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A Nice Idea While It Lasted

With the administration's Russia engagment policy in shambles, Amb. Mike McFaul heads for home.

Earlier this week, Mike McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, announced on his blog that he would be stepping down after the Sochi Olympics, barely two years after taking the post.

Though for the first few months after his arrival he and his family were harassed by journalists and activists apparently associated with the regime of President Vladimir Putin, McFaul was not run out of town; three of his friends confirmed that he had promised his teenaged sons that they could return home, and commuting between Moscow and California proved impossible. Nevertheless, McFaul did not have the tenure in Russia either he or the White House had hoped for. Did he fail? Did administration policy towards Russia fail?

I have known Mike, as I will call him hereafter, both as a scholar of democracy promotion and as an official in the White House, where he served before leaving for Spaso House. In Washington, he was a leading figure in an informal democracy caucus pushing back against State Department traditionalists and hard-headed realists; he was proud to have helped insert strong -- well, not weak -- language on democracy in President Barack Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. At the same time, he was both an advocate and a chief author of the administration's "reset" policy towards Russia, which required finding shared interests with an authoritarian state.

Mike, in effect, incorporated the twin poles of the Obama administration's collective worldview -- the transformative vision of American power as a force for human rights and democracy and the pragmatic recognition that globalized problems required the U.S. to work effectively with powerful autocratic states. That sounds like a contradiction. Mike emphatically insisted that it was not. The administration, he said, could pursue, and mostly was pursuing, a "dual-track" policy in which common interests could be explored without sidelining American values. He had lifted this phrase from the memoirs of former Secretary of State George Shultz, who described how President Ronald Reagan had sought arms control agreements with Russia while still denouncing the Communist regime as "the evil empire."

The paradigm of the dual track constituted a critique both of classic realism and of President George W. Bush's reckless and unsustainable insistence that American global policy would be driven by the goal of "ending tyranny in the world." Mike's colleague, Samantha Power, liked to say that "we are all consequentialists now" -- that is, wised-up practitioners prepared to hold their tongue in order to advance national interests. Mike was of two minds on consequentialism: He believed that much of the gladiatorial rhetoric which pundits and human-rights activists clamored for was mere vanity, while he also argued that sometimes American policymakers had to publicly stand up for American values, even if doing so accomplished nothing.

Mike's tenure in Moscow was thus a working experiment in the dual track and the consequentialist balance. The ambassadorship almost always went to a career foreign-service officer -- very few bundlers lobbied for a post in Moscow -- but Mike was a leading Russia scholar. As one former administration official involved with the region said to me, "No one really cared about the difference between career and political appointee with someone like Mike." For him, it was the fulfillment of a dream.

Mike had a disastrous start in his new job. On his first week, he met at the U.S. Embassy with leading activists; the arrival was filmed by pro-regime journalists who claimed that the dissidents were "receiving instructions" from an ambassador sent to promote regime change. (The meeting had been scheduled to occur before the new ambassador's arrival.) From there on, it was open season on Ambassador McFaul, leading to several ugly confrontations. Mike continued to provoke the regime by using Twitter and giving occasional provocative interviews. Owing in part to his own un-diplomatic style, he had a rockier time in Russia than a professional foreign service officer might have had.

But Mike's diplomatic style had no real effect on U.S.-Russia relations. When he was dispatched to Moscow in early 2012, Russia policy offered the single greatest vindication of the administration's stated goal of "engaging" autocratic regimes. With President Dmitry Medvedev as a willing interlocutor, Obama succeeded in signing the New START arms control agreement, gaining Russian acquiescence on tough sanctions against Iran, and getting Moscow to allow equipment bound for Afghanistan to transit through Russian territory. But the Medvedev presidency was only a brief interval in Vladimir Putin's drive to consolidate power and to stake a new claim to Russian greatness. The achievements of the "reset" were real, but they could not last, since Putin did not share Medvedev's drive to make Russia a "modern" state which could compete as an equal in the global economy. Putin engineered his return to power less than two months after Mike reached Moscow. It was not propitious timing for dual track.

What, then, should the Obama administration, and its man in Moscow, have done? My colleague Michael Weiss writes that the reset "codified the lie" that the United States and Russia could work together, that Mike's American-style enthusiasm helped propagate that fiction, and that his finest moment was when he told the truth "about what it was like to live under the thuggishness and tedium of Putinism" by yelling at his own persecutors. In short, Ambassador McFaul should have behaved like Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was Richard Nixon's ambassador to the UN, telling off the petty tyrants and standing up for American principles.

That would have been satisfying, at least for those of us watching from the safety of home. It also would have accomplished nothing; but, as Mike himself admitted, consequentialism has its limits. Putin had, in effect, guaranteed the failure of the reset, and thus of the dual track. Why not admit it -- even if it gets you run out of the country? Isn't it pusillanimous to keep smiling in the face of such naked ugliness?

It's a common complaint among neoconservatives, as well as moralistic pundits, that Obama's engagement policy, whether with Russia or Iran, codifies a lie about brutal regimes. (Just read any issue of The Weekly Standard.) Proponents of the dual track  would answer that you can tell the truth and do business at the same time. It's a pretty straightforward argument when it comes to say, China or Saudi Arabia, where diplomats routinely soft-pedal the truth in order to transact indispensable business. But is that true of Russia? What about Egypt, where a budding military dictatorship now cynically exploits anti-American feeling? Is it time to stop smiling there?

There's a reason why pundits don't make foreign policy. Diplomacy is a perpetual balancing act, and balancing is morally and aesthetically unappealing. It's not satisfying to confront a bully with firm admonitions that we return to the negotiating table. Obama's engagement policy runs the risk of appearing both naïve and cynical about adversaries, as Weiss insists it is. I don't think either Mike McFaul or White House policymakers were naïve about Vladimir Putin, as George W. Bush was when he said that he had looked into his eyes and seen a partner. They tried to find areas of overlapping interests; they'll continue trying. And Putin will continue frustrating them. There is no good solution to the zero-sum leader who believes that you must lose in order that he succeed -- especially when he is sitting on an ocean of oil and gas.

Putinism is bound to fail; it is, as widely noted, already failing. Twenty-five years ago the United States had the good sense to help the Soviet empire fall as gently as possible. Some time, perhaps not long from now, the United States will have to engage in the same act of deft diplomacy. It won't be satisfying; it will be necessary.

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

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