.
    As for his activity in Moscow, I think it’ll be decided from the positions of political expediency. Should the administration feel that it needs more cooperation with Moscow, here is the architect of the “reset” McFaul. Should it feel that it needs put pressure on the Kremlin, here is McFaul-the-democracy-promoter.
    All in all, I’m convinced that if Obama feels that he needs to sell out the “reset” to get re-elected, he’ll do that in a heartbeat. And, given his profession, who would blame him?

    • Juliano says:

      Can you give me a link to the site of the trucking comanpy that made this calendar? I sent the link from your page to my Russian friend and she got offended and said that a Russian did not make this calendar.

  8. Mark says:

    I’d feel more comfortable with that state of affairs if it actually were only the Obama administration driving that decision-making – although western political systems cannot resist seeing democracy as a panacea that will cure all ills. But Obama has to contend with constant pressure from the Republicans on every issue, and in many cases is pressed to give way on positions that have nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of discussion: you’re not getting your education bill passed unless you give us concessions on tax cuts for billionaires. We both know that happens on a regular basis, exemplified by several states trying to get the “personhood” bill on the ballot for election, and by the buzzing of conservative pundits on the candidates’ support for Israel leading up to Republican debates, as if that mattered more than anything.
    It doesn’t need to be a Russian issue for the opposition to press for action against Russia or concessions on the Democratic policy vis-a-vis Russia, and the deplorably ridiculous supermajority requirement gives even a Republican body in opposition disproportionate negotiating power. And the Republican party not only contains several noted Russophobes, it is broadly supported by conservative think tanks which consider Russia the last great existential evil.

  9. Eugene says:

    Your description of the U.S. political system is absolutely correct. Like it or not, it’s a reality, the reality that would be very difficult to change, especially in the near term.
    What I’d recommend to our friends in Russia is to recognize this reality and not demand from Obama — and then get offended when he doesn’t deliever — some thing that he simply can’t do. Like sign a treaty on missile defense or “repeal” JV.

  10. Mark says:

    Oh, the USA seems fairly bullish of late on the idea of Russia joining the WTO, and that’d be pointless if JV remained in effect, so it’ll have to go. I imagine Republicans will try and wring more concessions out of the Democrats in exchange for their agreement, but if JV stays in effect, then no WTO. And that should be wrapped up by end-December, if it’s going to happen at all.
    But I know what you mean. Once upon a time it wasn’t like that, but times have changed. The president has almost unlimited powers to jail Americans, read their mail and tap their phones, but can’t ink a simple trade deal without layers upon layers of bureaucracy getting on board. Funny old world, isn’t it?

  11. While not being into red, white and bull nationalism (in contrast to my support for reasoned patriotism) and respecting America’s northern neighbor, I yet again respectfully note that the US government and Columbia University didn’t block the leader of Republika Srpska from speaking at a Harriman Institute gathering in New York – much unlike the feeble minded position of the Canadian government and the University of British Columbia – when Bosnian Muslim nationalist complaints resulted in Srdja Trifkovic getting denied entry into Canada.
    At the aforementioned Harriman event, the Republika Srpska president calmly and coherently answered criticism from some hostile elements. The criticism included Republika Srpska ties to Russia. Those who lean in an anti-Serb direction are prone to being anti-Russian as well. Contrary to the outside agitators, the packed event saw a non-discriminating turning away of folks who wanted to attend the talk in question.
    On the matter of a kind of geopolitical culture war involving North America based presentations on Russian and Serb issues, see the spin of this Canadian situated journo:–siddiqui-embers-of-extremism-threaten-bosnia
    Without meaning to appear anti-Muslim, that particular journo has a Muslim nationalist reputation of bias against India, Russia, Serbia and Israel.
    The Canadian government gets little grief banning Trifkovic, unlike Russia with Luke Harding’s situation over an admin snafu and activity which he knew to be problematical within reason. At Mark’s blog, someone suggested that Harding might’ve intended for there to be a conflict, which serves to give greater publicity to a new book of his. Don’t expect any Russia Profile, RIA Novosti and Moscow Times staff writers/columnists highlighting such a matter. Writing about Russian skinheads something akin to RFE/RL is more their style.
    In the US and Canada, there’re more positive figures in media and academia, who see a good basis for improved Russia-West ties. Despite ongoing obstacles, there’s a basis to be cautiously optimistic.

  12. Pingback: Bad Date |

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