I won’t comment much about Obama’s speech on the Middle East, except to say that it was a stitched together mess that will likely have the opposite of the intended effect. Even those typically fairly well-disposed towards Obama are having a difficult time saying anything positive about it: this is one example.
But the foreign policy focus of the last few days combined with recent events in Russia made me think about the “Reset” with Russia. This was one of Obama’s early, signature foreign policy initiatives, and at the time but especially in retrospect it was a harbinger of the unrealism at the heart of his putatively Realist foreign policy.
Those clever folks in the Obama foreign policy team thought that they could manipulate the duumvirate, and in particular work with Medvedev the Modernizer. Medvedev and Obama have had a veritable bromance, for instance being burger buddies at Five Guys. Administration people made clunky attempts to portray Medvedev as the future, and Putin as a relic of the past. They put their chips on building a relationship with the president in the hope that he would prevail over Putin.
This was a sucker bet from the outset, given the clear dominance of Putin in the Russian political landscape. It is now an utter embarrassment given that Medvedev has gone from being perceived as someone with only a slight chance of supplanting Putin, to an object of disdain and mockery.
Medvedev’s much hyped press conference at Skolkovo was a disaster that has unleashed a torrent of criticism and outright ridicule, and is widely reckoned to be the death knell of his political ambitions. The Economist asks what the point was. Time is scathing:
It was impossible to pinpoint the exact moment of the transformation, but by the time Russian President Dmitri Medvedev left the podium after his first big press conference on Wednesday, he had morphed into a lame duck. The problem was not so much that he failed to state his plans for re-election next year, but, as some members of his own circle now admit, the President seemed to be courting a constituency of just one man — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who will alone decide whether Medvedev stays or goes.
His unprofessional performance added to the overall commotion and silliness of the event. Medvedev was clearly agitated by the challenge, constantly losing his breath during the first half of the conference, apparently caused by public speech stress. Time and again Medvedev had fits of seemingly uncontrollable giggling when answering questions, also apparently caused by public speech stress. The Kremlin press service announced “the president was pleased by his performance at the conference” (RIA Novosti, May 18). Officially approved observers were bewildered by the uninspiring performance. Known critics of the regime posted angry comments about Medvedev on the Internet demonstrating his utter inability to reform or lead Russia (RIA Novosti, www.newsru.com, May 18).
It seems Putin in 2007 wisely chose Medvedev as his “successor” or a de facto figurehead president. Medvedev, who this week demonstrated the absence of his leadership capabilities and charisma—a lack of intelligence and integrity—will hardly ever be able to effectively lead Russia in a time of change. Many Russians and foreigners who believed that Medvedev—the young and progressive president—will actually modernize, Westernize and liberalize Russia may forget their dreams. Medvedev’s constant chatter about “modernization,” with little or nothing being done, may only cause the Russian populace to begin to hate the term, as the word “democracy” became a popular curse after the unfair and lawless reforms of the 1990’s. Former Kremlin insider Gleb Pavlovsky believes Medvedev’s dismal press conference performance was intended to appeal to Putin to gain endorsement for a second presidential term (Vedomosti, May 19). This is a popular version in Moscow—Medvedev was doing his best to be seen as an incompetent and harmless political nobody for Putin to allow him six more years as a figurehead in the Kremlin.
And Foggy Bottom and the White House–the one on the Potomac, not the Moskva–should be feeling the pain. The alternative scenarios: (a) Medvedev is shoved aside by Putin, or (b) Putin keeps Medvedev like an organ grinder keeps his monkey or a ventriloquist keeps his dummy. Either way, the entire basis of the Reset collapses.
It would probably be best for the US if (a) occurs. For if Putin chooses door (b), it is quite possible that the fantasists in the State Department and the White House will continue to delude themselves that they can build a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia through Medvedev, and make deals and concessions in the hope of building the Reset, whereas even they would have to concede to the reality of Putin’s domination and the futility of the Reset under option (a). Thus, (b) would let Putin to continue to manipulate the United States by exploiting its delusions.
The manipulative potential is one factor that may lead Putin to choose (b). But domestic political considerations will almost certainly prove decisive.
In the US, the Reset has largely faded from view. Obama has moved on to other things. But it should not be forgotten because it provides a very dispiriting example of his foreign policy judgment–or more properly, the lack thereof–and that of his entire foreign policy cadre.