FRENEMIES SEPTEMBER 3, 2013
Peter Baker has a superb, deeply reported story in The New York Times on the Obama administration's attempted "reset" with Russia. According to Baker, the policy is "a case study in how the heady idealism of Mr. Obama’s first term has given way to the disillusionment of his second." Or, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, "There's this cycle of initial enthusiasm and hope that gives way to reality." The piece expertly explains why the reset didn't meet the expectations of Obama's foreign policy team; but more importantly, by delving so deeply into the issue, Baker reveals that the reset was the best of many bad options.
The narrative, as laid out by Baker, is essentially that Obama made some negotiating progress with the Russians during his first term, but that the return of Vladimir Putin to the office of the presidency doomed any chance for significant, continued cooperation. Putin's dislike of the United States, combined with his anger about the Libyan intervention, ensured that the last year has been a disaster for U.S.-Russia relations, culminating in the Edward Snowden saga.
The amazing thing about the piece is that Baker can't find one critic of the reset policy that has any reasonable criticism of Team Obama's efforts. John McCain and Lindsay Graham have certainly been vocal about what they see as the failure of the policy—McCain even said, amusingly, that relations had been reset to 1955—but Baker describes their opposition as follows: "Republican critics like Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina call it a 'failure' and a symbol of a bankrupt foreign policy." That's it. The other mention of the policy's opponents is this: "Critics say he was naïve to think he could really make common cause with Moscow." I don't think this lack of detail can be blamed on Baker; rather, none of the critics have anything to say. For example, Seth Mandel of Commentary has a post on the story, which concludes, "Baker's article represents the administration’s acknowledgement of reality, a welcome shift in perspective—though it remains to be seen if it also heralds a change in policy." Of course Mandel doesn't bother to explain what that change in policy should be, or how a differing approach back in 2009 would have changed anything.
Baker's story ends with the one criticism of the administration that makes some sense:
"But Obama aides say they oversold the reset, both to the public and maybe even to themselves; it was never meant to transform Russia into an American-style democracy or eliminate all areas of friction. 'We probably overestimated the shared-interest angle,' said one official.
And yet, even the negative consequences of this are nebulous! Sure, the benefits were slim—"Obama advisers argue it worked in a way by restoring relations after the rift over the Georgia war. There are areas of cooperation even now. Moscow has not reneged on the New Start treaty or the Afghanistan supply route"—but foreign policy isn't easy to manage, especially when it involves a country ruled by Vladimir Putin. Rather than going on about naiveté and weakness, critics of the administration should at least put forth a different set of policies.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.