A Tormenting in Moscow

Why is Russia harassing President Obama’s new ambassador?

Russians are known for their warm welcomes, rolling out the red carpet for honored guests and ensconcing them in bear hugs, complete with three hearty kisses on the cheeks. Perhaps the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul didn't quite expect the same gracious reception given the frosty relationship between Washington and Moscow these days, but his first few months on the job have been unusual, if not downright hostile, a lot more Cold War than Russian Reset. Upon arriving in Moscow, the ambassador greeted his guests with an effervescent -- even hokey -- YouTube video introducing himself, a longtime student of and friend to Russia. In response, he was met with an Arctic propaganda blast reminiscent of the early 1980s, and harassment likely without precedent for U.S. ambassadors -- either in the Soviet Union or in post-Soviet Russia.

The Obama administration has since complained to the Russian government about the harassment of McFaul. "Everywhere I go," McFaul tweeted, "[the Gazprom-owned national television network] NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar. They wouldn't tell me. Wonder what laws are here for such things." By crowding the U.S. ambassador and filming his comings and goings, NTV reporters act not unlike former KGB myrmidons, clearly seeking to intimidate not only McFaul but even more so his Russia interlocutors, whom they try to intercept and "interview." It wouldn't be the first time that the Kremlin has successfully snooped into the affairs of the U.S. Embassy -- in fact, there's a long tradition of mutual suspicion and spycraft between these old adversaries, but the host government sharing his open schedule with flunkies just to intimidate the ambassador seems a new low in what was hoped to have been a new period of mutual respect and good relations.

It is always sad and maddening to hear about insults to human dignity by paid propagandists and thugs of authoritarian regimes. Yet the hounding of McFaul is particularly bizarre. Not only is he a brilliant scholar, the author of hundreds of articles and several books on Russia, and one of the most popular professors at Stanford University, but McFaul is widely regarded as a man of profound intellectual and personal integrity. In at least 20 years that I've known and deeply admired Mike, I've met no one who did not hold him in highest esteem, even those who disagreed with him professionally.

A native of Montana and a Californian by professional choice, Mike epitomizes America's democratic spirit, free inquiry, unfettered debate, and respect for the right to question authority. He is also a sparkling, often ebullient conversationalist. Anyone who spends even a few minutes in his company finds his discourse utterly infectious.

That he is a Russian speaker and, with his shock of blond hair, Hollywood-handsome, does not hurt him a bit among Russian television viewers -- not to mention his legion of longtime admirers among pro-democracy experts and intelligentsia. It is all of this -- but particularly the last bit -- that makes McFaul such a stark and embossing contrast to the intellectual grayness of Putinism, the vulgarity of its propaganda, and the pettiness of its cat-and-mouse games with intellectuals and pro-democracy opposition.

From the start of his ambassadorship a few months ago, McFaul seemed determined to treat Russia as a normal country: he proclaimed himself willing to speak to anyone - even his detractors. "I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any questions," he tweeted of NTV, even as he wondered whether "they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?"

But there is more to it than that. McFaul was among the key architects of the reset in the U.S.-Russian relations. Whatever this effort has or has not achieved and whatever built-in flaws handicapped the reset from the beginning, there is little doubt about McFaul's sincerity, good faith, and passionate commitment that the effort would make both countries more secure and prosperous. Among other things, he worked tirelessly on the New START nuclear arms treaty and helped to secure Russia's entry in the World Trade Organization.

What an odd and vile payback, then. But perhaps not so odd, after all. In the through-the-looking-glass world of Putin's "sovereign democracy" (which as my Russian friends like to point out is to "democracy" as "electric chair" is to "chair"), it is precisely McFaul's involvement in the reset and his unshakable faith in Russia's democratic future that have made him a target of choice.

Just as "all politics is local" so, too, is much of foreign policy domestic politics. With the Kremlin's legitimacy badly damaged in the parliamentary and presidential elections this past December and March, it has again resorted to tried and true tactics of all authoritarian institutions: creating an alleged external danger to rally the people around the flag and to smear and marginalize opponents as agents of foreign enemies. Putin's enemy of choice has always been the United States. And until it feels completely in control again (which does not seem to be likely anytime soon), the Kremlin's policy will be informed largely by anti-Americanism -- in order to lend as much credence as possible to the narrative of protecting the Motherland against the scheming enemies of Russia on the outside, and the fifth columnists within. That McFaul is highly respected and personally liked by those "fifth columnists" makes him a particularly dangerous man in Moscow.

Conceptually, the reset is clearly at odds with Putin's dependence on anti-American rhetoric to galvanize his support base and to satisfy the myriad bureaucratic interest groups that, in one way or another, benefit from perceptions of Russia as a "besieged fortress." Hence, we now see an anti-American propaganda the likes of which, in crudeness and shamelessness, we have seen since 1985. Witness a "documentary" on a state-controlled national television channel, shortly after McFaul came to Moscow, in which his writings on democracy promotion were used to bolster an accusation that, in essence, he was sent by the CIA to foment a color revolution. Thus the calling out of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a "signaler" to anti-Putin opposition. And finally, an utterly base "Anatomy of the Protest" documentary (on the same NTV network) that showed allegedly U.S. officials distributing money and cookies (yes: evil, wanton democracy cookies) to the anti-Putin protesters. Welcome to Moscow, Mr. Ambassador...

The recent collapse or likely future downfall of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East -- some of which had (Libya) or still have (Syria) close ties with Russia -- and the relatively recent color revolutions in the countries of the former Soviet Union have generated heightened sensitivity in Moscow about the stability of Putin's managed democracy. The Kremlin knows that vast majority of Russians are aware of an apparent irony: their country has defied global trends that have been marked by leadership transitions by way of revolution, ballot box, or authoritarian succession.

Even China, which is far more authoritarian today than Russia, will at least see some new faces assume the reins of its principal governmental structures this year. In Russia, meanwhile, Putin will formally return to the Kremlin next month and his cadre of largely siloviki-turned-oligarchs associates will continue to dominate the country both politically and economically. This paradox isn't lost on Putin. The attacks against McFaul, with his exemplary background in democracy promotion, represent in part a knee-jerk attempt by the Kremlin to drown in lying hysteria the realization that the country is becoming more detached from the norms and values of what Russians still call the "civilized world" -- to which tens of millions of them want to belong.

There is a recent video of McFaul arriving at a meeting with pro-democracy activists. Wet snow is falling. Getting out of his car, without an overcoat or hat, the ambassador is about to enter the building, when he suddenly turns around and steps outside to talk to his interviewer harassers. He asks them, smiling all the time, why they do this to him and how they happen to know where he would be. His host tries to pull him indoors, but McFaul holds his ground. He tries to explain, in Russian, how this behavior is in "violation of the Geneva [Convention]." To which he's met with a flurry of denials and catcalls.

Next time you ponder what happened to the reset and wonder what to expect after Putin's self-coronation in May, remember those gray sleeting skies over Moscow: the U.S. ambassador's attempt at explanation and dialogue -- and the haranguing and jeers in response.

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Tale of the Tape

As the two heavyweights finally square up, who's got the advantage on the key foreign policy issues of the 2012 campaign?

Then there were two. With Tuesday's announcement by Rick Santorum that he is suspending his presidential campaign, the November election title bout is now set. In the Democratic corner, hailing from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, wearing the blue trunks ... Barack Obama! In the far-right corner, from the great state of Massachusetts, wearing the red trunks ... Mitt Romney!

While the economy will almost certainly be front and center for the next seven rounds (er, months) of campaigning, foreign policy is likely to play an important, even decisive, role. So as the general election campaign kicks off and the two candidates prepare to go mano-a-mano, here are the five issues most likely to shape the foreign policy narrative of the 2012 campaign -- and who's got the advantage thus far.


It's not 2004 anymore, when terrorism and the threat from al Qaeda was front and center in American politics, but that doesn't mean the issue will be off the radar screen in 2012 -- particularly if the Obama camp has anything to say about it. With the killing of Osama bin Laden (an issue that featured prominently in Davis Guggenheim's recently released short film about the Obama presidency) and, even more important, the lack of any serious terrorist incident since Obama took office, this is perhaps the killer foreign policy uppercut for the incumbent.

Indeed, by one measure, it is the single issue on which Obama earns the strongest marks from voters -- 63 percent of Americans approve of the manner in which the president has handled terrorism. For Obama, his effectiveness at "fighting terrorism" is more than just an issue advantage, it's a key validator of his foreign policy performance, his leadership, and his fortitude in keeping America safe (or at least that's how the White House will spin it). His continued ramping up of the drone war only reinforces the message that he's not about to waver in the fight with al Qaeda or its affiliates and while there's certainly criticism to made of the president over his failure to close Guantanamo Bay or his lack of fealty to protecting basic civil liberties -- these are hardly place in which a Republican nominee not named Ron Paul is going to try and jab him. In short, Romney will have few opportunities to lay a glove on Obama on the issue of terrorism; the less he says about it, probably the better.

Advantage: Obama

Ending America's wars:

Generally speaking, a Democrat incumbent who ended one war and wound down another during his presidency might be considered vulnerable to traditional Republican attacks of foreign policy weakness. Not this cycle. Let's face it, Americans don't agree on much these days. If Barack Obama says the sky is blue, a Republican might be inclined to argue "no, in fact it's green ... and blue is a socialist plot." The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are two notable exceptions. By wide margins, Americans are supportive of the U.S. pull out from Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown from Afghanistan -- even a majority of Republicans supported the president on the full withdrawal from Iraq. On Afghanistan, a majority of the country wants the United States to get out now, even before completing its current training mission of the Afghan Army. Another 60 percent now believes the war "was not worth fighting." Amazingly, these data points have not really dented Obama's approval on this issue -- which is just under 50 percent. That the president has escaped such little blame for a policy that is so deeply unpopular  and has been so badly managed, is truly one of the great enigmas of his presidency.

Nonetheless, the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan are both sources of support for president's foreign policy performance -- so much so that the Obama campaign has already begun attacking Romney for suggesting that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was precipitous and, in his words, "tragic." All of this leaves Romney in the rather unpleasant position of playing defense. If he criticizes the president for too rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan or -- as he has been prone to do -- hits him for supposedly putting politics ahead of the advice of his generals it will beg the question, "Does Romney want to stay longer in Afghanistan?" That hardly seems like a winning political stance for any candidate this cycle. So on this issue, Obama has not only a nearly impenetrable defense; he's got a few good left hooks in the arsenal.

Advantage: Obama

Foreign policy leadership:

Ever since Jeanne Kirkpatrick spoke to the 1984 Republican Convention and called Democrats "Blame America Firsters," the issue of who is a better steward of the country's global responsibilities has been a prominent feature of GOP campaign politics -- and a winning one at that.

This cycle might be a little different; the very fact that it's actually debatable is a rather large problem for Mitt Romney. Imagine if the Democrats were dragged into a real fight with Republicans as to which party will better protect Social Security. To get a sense of how bad things are on this point, consider this: according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, voters give the president a 17-point edge over Romney in "handling international affairs." That's the biggest advantage Obama has on any one issue, with the exception of "addressing women's issues," a topic that has been in recent weeks a disaster for Republicans. Voters also view Obama as a stronger leader (albeit by a more narrow margin). In short, while Republicans like to compare Obama to past failed Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter he is not.

Of course, none of this has stopped Romney from constantly telling voters that, unlike Barack Obama, he won't go around the world apologizing for America. The fact that this blatantly untrue has hardly been a deterrent -- and Romney likely won't let up on it over the next seven months. Republicans have using the "we love America more"/"we're stronger" card for generations -- and no self-respecting Republican running for the nation's highest office would cast it away so easily. As well they shouldn't. Political stereotypes die hard and Romney's only real hope of taking back some of the foreign policy advantage from Obama is to try to re-activate this toxic perception of Democrats. And it might just work among voters not favorably impressed by the president.

The dilemma for Romney is not only that he is facing a candidate who is more immune to it than maybe any Democrat in recent history, but also that his own lack of foreign policy background makes it an even more difficult case to make. Still, old habits die hard. On this one, you have to give Romney a puncher's chance. Just don't count on him scoring a knockout.

Advantage: Obama (slightly)


There are many foreign policy advantages that come from being an incumbent president, but having a country uniquely disliked by Americans trying to build a nuclear bomb is not one of them. As most foreign policy observers will tell you, preventing Iran from building a nuke is no easy task. It involves difficult diplomacy, presidential signaling, the weighing of military options, potentially difficult compromises, and the management of key allied relations.

Mitt Romney has none of these problems. He can simply lob rhetorical haymakers that hype up the threat of an Iranian bomb or offer Churchillian declarations about his intention to stop such efforts. For example, in an earlier GOP presidential debate, Romney said that with him as president, Iran would not get a bomb -- but that under Obama, the mullahs will join the nuclear club. How exactly this would come to pass given that the two men have almost idenctical policy prescriptions is irrelevant in a dogfight. This is the benefit of being outside the tent.

That there is no easy solution to the problem puts Obama in the difficult position of having to speak in nuance; Romney meanwhile has the luxury of wrapping himself in the flag and speaking in chest-beating generalities (a bit like Rocky's soliloquy at the end of Rocky IV)  As long as ambiguity remains around an Iranian bomb, no matter what progress Obama might make diplomatically, it will give Romney an opening. And from every indication he plans to exploit it.

Advantage: Romney


A newly emerging theme in American politics -- one that began in the 2010 campaign cycle -- is China bashing; and there's a reasonable chance we may see more of it on the presidential level this year. Last fall, during one of the many GOP presidential debates, he claimed that "the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future." And in a February Wall Street Journal op-ed, he pledged to end "an economic relationship that rewards China's cheating and penalizes American companies and workers."

Here again is one of the advantages of being a candidate that stands outside the tent. Like Bill Clinton's "Butcher of Beijing" line in 1992, Romney can use crude political attacks against China that Obama simply won't be able to engage in. There is practically zero chance that a sitting president would risk upsetting a strategically important country like China with such over-the-top rhetoric. Romney has no such constraints.

To be sure, it's unclear whether attacking China will really hold much currency for any presidential candidate -- the polling evidence suggests voters would prefer to see the United States build a stronger relationship with China than alienate it. Still, at a time of a rather uncertain and wavering recovery, economic populism always has a certain appeal. And at the very least, threatening to get tough with China is certainly consistent with Romney's overall message that a different president would have helped shepherd a more robust recovery. In the end, Romney has little incentive to tone down the rhetoric. Like Clinton, he can dial it all back if he becomes president. So while brute force bashing may not win the day, it's likely to have more political potency than Obama's tip-toeing about his "Asia pivot."

Advantage: Romney

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