In his visit to Moscow late last week, President Obama tried to satisfy all sides, and accomplished nothing other than sounding good in the moment and feeling good about himself. Americans have seen this sort of personality type before.
In his immortal "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King explained that he felt people he referred to as "white moderates" were a bigger threat to black civil rights than the membership of the KKK. Violent racists are clearly identifiable, and they are an external threat that the valiant King was sure he could confront and defeat. But, echoing Barry Goldwater's famous admonition that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," King felt that those supposedly within his own movement who urged too much caution and invoked their membership rights as leverage were capable of derailing the entire civil rights effort.
I'm convinced that, as far as American policy towards Russia is concerned, President Barack Obama is the foreign policy analogue of one of MLK's "white moderates." His performance during his recent two-day summit in Moscow was an infuriating tease, in which Obama repeatedly flashed glimpses of the Promised Land only to ultimately disappear behind a stodgy, anti-American burka. I'd rather have the president openly side with the Kremlin, as George W. Bush once did after "looking into Putin's eyes" and finding him trustworthy, so that we can have the clarity of an open war over American policy, with the winner calling the shots. If Obama is going to pretend to support American values as if he might be new Ronald Reagan and then just continue the noxious status quo set by Bush, he will make it almost impossible for any serious challenge to the rise of neo-Soviet dictatorship in Russia to occur.
Before going to Russia, Obama sternly criticized proud KGB spy Vladimir Putin's retrograde personality. But after meeting with Putin, Obama praised him in terms eerily similar to those Bush used so foolishly. For the first time in a decade, an American president met with opposition leaders like former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. Yet, each member of the large group Obama met with was given only five minutes to speak, and Obama said nothing afterwards supporting their activities. Obama met with Patriarch Kirill, Russia's version of the pope, and said nothing about the fact that Kirill is a former KGB agent who is helping Putin lay claim to heavenly support for his dictatorship and viciously cracking down on dissent within the Orthodox Church.
Obama took the first steps towards a new nuclear arms reduction agreement, yet he left many loose ends that let analysts like Charles Krauthammer worry whether the agreement might not be a serious sellout of American national security. He did not even try to get a commitment from the Kremlin regarding the integrity of Georgia's borders following the August 2008 invasion, nor did he try to get the Kremlin to stop supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and most especially Iran, and he said nothing while in Moscow about the Kremlin's outrageous behavior in this regard, or about its efforts to support the lunatic ruler of Venezuela. He said nothing about Russia's repeated buzzing of U.S. military bases with nuclear bombers.
And while Obama gave an interview to the firebrand opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, he said little in that interview that could be considered remotely controversial. There was no "Mr. Putin, tear down that wall around Mikhail Khodorkovsky" from Obama, who refused to even discuss the judicial charade that has put his most serious political rival in a Siberian prison for years.
There's no doubt that Obama's efforts to reach out to the Russian opposition, something Bush never did, infuriated the Kremlin, and for that he should be commended. But Obama did not go far enough to give even a small practical boost to the opposition, meaning it will remain largely insignificant and anonymous. Yet he went far enough to seriously poison the Kremlin's attitude towards him, undercutting his own stated mission of "resetting" relations (Obama even made an ill-advised joke about how America got Russia to sell Alaska for a bargain price). So in the end, whether you expected Obama to make friends with the Kremlin or to stand up for American values in a serious way, you had to conclude Obama's effort ended in dismal failure. It was almost as if he'd never done anything like this before.
Oops, that's right: He hadn't.
Yet it's infuriatingly difficult to deal with this failure, because Obama the "white moderate" is saying a few of the right things. He's urging us to bide our time and wait, just like the white moderates did to Martin Luther King. That gives the malignant forces in the Kremlin exactly what they want: Time. Time to hope the price of oil returns to $150/barrel or more, time to sow dissent in the Middle East so as to help it do so, time to consolidate, develop new nuclear weapons technology, a new and improved form of universal conscription.
The reactions of the opposition leaders who met with Obama tell the story. They were denied even the slightest hint of open support, forced to content themselves with bare symbolism when their lives are on the line every day they oppose the Kremlin. Yet none of them were able to openly criticize Obama's mealy-mouthed approach because he had done the bare minimum to make it appear he was on their side. They have no traction to demand better and no reason to hope they will ever get better. For those of us on pins and needles over Russia's fate, this situation is in many ways worse than what we got from Bush.
Perhaps the most courageous of the opposition leaders is a young man named Oleg Kozlovsky. He spends far more time on the front lines of protest actions than any of the others, and he's spent far more time in prison as a result. At one point, the Kremlin even had him illegally drafted into the army! On his blog, Kozlovsky called for Obama to impose personal sanctions, such as travel bans, directly on the worst human rights offenders in the Kremlin. He begged for at least some kind of tangible policy outcome. Obama didn't even include Kozlovsky in the opposition powwow. One wonders if he even knows who Kozlovsky is.
To say I'm disappointed with Obama's performance in Moscow is putting it mildly. I'm appalled, and furious most of all because of how his "white moderation" undermines my ability to get traction criticizing him. I fear for Russia's future more now than when Mr. Obama arrived in Moscow.