Inaugural Impressions and Obama Administration Profile: Michael McFaul


After braving the fu#$ing cold DC weather to watch President Obama’s inauguration, here are some choice passages from Obama’s speech that have possible Russia implications:

  • “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat…”
  • “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

I was especially intrigued by the last sentence, which at first glance almost seems Bush-like in its logic – i.e., that we will help anyone who conforms to a standard of conduct that we find acceptable. On the other hand, considered in the context of his other foreign policy statements, the message appears to be different. Rather, it is a promise that, if a country like Russia does change behavior that we have criticized, we will not use it for political gain or propaganda purposes. The line about blaming the West is almost certainly a reference to Putin’s recent statements that the West (read ‘U.S.’) is responsible for Russia’s economic malaise. I thought the following line about being judged for what is built and not what is destroyed was effective at reinforcing his point, specifically as an implicit reference to the adoption of performance-based legitimacy in many autocratic states over the past few years. Ultimately, the President’s speech did what was essential – show that, while Obama’s election was a repudiation of Bush, it was not a repudiation of American leadership and involvement in the world. It will be interesting to gauge the reaction from abroad over the next few days.

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In celebration of President Obama’s Inauguration, I thought it might be appropriate to profile one of the more recently-announced members of Obama’s foreign policy team:

Name: Michael McFaul
Current Post: Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) for International Studies at Stanford University; Fellow at the Hoover Institute; Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Administration Post: Senior Director, Russian Affairs at the National Security Council; Special Assistant to the President
Recent Publications/Testimony/Articles: Testimony on the Russia-Georgia conflict in front of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (PDF transcript here); Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine’s Democratic Breakthrough; “The Myth of the Authoritarian Model”; Testimony at House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing entitled “Russia: Rebuilding the Iron Curtain” (PDF transcript here).

McFaul’s appointment has already generated protests from the left, which considers him to be a “neo-Cold Warrior” and a “neoconservative.” As most leftists are not active Russia-watchers, this judgment probably stems from an identical criticism penned in The Nation during the campaign. The article is pretty harsh, and generally argues that McFaul is intent on provoking conflict with Russia (e.g., through NATO expansion) and that he focuses narrowly on Russia’s authoritarian tendencies under Putin. Surprisingly – especially for someone advising a presidential candidate – McFaul responded to and pointed out several un- and mistruths contained in the article. Importantly, McFaul pointed out that he never advised nor even met with President Bush. Also, McFaul defended his scholarship and views on Russia, specifically that he has both lamented “democratic erosion in Russia” as well as argued “why engagement — not containment or isolation–is the only strategy for addressing this issue or many other issues in US-Russian relations more generally.” Finally, McFaul attacked the assertion that his own ideas on Russia must or even could or should be imputed to now President Obama. I do think this is a significant point – as I’ve noted before, President Obama has demonstrated a more pragmatic approach with regards to Russia (i.e., ‘voicing where we disagree, but working where we agree’).

I think McFaul’s self-defense is strong and convincing – he is no neocon Bush advisor and definitely is not an ideological hack – his whole career has focused on Russia, and during that time he has expressed a thoughtful and nuanced understanding of Russia’s domestic politics and of US-Russian relations. McFaul’s analysis is also not burdened by the Russophobic and/or anti-Soviet mindsets that are common in Washington’s foreign policy elite.

Thus, I think McFaul was a good choice as Senior Director for Russian Affairs at the NSC. More importantly, his appointment is significant as there were rumors a few weeks ago that the Obama Administration would eliminate this position, and instead put Russia under the Europe heading as it is in both the State Department and Department of Defense. Such a change would not only have infuriated Russia (to what benefit?), but also it is simply illogical to treat Russia as one of many ‘European’ issues in the national security realm. Also, if Russia was considered a part of Europe, it would destroy the infinitely useful ‘Old Europe’/’New Europe’ distinction introduced by Don Rumsfeld in 2003.

Here are some interviews with McFaul over the past few years:

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