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Who Lost Russia?

I am of severely mixed minds about Tom Friedman’s column today about the boneheadedness of Russian, Georgian, and U. S. leadership:

If the conflict in Georgia were an Olympic event, the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin. The silver medal for bone-headed recklessness would go to Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and the bronze medal for rank short-sightedness would go to the Clinton and Bush foreign policy teams.

I definitely agree that we missed crucial opportunities during the Clinton Administration to build a constructive relationship with Russia:

All of this was especially true because, we argued, there was no big problem on the world stage that we could effectively address without Russia — particularly Iran or Iraq. Russia wasn’t about to reinvade Europe. And the Eastern Europeans would be integrated into the West via membership in the European Union.

No, said the Clinton foreign policy team, we’re going to cram NATO expansion down the Russians’ throats, because Moscow is weak and, by the way, they’ll get used to it. Message to Russians: We expect you to behave like Western democrats, but we’re going to treat you like you’re still the Soviet Union. The cold war is over for you, but not for us.

Is Russia, as Michael Mandelbaum, quoted in the column puts it (pooh-poohing the idea), “innately aggressive”? I don’t think so. But I do think that, like us, Russia is quite paranoid. Or, as Woody Allen once quipped, what’s a three syllable word beginning with ‘P’ that means you think that everybody’s against you? Answer: perceptive.

I don’t think that Russia is going to abandon the foreign policy objectives of centuries at the drop of a hat. Or a wall. That Russia remains a big, powerful country with a big, powerful military and, arguably, the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and interests of its own that may not be in line with ours is simply a fact of life.

I do think that we could have done better than the Clinton Administration did which IMO was to go out of their way to antagonize Russia, put too much stock in a single person, i.e. Boris Yeltsin, and utterly misunderstand the institutions that existed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union on which a society could be based. The Bush Administration has largely gone along, fat, dumb, and happy, with the policies pursued by the Clinton Administration, only the single person in whom too much stock was placed was Vladimir Putin.

Well, we’ve got to deal with the Russia we have rather than the Russia we might want and we’ve got at least 17 years of mismanagement to start making up for. In a much poorer international climate.

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About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging.

Comments

  1. [...] I’ve posted some ruminations on Tom Friedman’s column on the U. S. policy towards Russia at Outside the Beltway. [...]

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  2. anjin-san says:

    I definitely agree that we missed crucial opportunities during the Clinton Administration to build a constructive relationship with Russia:

    While there is no doubt that Clinton missed opportunities, he has been out of office for quite some time. The Bush administration has stayed focused on its Iraq obsession, while neglecting other areas of the world where we have a stake in what happens.

    Do we want a realistic appraisal of our failures as a nation, or do we just want to continue the rather tired game of “Its all Clinton’s fault”?

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  3. Matthew Stinson says:

    From my reading of the events, bombing Serbia and bringing about the independence of Kosovo — something started by Clinton-Albright and finalized by Bush — was the final blow to the Russo-American relationship. It cemented the old Russian notion (perhaps justified) that the Slavs and Orthodox have an enemy in the West and helped create Putinism as we know it.

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  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Drop dead, anjin-san. I criticized the Bush Administration in this post, too. Friedman’s column critized the Clinton Administration and so does my post does. If you want posts that blame everything on the Bush Administration, nothing on the Clinton Administration, do it on your own blog.

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  5. sam says:

    There’s are article in today’s WSJ Online entitled America Must Choose Between Georgia and Russia, by Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation. The article echos some of the points you’ve made:

    [I]t must be remembered that, as between any other major world powers, our bilateral relationship can only advance upon the basis of reciprocity. And that is exactly what has been missing over the past 16 years.

    And I was suprised at this:

    Several joint military exercises have been cancelled by the Americans. Now Washington suggests our Navy ships are no longer welcome to take part in the Active Endeavour counterterrorism and counterproliferation operation in the Mediterranean. Washington also threatens to freeze our bilateral strategic stability dialogue.

    I’m not at all sure that this is a good thing.

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  6. sam says:

    There’s are article in today’s WSJ Online entitled America Must Choose Between Georgia and Russia, by Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation. The article echos some of the points you’ve made:

    [I]t must be remembered that, as between any other major world powers, our bilateral relationship can only advance upon the basis of reciprocity. And that is exactly what has been missing over the past 16 years.

    And I was suprised at this:

    Several joint military exercises have been cancelled by the Americans. Now Washington suggests our Navy ships are no longer welcome to take part in the Active Endeavour counterterrorism and counterproliferation operation in the Mediterranean. Washington also threatens to freeze our bilateral strategic stability dialogue.

    I’m not at all sure that this is a good thing.

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  7. Cernig says:

    In domestic politics, “It’s Clinton’s Fault” doesn’t hold water 8 years later.

    In foreign policy, where other nations see “America under successive leaders” while Americans see “the Clinton and Bush administrations”, 8 years is just enough time to put a good hoppy head on the home-brew of resentment.

    Regards, C

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  8. sam says:

    ooops. sorry for the double post.

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  9. Dave Schuler says:

    My point, Cernig, is that although I think that the Bush Administration has been clumsy and hamfisted in its dealings with Russia and I sincerely wish that they had done things in other ways I can’t pretend that they invented the policy.

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  10. Bithead says:

    Is Russia, as Michael Mandelbaum, quoted in the column puts it (pooh-poohing the idea), “innately aggressive”? I don’t think so. But I do think that, like us, Russia is quite paranoid. Or, as Woody Allen once quipped, what’s a three syllable word beginning with ‘P’ that means you think that everybody’s against you? Answer: perceptive.

    If someone thinks everyone’s against them, eventually, they figure out a way to make it true, if for no other treason than to validdate the original paranoia. Russia is a classic example of this. They’ve never gotten over the damage they did themselves doing their communist years.

    Drop dead, anjin-san. I criticized the Bush Administration in this post, too. Friedman’s column critized the Clinton Administration and so does my post does. If you want posts that blame everything on the Bush Administration, nothing on the Clinton Administration, do it on your own blog.

    There is, perhaps enough blame to be placed on both administrations. Yet, it seems to me that there are some bits of damage which take longer than 8 (7?) years to repair. Clinton certainly inflicted enough of that variety of damage, I think. Certainly the overall handling of the Kosovo situation would be one such bit.

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  11. Cernig says:

    Dave, I’m agreeing with you :-)

    Regards, C

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  12. Tony says:

    while i agree with most of this post, it seems a blatant error to give Russia the “gold medal for brutish stupidity” and not address this in the analysis. Russian behaviour has been neither brutish nor stupid. This conflict demonstrated that a) Russian military is semi-competent even against US-trained and US/Israel supplied army of similar size, b) US needs Russia in international affairs more than vice versa, and c) US is in no position of power for the next 2 years (or 100 years if McCain gets elected)

    I think Putin wants to bring up something he had asked for in 2000 (and Yeltsin in 1991) — that Russia be admitted into NATO. Now more than ever, Russia has some military capability to offer NATO, and missing this opportunity would be brutishly stupid for the US leadership.

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  13. Anderson says:

    the gold medal for brutish stupidity would go to the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin

    I dunno … I think the *gold* for brutish stupidity goes to the guy who tries to use military force, & gets his ass handed to him. As opposed to the guy who uses force, and gets what he wanted.

    Putin will have to settle for the silver — Saakashvili is the clear winner here.

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  14. PD Shaw says:

    I think a lot of this comes back to what is NATO anyway? Is it a security defense pact? Invitation to the cool kid’s club? An economic and political development tool? Training grounds for peacekeeping missions? An anachronism substituting as grand strategy?

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  15. just me says:

    My point, Cernig, is that although I think that the Bush Administration has been clumsy and hamfisted in its dealings with Russia and I sincerely wish that they had done things in other ways I can’t pretend that they invented the policy.

    I think what you are essentially saying is that Clinton invented the policy and the Bush administration didn’t do anything to change it. I think you are probably right.

    I think PD Shaw makes a good point though-and that is maybe we need to try and figure out just what NATO is supposed to be and what the standard for membership in the club should be in order to meet its mission statement.

    I think the fall of the USSR sort of left NATO as an organization that lost its purpose and I don’t think the US or other NATO members have done a lot to really figure this one out.

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  16. anjin-san says:

    Drop dead, anjin-san. I criticized the Bush Administration in this post, too.

    Are you really this thin-skinned? I recall an old saying about heat and kitchens. I am not busting your chops in my post, just making a point. I think you are overreacting.

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  17. anjin-san says:

    There is, perhaps enough blame to be placed on both administrations.

    Every so ofter, I find myself in agreement with bit…

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  18. Houston says:

    This conflict demonstrated that a) Russian military is semi-competent even against US-trained and US/Israel supplied army of similar size, b) US needs Russia in international affairs more than vice versa, and c) US is in no position of power for the next 2 years (or 100 years if McCain gets elected)

    Ridiculous post, on all three points. a) To consider the two opposing forces to be similar in size, equipment and training is absurd. b) Hardly, as Afghan/Iraq has proven. c) Partisan talking points.

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  19. andrew says:

    Who lost Russia? Simple answer: the Russians.

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  20. John425 says:

    Here it comes again- the old refrain of “Communism only killed 100 million. Let’s give it another chance.”

    Putin is Stalin in a well-tailored suit.

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  21. anjin-san says:

    Russia has some military capability to offer NATO, and missing this opportunity would be brutishly stupid for the US leadership.

    Russian as a NATO partner is the logical conclusion to the cold war, and a good idea.

    Framing our world view in terms of “good” guys and “bad” guys simply does not serve us. The world is not a cartoon. All nations have the capability to do good and evil, and often do so concurrently. This includes ours.

    If a nation goes beyond the pale, the others can act to reign them in, via diplomacy, or failing that, force. To achieve some modicum of international stability, we need to work with nations such as Russia and Iran. We don’t need to love them, just to be able to do business and work towards finding common ground, and hopefully, achieve some positives in the long run.

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  22. anjin-san says:

    Putin is Stalin in a well-tailored suit

    I have no doubt that Putin can be tough to the point of ruthless. Can you show any evidence that he is another Stalin? I mean, that is a snappy line, but I do not see much behind it.

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  23. Bithead says:

    Every so ofter, I find myself in agreement with bit…

    It was you who over-reacted.

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  24. AMac says:

    Anjin-san, before deploying the sneer quotes around every instance of the words good and bad, review Foreign Minister Lavrov’s Op-Ed in today’s WSJ.

    Do you suppose that your ideas on Right and Wrong matches Lavrov’s and Putin’s? Would they, if your country was sited in Russia’s Near Abroad? Do Americans and Western Europeans have a right to advocate policies that don’t meet with the new nomenklatura’s approval?

    If a nation goes beyond the pale, the others can act to reign them in, via diplomacy, or failing that, force” is the sort of sentence that makes me shudder. By definition, when a nation’s leaders act a certain way, they believe they are doing the just and proper thing. They’ll bridle at being “reigned in.” More than that, they’ll rebuff the patronizing foreigners who utter such phrases.

    Small and weak countries may find enemies, circumstances, and even allies shoving reign-in down their throats. Especially after atrocious miscalculations. Need any examples? Big, powerful countries, not so much.

    As you note, the world isn’t a cartoon, and other people act according to their views of their interests. What we (the US, Europe) say they ought to do is of only modest interest, barring reasons to the contrary. Russia will co-operate with the West on Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan, AGW, and nuclear stockpile security on this basis. Or not.

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  25. [...] what went wrong on the Rsso-Georgian border, but for the time being I’m going to leave it to Dave Schuler at Outside the Beltway. And I think this may be our Quote of the Day when it comes to figuring out why Russia sometimes [...]

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  26. Person of Choler says:

    Why blame a couple of U.S. presidents for the fact that Russia continues the aggrandizing behavior it has exhibited for the last two or three centuries?

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  27. anjin-san says:

    By definition, when a nation’s leaders act a certain way, they believe they are doing the just and proper thing.

    Undoubtedly. Then again, Hitler almost certainly felt that way.

    My threshold, when I refer to “reigning in” would have the bar set to a situation such as The Iraqi conquest of Kuwait. Allowing Saddam to dominate the middle east militaraily was clearly not acceptable. (of course, if Kuwait had been a poor country in Africa, no one would have cared much)

    In that case, Saddam’s rebuff was met with force that he was not able to cope with, and a fairly good outcome was achieved. GHW Bush handled the situation well, in my view.

    The Russia/Georgia situation is complex, and certainly not one I have any great understanding of. I do not think my “sneer” is entirely unwarranted. The dialog is being played out in this country casting the Russians as the bad guys, and the Georgians the good, just like in the movies when I was a kid. The cowboys were good, the Indians bad. The real life situation was vastly more complex.

    If we want a more effective foreign policy we to have to move beyond one-dimensional interpretations of complex events, and we need to be more reflective about our own actions and the consequences of use/misuse of our great power. In any case, you post is food for though.

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  28. ZEITGEIST says:

    [...] Plus, some related thoughts at Outside the Beltway. [...]

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  29. JohnG says:

    I just find it funny that “Russia conquers tiny neighbor” is being treated like some shocking thing that never would have happened if not for US stupidity. Russia conquers tiny neighbor has been the natural state of affairs since before the Soviet Union. Maybe the reason why Clinton and Bush were expanding NATO while Russia was weak is BECAUSE Russia tends to do things like this.

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  30. anjin-san says:

    It was you who over-reacted.

    Not sure how. Perhaps Clinton’s Russia policy was a failure. I think we should have tried much harder to work effectively with Russia on areas of common interest from the moment the Soviet Union dissolved. Russia is a major player, and they are not going anywhere.

    Nonetheless, Clinton has been out of office a long time, and the Bush administration has has ample time for course corrections. The GOP needs to be willing to make honest appraisals of the failures of the Bush admin, and there have been more than a few. In my view, there has been a pretty consistent effort to pass the buck to Clinton, couched in language designed to create the appearance of even-handedness.

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  31. Peter says:

    Russia is a third world country with oil and nukes. Her population is falling as is the life expectancy. Russia is going somewhere and in only a couple of generations.
    The hard part will be the rest of the world surviving those generations.
    The only good news is that Russia’s military maintenance is provided by Russians, who can break an anvil with a feather duster.

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  32. Bithead says:

    Not sure how.

    Lemme put it this way;
    What are you taking for your BDS?
    It’s obviously in it’s advanced stages, now.

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  33. Bithead says:

    Undoubtedly. Then again, Hitler almost certainly felt that way.

    Hey, that’s good Anjin…, you managed to work Hitler into it. You left out Dracula and Caligula, but its early in the day.

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  34. anjin-san says:

    you managed to work Hitler into it.

    Following you lead son, following your lead :)

    and since my post in no way refers to Bush, what is your point?

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  35. AMac says:

    Anjin-san, 10:03pm —

    1. The Russia/Georgia situation is complex

    2. and certainly not one I have any great understanding of.

    3. I do not think my “sneer” is entirely unwarranted.

    4. The dialog is being played out in this country casting the Russians as the bad guys, and the Georgians the good, just like in the movies when I was a kid. The cowboys were good, the Indians bad.

    Re: #1, we agree.

    Re: #3, I’d offer two possibilities. Likeliest is that you have postmodern sensibilities, where sneer quotes always attend concepts like “truth,” “objectivity,” and “morality;” see #4. (Except, of course, when they don’t.)

    Or, perhaps, you agree with Putin’s and Lavrov’s ideas. Judging from actions rather than words, a good outcome involves wrecking Georgia’s economy, impoverishing its people, rendering its military impotent, and incapacitating its State.

    Why? Pour encourager les autres. See here or here or here. Note that these analysts are very critical of US actions. Yet each manages to retain a moral (not “moral”) perspective on events.

    #2, possibly correct as well.

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  36. Jason says:

    I just find it funny that “Russia conquers tiny neighbor” is being treated like some shocking thing that never would have happened if not for US stupidity. Russia conquers tiny neighbor has been the natural state of affairs since before the Soviet Union. Maybe the reason why Clinton and Bush were expanding NATO while Russia was weak is BECAUSE Russia tends to do things like this.

    Ding, Ding, Ding. We have a winner. It wasn’t the West that wanted to expand NATO, it was the eastern European countries that wanted desperately to be allowed in. Since Russian independence from the Mongols, it has continually increased the size of its empire. Each tsar was expected to add to the empire. So yes, the loss of empire during the 90’s was very humiliating for the Russians.
    The question one has to ask themselves is, if a small, democratic country begs you for protection from a larger, un-democratic neighbor, would you turn your back on them? If the answer is no, then you would be a supporter of NATO expansion and 20th century American foreign policy.

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