Our much-esteemed reader “Penny” directs your attention to the following critique of Obama’s sojourn in Moscow, from the pages of Forbes:
Watching President Obama hit the “reset” button in Moscow this week, I was reminded of one of my own New Age encounters in Russia, about 14 years ago. Then, working as bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal in Moscow, I was on the receiving end of a shipment of new computers for the office. After much wrangling, delay and expense, they finally arrived. But the first one we unpacked would not boot up. The Russian customs service, in its own version of “reset,” had stripped out the hard drive before turning over to us the hollow shell.
On a far grander scale, it’s a good bet that a similar experience lies ahead for Obama, whose White House Web site, in the wake of his two-day visit to Moscow, has been headlining “Reset in Russia.” Ironically, the most promising moment of the trip was Obama’s slip of the tongue in which he referred to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by Putin’s previous title of “president”–the most powerful post in Russia. That at least suggests that, while sloppy with protocol, Obama is not entirely oblivious to the steely realities of backroom Russia.
But the bulk of Obama’s visit was a mix of visionary kitsch, caviar and feckless horse-trading. He met with President Dmitry Medvedev, brought along Michelle and the kids for a look inside the Kremlin and breakfasted on beluga with Putin. Obama emerged with such prizes as a short-sighted strategic arms reduction “commitment,” for America to scrap real capabilities in tandem with Russia retiring some of its rusting junk. In a smart move, he met with some members of the political opposition. But he also managed to effectively sell them out, not only by praising authoritarian Putin for his “extraordinary work on behalf of the Russian people,” but also by delivering to a graduating class of students a Russian variation on his June 4 speech in Cairo.
In his Moscow speech, Obama delivered what is by now familiar as his trademark mix of historical omissions and revisions, sweeping statements about the “arc of history” and phrases of hope, change and moral equivalency. He brought up, yet again, America’s “imperfections,” dismissed as outdated the brand of American moral certitude and leadership that brought victory in World War II and called for collaboration, convergence and partnerships forged on common ground and progress toward a shared future. Call it Brotherhood 2.0.
Were it not for such obstacles as history, vast vested interests and human nature, it’s a vision that just might work. But in the real world, as a basis for state policy, this is a time-tested recipe for disaster. There may be no venue better suited to underscore that lesson than Russia, home during most of the last century to a colossal and devastating experiment that began with fraternal ideals of communism and led to the gulag, mass deprivation and aggressive expansion. To this day, the ruinous inheritance of Soviet communism lingers on, from Cuba to China to North Korea, to the Soviet-tutored terrorist incubators of the Middle East, to the despotic currents running deep within Russia itself.
In Obama’s version of history, Soviet communism (which he referred to not by name but as “old political and economic restrictions”) came to an end through some sort of brotherly mass movement: “The change did not come from any one nation,” he told an audience of Russian students. “The Cold War reached a conclusion because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that its end would be peaceful.”
Apart from such details as Soviet killings in the Baltics, violent upheaval in Georgia, the slaughter in Romania that preceded the overthrow of President Nicolae Ceausescu, the early stirrings of war in Chechnya, the genocide amid the breakup of Yugoslavia, and what not, Obama is broadly correct. The Cold War ended without the feared exchange of nuclear weapons and all-out global conflagration. And, yes, it ended thanks in significant part to the courage and determination of a great many people in places such as Prague, Warsaw and Moscow itself.
But missing from Obama’s philosophy is the immense role played by the U.S. America stood for decades as a bulwark of freedom. Americans fought real wars in such places as Korea and Vietnam. Americans kept brilliantly alive a philosophy of democratic government and free markets, which offered a beacon to oppressed people of the world, and exported both ideas and inventions that have vastly enriched mankind. Following the fiascoes of Jimmy Carter–on whose watch the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Iran had its Islamic revolution–Americans elected Ronald Reagan. His version of “reset” was to stop the appeasing and apologizing, and to reassert America’s system as one of virtue and America’s global role as one of both moral and military strength.
In the excitement over Obama’s packaging and marketing skills, it is easy to forget that there are many variations on this business of revising the terms of engagement–for which the current White House metaphor is that reset button. A terrific account of this phenomenon can be found in a report released last month on “Undermining Democracy,” produced jointly by New York-based Freedom House, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia. This 81-page report documents and explains the rise since the end of the Cold War of what the authors call the “21st-Century Authoritarians.”
In case studies focusing on China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela, the authors warn of the rise of “a new form of authoritarianism, with methods of control that are significantly more sophisticated than the classic totalitarian techniques of the Soviet Union.” These include not only huge strides in high-tech surveillance, along with the exploitation of international institutions and foreign aid to advance the interests of tyrannical regimes, but the bastardization of the idea of democracy itself.
The legitimacy of genuine democracy is hijacked via concepts such as “sovereign democracy” in Russia, “people’s democracy” in China and “religious democracy” in Iran–all homes to state-controlled mass media, especially via the outlet of television. This report notes that the notion of democracy, in this murky landscape, becomes “a semantic shell for each authoritarian ruler to fill as he pleases.” Is this what America now proposes to converge and collaborate with?
There is a great deal more illuminating detail in these case studies, but they boil down to a warning that despots of the modern world are already quite busy with their own reset of the global system: “Authoritarian regimes are eroding the international rules and standards built up by the democratic world over the past several decades, threatening to export the instability and abuses that their systems engender.” In this setting, what the world needs from America is not a reset button, but a rudder.