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Pressing the False-Start Button By: Vladimir Bukovsky and Pavel Stroilov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, April 07, 2009

There was a certain symbolism in the fact that Barack Obama’s meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, took place on April Fool’s Day. For, his official title notwithstanding, Medvedev is merely the token “president of Russia,” with no real power beyond reciting the latest official propaganda line. So, it was no surprise that Obama was made to look foolish, as the event that was supposed to become the culmination of the latest US-Russian détente came to nothing.

New broom sweeps clean – such is the central principle that guided the Obama administration through its first two months in office. The rest did not matter. What were the previous policies and what were the right ones, what kind of problems were there and what solutions were possible – these questions were deemed inconsequential. After all, the voters had voted for “change,” and democracy is about implementing the will of the people, however unclear it may seem. It was in this spirit that an appropriate team was instructed to work out a Russia policy for the new era, one modeled on Vice President Biden’s assessment that that it was time to “press the reset button” on American relations with its former Cold War foe.

The next step was to find a good photo opportunity. To that end, the administration came up with a huge red button marked “reset,” to be presented by Secretary of State Clinton to her opposites on the Russian side. This ended ridiculously: the inscription “reset” was mistranslated into Russian, leaving Clinton to press the wrong button. Later, this caused a minor but amusing scandal at home, with the State Department and Clinton’s Kitchen Cabinet blaming each other for the gaffe.

This speaks volumes about the competence of the team that authored this diplomatic move and the naïve foreign policy they envision. Russia was the first “reset” in line, but not the last one; it is clear that similar gestures will be made towards a number of other regimes, all of which speak various tricky languages. So, when we get the news that President Obama sends his Khomeini-style video appeal to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the mention of subtitles in Farsi sounds rather alarming. The English text is bad enough in itself; but how do we (or Obama) know what the Farsi subtitles really say?

Whatever the right Farsi word for “reset” may be, the general meaning of those signals was understood in Moscow and Tehran in pretty similar ways. Both regimes responded in the classical manner of victors accepting capitulation: they expressed their discreet satisfaction with the opponent's “realism,” and then began dictating conditions. In their view, it is certainly for the United States to change their policies, not for Russia or Iran. The Russian officials say that, if Washington seriously wants to improve relations, they should start from breaking their anti-missile defense treaty with Poland. Iran, in turn, demands the US stop supporting Israel and cease making noises about Iran’s nuclear program and sponsorship of terrorists. In brief, to quote from the 1960s comedy One, Two, Three, diplomacy is all about give and take: you give, and we take.

Forgiving your enemies in a world-wide amnesty may seem an attractive idea, but it is inevitably mistaken as justification of their past crimes and an invitation to commit more. Only last week, in the course of preparations for the summit-meeting, yet another Chechen exile was assassinated in Dubai. This week, just on the eve of the summit, leading human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov was severely beaten in Moscow. Forgiveness without repentance is not generous; it is just meaningless.

Is Moscow now forgiven for the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of its territory? For the aggression against Britain by assassinating a British citizen, Alexander Litvinenko, on British soil, in a nuclear terrorist attack? For the wide-ranging subversive activities against Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova? For genocide in Chechnya? For arms supplies to Islamic terrorists? It is difficult to see what else a “reset” may mean, and in any case, this is certainly how it is understood in the Kremlin.

And little wonder. The administration’s policy not only ignores recent history but it is overloaded with historical symbols of appeasement. First, Vice President Biden went to Munich – of all cities – to make a speech outlining the Administration’s plans to achieve peace in our times, calling to mind some unflattering historical parallels.

Further steps were copied from the Cold War-era appeasement, otherwise known as détente. Not only its failed policies, but also its failed politicians were drawn back to the light of the day like skeletons out of a closet. Two teams of veteran capitulators, led respectively by Henry Kissinger and James Baker, were sent to Moscow on an unofficial mission to “build bridges,” as the 20th century term was. In exchange, Obama and Biden received Mikhail Gorbachev, the failed savior of Soviet socialism. For some reason, they tried to keep the meeting very secret. When, however, they were caught in Gorbachev’s company in some dark corner of the White House, their spokesman came up with an explanation: “The president tends to roam around the larger House and sometimes walks into meetings that weren't previously on his schedule.”

In this connection, it deserves to be mentioned that Joe Biden has his own record of treachery for the sake of détente and “arms control.” If he refuses to learn lessons from history, he should have, at least, learned some lessons from his own experience. As some would remember, so-called “arms control” was a pseudo-science, with thousands of charlatan “experts” making themselves busy calculating sub-levels and coefficients to evaluate and compare the nuclear arsenals of the West and the East; and with spectacular summit-meetings where the leaders pretended to be saving the world from nuclear war on the basis of those calculations. Naturally, all this sophisticated astrology turned out to be complete rubbish, because the problem was not the weapons, but the aggressiveness of the Soviet system. As soon as the Soviet Union collapsed, the nuclear arsenals suddenly became quite harmless, and the threat of nuclear war disappeared without any arms control.

But today, the myth of arms control is suddenly in demand once more. With straight faces, politicians tell us that the survival of this world depends on the successful conclusion of treaties with Russia – Salt-3, Pepper-5 and Mustard-11. The unemployed arms control experts are enthusiastically cleaning their old jackets and browsing through the 30-year-old collections of their writings in search of particularly impressive words. The meeting between President Obama and a Russian non-entity is trumpeted as a big step forward towards the nuclear-free world.

Yet, however powerful the arms control mystics may be, it alone cannot serve as a passable excuse for capitulating on every front. So, here is another reason: taken apart, the appeasement of Russia and Iran may seem pointless, but taken together, they would produce the solution to world’s problems. If we are friends with Moscow, they will help us to negotiate with Iran. And this is not to mention their invaluable help in the struggle against world terrorism.

Have we not heard this somewhere before? Is not this exactly the point from which the Bush Administration started its friendship with the Kremlin in its early days? Indeed, these policies are so similar to each other that future historians will be profoundly confused. At the time of the electoral campaign, the Obama-Biden-Clinton trinity tirelessly ridiculed (quite rightly) the unfortunate phrase of President Bush about seeing Putin’s “soul” in his eyes. This gave the voters a false hope that the new administration would look at Russia from a different angle. Once in power, however, they duly queued to look into the very same pair of eyes and extended a hand of friendship to the old enemy.

Unless this policy is abandoned soon enough, its future results are quite predictable. We remember how the appeasement led to a world war, the detente – to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the gaze into Putin’s eyes – to the attack on Britain and the invasion of Georgia. It is a pity no one has told this to the State Department. In places like Moscow and Tehran, friendly gestures will be taken as an invitation to choose the next victim.

For no good reason, Russia seems to be at the top of foreign policy agenda right now. However, it is clear that the Administration plans to apply the same model to relations with other rogue states as well. It has already begun making friendly gestures towards Iran, Syria, China; and further engagements seem to be in the pipeline.

In fairness, the administration is now making some ad hoc corrections to balance its engagement policy against reality. Of course, they still aspire for peace in our times, but the road to it won’t be as straight as previously thought. Thus, last week President Obama promised that countries like Georgia and Ukraine will be allowed to join the NATO as they wish, whatever Moscow says. Even earlier, Vice President Biden pledged that the United States will never recognize the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – the Georgian territories virtually annexed by Russia in the recent war. Moreover, the Obama-Biden Administration “will not recognize a [Russian] sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” This is a commendable recognition that international relations are a bit more complicated than just pressing a button.

However, it remains to be seen whether these are more than empty words. The first test is whether the US will honor its obligations under the anti-missile defense treaty with Poland, the alliance which Moscow opposed by insisting that this was an intrusion into its “sphere of influence.” It is still unclear whether the US will eventually give in to Russian pressure, but there have already been many alarming signs. The Polish government is now publicly expressing its concern about Washington’s apparent reluctance to honor the treaty, while Moscow is voicing high hopes. This is a direct result of all those mixed messages which the administration has so irresponsibly sent out in the post-electoral euphoria.

The US foreign policy does need change. But the change we have seen so far was only from bad to the worse. The Bush Administration’s policy on Russia was a disaster. It was only in the end of their second term that they had finally gained some sense. Slowly, reluctantly, at the cost of many human lives, they realized that appeasement did not work. They were just about to start working out some more or less sensible policies when their time was up, a new and clueless administration was in place, trying to sell the failed policies of their predecessors.

Hopefully, the administration will learn from its present false-start. The attempt to improve relations by talking about good relations has failed. Although the American leadership has changed, the world is still the same – with the same enemies, allies, and fundamental problems that have caused tensions in the first place. It is time to try a less simplistic approach. If the “change” that President Obama trumpeted is to be effective, it must mean correcting his predecessors’ mistakes, not repeating them.

Vladimir Bukovsky is a former leading Soviet dissident who spent twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for his fight for freedom. His works include To Build a Castle and Judgement in Moscow. Pavel Stroilov is a Russian exile in London and the editor and translator of Alexander Litvinenko’s book, Allegations.

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