Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama (whom I support) and Hillary Clinton had a debate last night in Cleveland, Ohio. Though national polls generally show a close race between either Obama or Clinton and John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, I’m betting on a Democratic win this November based on the surge in turnout and mobilization among Democrats. Thus, I’m more interested in what the Democrats have to say about foreign policy in general and Russia in particular. And finally, after 19 previous debates, the moderators finally ask a question about Russia! Here is the question and answers (full transcript here):

RUSSERT: Before the primary on Tuesday, on Sunday, March 2, there’s an election in Russia for the successor to President Putin. What can you tell me about the man who’s going to be Mr. Putin’s successor?

CLINTON: Well, I can tell you that he’s a hand-picked successor, that he is someone who is obviously being installed by Putin, who Putin can control, who has very little independence, the best we know. You know, there’s a lot of information still to be acquired. That the so-called opposition was basically run out of the political opportunity to wage a campaign against Putin’s hand-picked successor, and the so-called leading opposition figure spends most of his time praising Putin. So this is a clever but transparent way for Putin to hold on to power, and it raises serious issues about how we’re going to deal with Russia going forward.

I have been very critical of the Bush administration for what I believe to have been an incoherent policy toward Russia. And with the reassertion of Russia’s role in Europe, with some of the mischief that they seem to be causing in supporting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example, it’s imperative that we begin to have a more realistic and effective strategy toward Russia. But I have no doubt, as president, even though technically the meetings may be with the man who is labeled as president, the decisions will be made by Putin.

RUSSERT: Who will it be? Do you know his name?

CLINTON: Medvedev — whatever.



RUSSERT: Senator Obama, do you know anything about him?

OBAMA: Well, I think Senator Clinton speaks accurately about him. He is somebody who was hand-picked by Putin. Putin has been very clear that he will continue to have the strongest hand in Russia in terms of running the government. And, you know, it looks — just think back to the beginning of President Bush’s administration when he said — you know, he met with Putin, looked into his eyes and saw his soul, and figured he could do business with him.

He then proceeded to neglect our relationship with Russia at a time when Putin was strangling any opposition in the country when he was consolidating power, rattling sabers against his European neighbors, as well as satellites of the former Soviet Union. And so we did not send a signal to Mr. Putin that, in fact, we were going to be serious about issues like human rights, issues like international cooperation that were critical to us. That is something that we have to change.

Where to begin. First, I was so happy that Tim Russert pressed for the name, because U.S. leaders are generally ignorant about anyone unless (a) they do whatever we want (e.g., Blair) or (b) we’re on the brink of going to war with them. I was actually a little surprised that Clinton knew the name. She brutalized the pronunciation, however, (see video above), essentially calling him a woman (‘Medvedev-a’). More bothersome was her follow-up of ‘whatever’. ‘Whatever’ appears to be the official U.S. policy toward Russia and is one of the reasons why nobody over there cares about what we have to say. As for the answers, I would characterize this as the NY Times/Economist headlines answer. ‘Hand-picked,’ ‘reassertion,’ ‘mischief,’ ‘strangling,’ etc. As for a policy towards Russia, Clinton simply advocates for a more ‘realistic and effective strategy,’ as opposed to an unrealistic and ineffective strategy. While her answer basically means nothing, I still give her points for [kinda] knowing his name.

Obama was obviously not prepared for the answer – if you watch the video of the debate, Russert addresses the question to both candidates, and Obama turns his head to Clinton. Basically, his answer was ‘what she said’ plus the anecdote about Bush seeing Putin’s sole that is soooo played. I still maintain that Obama would be better for US-Russia Relations for the reasons I touched on here. So how could have Obama answered in a more ‘realistic and effective’ way? How about this, assuming Obama knows nothing about Russia:

  • Well, Tim, my first trip abroad as a U.S. Senator was to Russia and other former Soviet states. I went with Republican Senator Lugar and, as a result of our trip, we passed the Lugar-Obama nonproliferation initiative, which was an expansion of the existing Nunn-Lugar program. I think we can and should cooperate with Russia in these critical areas where we agree. At the same time, we need to continue to voice our opinion in areas where we have concerns. Finally, we should try to build effective relationships with both Putin and Medevedev in this respect.

The candidates – one of whom is likely to be the next President – need to realize that repeating screaming NYT headlines will not ‘shame’ Russia into a receptive frame of mind. The desperate need to move beyond Cold War-era thinking and posturing is more apparent than ever. David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote an excellent editorial on this the other day. His main point is that Obama’s inexperience is actually an asset because what we have been doing has not been effective. I agree with this conclusion. Too often commentators frame foreign policy savvy in a technical way, as if the President himself makes tactical decisions regarding diplomacy and military matters. I would argue it’s much more important to have a ‘big ideas’ President who understands the moment we are in, who can clearly see the world as it is now, not as it was 25 years ago. And our policy towards Russia is a perfect example of this failure of vision.

This entry was posted in russia. Bookmark the permalink.