Rich Lowry: The Russian reset to nowhere

The “reset” with Russia had a brief, unhappy life. It began with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presenting her Russian counterpart with a mistranslated reset button reading “overcharged.” It ended with current Secretary of State John Kerry denying knowledge of the late, unlamented policy on “Meet the Press”: “Well, I don’t know what you mean by the reset.”

Memories are short in Foggy Bottom. And understandably. Who wouldn’t try to forget a geopolitical initiative that has been exposed as willful naivete and strategic obtuseness from the beginning?

George Kennan wrote the famous “Long Telegram” at the outset of the Cold War. President Barack Obama would have needed only “A Very Brief Telegram” at the outset of his administration: “Bush’s fault.”

This was a perverse misreading of history. Of all President George W. Bush’s failings, not giving the Russians a chance wasn’t one of them. He notoriously looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes at the beginning of his presidency and saw sweetness and light. By the end, his illusions were shattered by the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.

President Obama picked up like this Russian act of aggression had been perpetrated long ago by the Grand Duke of Muscovy, instead of by the very regime he was resetting with.

In a 2009 visit to Moscow, the springtime of reset, President Obama professed his belief “that Americans and Russians have a common interest in the development of rule of law, the strengthening of democracy, and the protection of human rights.” He was 0 for 3.

It didn’t take a student of Russian history, or of international relations or even of the model U.N., to know that this would end in ashes.

At one level, the Obama administration was guilty of the human impulse of wanting to see the world as you would like it to be rather than as it is.

At another, the president is not particularly interested in international relations. It was appropriate that one of his statements on the crisis came at an elementary school while announcing his latest budget, which reduces the U.S. Army to pre-World War II levels. Because we all know that we will never face an unexpected, unpredictable international crisis again.

This gets to the deeper ambition. The president thought Putin would help him manage an American stand-down from global leadership. Putin was happy to do so — on his own terms.

Whereas Obama has the left’s traditional discomfort with American power, Putin has no such guilty conscience. Whereas Obama believes we’ve entered a paradisiacal new period in history when everyone can be constrained by international norms, Putin has no such delusions.

Consider the New START treaty. According to nuclear expert Keith Payne, it didn’t require any cuts of deployed warheads or strategic launchers by Russia, which was already under the agreement’s limits, only by the United States.

Still, the administration treats the treaty as a signal triumph of American diplomacy. You can imagine Russian national-security analysts arguing over whether this is more pathetic or hilarious.

The attitudes behind the reset linger. John Kerry’s plaintive observation that the invasion of Crimea is “a 19th-century act in the 21st century” carries the quaint assumption that raw power politics and nationalist pride are things we left behind two centuries ago.

In a similar vein, President Obama said last week that Ukraine’s stability and success are “in Russia’s interest.” Not if you are Vladimir Putin and stung by the humiliation of the Russian empire’s diminishment after the end of the Cold War and informed by Catherine the Great’s belief that the only way to secure Russia borders is to extend them.

President Obama declares that Russia is on the wrong side of history. That may be a clinching argument in a debate over gay marriage at Wesleyan University, but won’t carry much weight with Putin. He thinks he can make history move with lies, thuggery and iron.

It’s now Obama’s challenge to prove him wrong.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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