Romney and Russia and Around We Go

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by Casey_Michel on 3/29/2012 · 1 comment

I don’t want to spend too much time dissecting Mitt Romney’s war-path to the presidency — the one that’s tarred anything he’s touched, and dropped his unfavorability numbers to record lows — because A) I’d hate to alienate any secret Romneycons among my friends, and B) while I do have enough time, I’d rather spend it transcribing minor league interviews, or clipping my toenails, or practicing my Russian case-endings for the seventieth time today. That is to say, I’d like to avoid entering the GOP’s rabbit hole of un-reason, and continue on with my life.

But there are some things that are too good to pass up.

This week served one of those instances. After Obama’s nontroversial ‘hot mic’ comments — the one in which he’d proffer to Dmitri Medvedev more flexibility post-election — many opponents took it to mean that Obama was playing mere lip service to standing firm on missile defense. That he would waver like the milquetoast namby-pamby he actually was. That he was, once more, selling out America to its most fiendish foes.

To which I say: Welcome to realpolitik, the world of back-room pragmatism and diplomatic derring-do. Obama was no more selling out American defense than he was strapping his dog to the roof of his car. He was — a bit arrogantly, maybe, but also a bit earnestly — simply explaining his current negotiating footing to his political counterpart, moving beyond the half-baked photo-ops and into the world of reality. It may have been considered a Kinsley gaffe, but it was far from being as revelatory as, say, Sarkozy’s Netanyahu bash … though not nearly as hilarious as Biden’s BFD.

The subsequent affrontery, of course, is fallacious, more manufactured outrage at a political non-event. The man was simply explaining his pragmatic position, not selling state secrets. He was right, after all: One’s political capital bumps up considerably after a second-term election. (That is, so long as you don’t find a too-curvy intern, or plunk your country in two unwinnable wars.) As such, in terms of gay rights, civil liberties, or, yes, foreign policy, Obama will have greater leeway come Dec. 2012 than he shares right now. That’s simply the nature of the (small-r) republican beast.

Anyway, among the obstreperous responses came one in particular, the one which makes you shake your head like, well, like an Etch-a-Sketch. Romney, all blunderbuss and Bryl-cream, decided that Obama’s fraternizing with the Russkies is a step too far. Thus, he offered this nugget:

‘[Russia is] without question our number one geopolitical foe.’

He goes on to say that Russia “fight[s] every cause for the world’s worst actors,” citing recent pro-Syrian vetoes and Iranian support as evidence that the Kremlin is under-mining American efforts and underwriting America’s enemies at every turn. Romney tethers Putin and the Kremlin to Caracas, to Beijing, to Waziristan and Havana and Damascus, claiming that Moscow has opted for subterfuge at every turn. He believes that Moscow, more than Pyongyang, more than Islamabad, more than Tehran, is somehow — “without question — our top political foe.

This rhetoric … this rhetoric’s revolting, really. I don’t say this from a personal standpoint — the Russians I know, here and abroad; the language and history I’ve learned; the lives I’ve led. Rather, I say this from a purely geopolitical stance. If Russia-is-the-new-evil catches as a bromide — if our neocons are somehow shifting from the Middle East outward, scoping the last vestiges of international independence — then that’s, at the least, worrying. And it could be so much more. As we’ve seen in the last decade, foreign policy constructed around such hyperbole can only lead to overreach and overspending — or doesn’t Romney remember Iraq? The misreading of the political tea-leaves, the fact that this claim found sympathetic ears in many an American corner, the reality that these Cold War hangers-on still exist: it’s dispiriting, crass, and revolting. It’s a shame.

And it is, of course, as imbecilic as you can find. (Or perhaps not, in this election.) In a brief parsing of Moscow’s foreign policy, you’ll find that Medvedev/Putin, while far from the Merkozy friends west of the Danube, aren’t exactly the Sauron and Saruman – the Brezhnev and Kosygin – of yore. Yes, Moscow and Beijing have vetoed the UN resolutions on Syria, and yes, Russia’s supplied Syria with 72% of its arms from 2007-11. But in comparison with the US-sanctioned crackdowns in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — even forgoing mention of the Greater Israel occupation of Palestinian lands — and the continued occupation of Afghanistan, it’s not as if Russia’s gone out of its way to exhibit belligerency or protectionism. Yes, the base at Tartus and the arms deals are likely driving the intransigence, but even in recent days Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called for peaceable talks to resume between the two Syrian sides. Libya, and NATO’s purported overreach, still hang stale in the air, and while strong-men like Assad stand low on any sympathy ladder, there’s always something to be said about international border. Russia, at the least, recognizes this (perhaps antiquated) fact, and it’s fair justification for concern.*

*Abkhazia and South Ossetia notwithstanding, of course.

Likewise, Russia withholds support of an Iranian campaign due to the same argument found in Syria — protecting international boundary. However, one need only imagine the oil revenue Russia would reap should Israel/America begin a bombing campaign to understand why Moscow won’t have Iran’s back until the Persian cows come home. And that’s not even considering the bubbling rivalry between Russia and Iran over holdings in the Caspian, with both countries slowly beginning a naval race for strength. (Though there is Russian room for opposition to war: Fears exist of refugees racing through the Caucuses, and, should a pro-west Iran emerge, it could theoretically funnel Turkmenistan’s and Kazakhstan’s oil through, forgoing the Russian hegemon. Gamble either way, I suppose.) So while Russia currently opts for a peaceful, bring-talks-to-the-table path — which is, after all, what nearly 70% of Americans would prefer — they’re far from the Ayatollah’s largest backers. And for Romney to say they are somehow “fighting [Tehran’s] cause” is abjectly thick-skulled, and depressingly predictable.

That’s not to say the Kremlin is the chum the US has always we wanted. (“Uncle Joe” was, unfortunately, a propagandist misnomer.) The missile defense row is ongoing. The horrors of the Northern Caucuses haven’t abated; meddling in Central Asian affairs – look at Manas, look at the EAU – has prevented the US from landing any firm toe-holds; and the war with Georgia (even though, contra John McCain, these defenseless Georgians actually started the fighting) was a blight on both parties. Moscow runs war exercises with Venezuela, regularly bullies Ukrainian and Belorussian — and, by extent, the rest of Europe’s — interests, and, in Putin’s case, runs atrociously anti-American campaigns, the likes of which are regularly seen only in Tehran’s halls. And that’s not including the treatment of journalists, political opposition, or middle-class marchers plying nothing but democratic desires.

So, yeah, Moscow’s had a fair shake of anti-Washington sentiment. But to call them our No. 1 enemy? Has Romney’s pandering really fallen this far? Has he forgotten the nuclear disarmament deals recently struck? Has he forgotten the Russia’s willingness as mediator in North Africa? Is Chinese belligerence somehow lessened? Is the Iranian nuclear threat somehow forgotten? Has he not read a foreign policy piece since 1983?

Dmitri Medvedev — he of iPads and Twitter, as produced as Romney but viewed by nowhere near as despicably by his constituents — came out with the choicest, most delightful words in response:

Regarding ideological clichés, every time this or that side uses phrases like ‘enemy number one’, this always alarms me, this smells of Hollywood and certain times [of the past]. I would recommend all U.S. presidential candidates … do two things. First, when phrasing their position one needs to use one’s head, one’s good reason, which would not do harm to a presidential candidate. Also, [one needs to] look at his watch: we are in 2012, and not the mid-1970s.

Indeed, Romney seems to have read too many Jack Ryan tropes recently. His comment stands as another step in his rightward fall, and serves as more of the GOP’s foreign policy gaucherie, be it Newt’s scatterbrain or Santorum’s bomb-or-bust campaign. (Can you imagine how sane Ron Paul’s come to look through all of this?) It’s another foot in his mouth, another laugh-at-that-gaffe moment that’s enjoyed too many already. It hails the GOP’s obsession with Reagan, in an era the Gipper would have hardly recognized. It’s amazing, really. And it is, perhaps, one more reason why experts believe that America’s No. 1 enemy isn’t Russia, China, or even Iran — but, at the end of the day, itself.

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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{ 1 comment }

Will O'Roark March 29, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Casey as usual I find myself partaking in your stellar discussion topics whether it be in an shabby sanitarium in Almaty or via Registran. Romney’s comments have reinforced a ‘status quo’ early 1990’s-esque evaluation of US – Russian foreign policy. While US and Russian interests differ to an extent, these hawkish comments are a return to Cold-War hysteria that the United States must wane itself off of before it’s too late.

Political culture and post-Soviet culture at large are different animals than European social justice or American hyper-capitalism. If the United States wants to maintain any sort of hegemony or international clout in coming years it must come to accept Asian and Eurasian state capitalism to an extent to maintain and expand it’s interests in the Near East and the Eurasian sub-continent. Even while political instability remains a major concern in Putin’s reelection and Central Asian republics look to double down on free trade agreements with there former colonial power, the United States and it’s energy and supply chain industries must remain in the loop with emerging markets throughout Asia and the fledgling Central Asian markets. To accomplish these pay-offs requires walking a dichotomous tightrope. Rapid political reform in the former Soviet Union should not be expected and with serious risk-prone investment in Europe still lingering, the United States must come to respect the emergence of a multiple pole of the globalized economy, coming in the form of substantial economic growth within former Soviet space.

As the general global economy has begun to fracture into multiple economic enclaves the United States must be willing to work with ‘economic neighborhoods’ it had found in the past as unsuitable to work with.

Russia, like China, maintains a policy standard of indirect intervention at the international level that suits the economic interests of their respective countries while minimally interfering with the sovereign issues of ‘enemy’ or suspect nations to Western hegemony.

We as Americans must remember that Russia geopolitical and economic policy is drastically different then our own. Rather than distancing ourselves from a potential thaw and allowing for a break in group think that stagnates our foreign policy into indecision, we must come to accept our difference of political approach and build on the minimal economic strides we have made with Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Whether it’s Medvedev, Putin or a fledgling bureaucrat coming up through the ranks of United Russia we must be mindful of Russia’s political history and political culture which has favored ‘zero-sum’ conservatives with an ideological bend toward super-presidentialism that we as ‘government-weary’ Americans could never stomach. This shouldn’t be a deterrent that we should disregard as a return to Communism but an alternative lense of how to view governance. That being said we should recognize the pitfalls of such a lense and learn from it like we should learn from the pitfalls of our system of governance.

Romney’s comments are ignorant and have no place in current foreign policy development and implementation for the United States. As both nations shed Cold War tensions we must be mindful of the fact that while the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States lost a key ‘competitor’ that spurred incentives for progress. Ironically with the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union came the unfettered hubris of capitalism, which was hailed as the de facto economic paradigm for the West and it’s allies. Without a competitive alternative to this system the West and the United States in particular has lost direction in how to proceed. In some sense we had no victory exit strategy and our former ‘foe’ has created a hybrid alternative to the United States that we view as dangerous.

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