Arizona Senator John McCain sharply attacked the Obama administration’s foreign policy as partially responsible for the advance of Russian forces into Ukraine.
“Why do we still care?” McCain asked rhetorically. “Because this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in American strength anymore.”
And House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Obama was playing marbles, while Russian President Vladimir Putin played chess
It’s clear that the American Right–long aching for a chance to lob nuclear missiles at the former Soviet Union–is itching for the chance to do so now.
Yet America’s frustrations with Russia generally–and Vladimir Putin in particular–long predate those of Barack Obama.
A major reason for this: America’s dealings with Russia have not always been as wise as they should have been.
In his memoir, Duty, Robert M. Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, candidly writes:
“I shared with [President Bush] my belief that from 1999 onward, the West, and particularly the United States, had badly underestimated the magnitude of Russian humiliation in losing the Cold War and then the dissolution of the Soviet Union….
“The arrogance, after the collapse, of American government officials, academicians, businessmen, and politicians in telling the Russians how to conduct their domestic or international affairs…had led to deep and long-term resentment and bitterness.”
Convincing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to allow a united Germany to enter NATO proved a major success, asserts Gates.
But moving quickly–after the collapse of the Soviet Union–to incorporate many of its former members into NATO was a serious mistake.
“U.S. agreements with Romanian and Bulgarian governments to rotate [American] troops through bases in those countries was a needless provocation (especially since we never deployed the 5,000 troops in either country.”
Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, further notes that the United States later made an even worse mistake:
“Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching. The roots of the Russian Empire trace back to Kiev in the ninth century, so that was an especially monumental provocation.
“Were the Europeans, much less the Americans, willing to send their sons and daughters to defend Ukraine or Georgia? Hardly.
“So NATO expansion was a political act, not a carefully considered military commitment.”
This “undermined the purpose of the alliance” and recklessly ignored “what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.”
During the Cold War, says Gates, the United States carefully took Soviet interests into account. This was necessary to avoid military conflict between the world’s biggest nuclear superpowers.
But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, “we did not take Russian interests seriously. We did a poor job of seeing the world from their point of view, and of managing the relationship for the long term.”
Of course, relations between the United States and post-Soviet Russia were not helped by the naievity of President George W. Bush.
In June 2001, Bush and Vladimir Putin met in Slovenia. During the meeting a truly startling exchange occurred.
Putin, a former KGB Intelligence officer, had clearly done his homework on Bush. When he mentioned that one of the sports Bush had played was rugby, Bush was highly impressed.
“I did play rugby,” said Bush. “Very good briefing.”
But more was to come.
BUSH: Let me say something about what caught my attention, Mr. President, was that your mother gave you a cross which you had blessed in Israel, the Holy Land.
PUTIN: It’s true.
BUSH: That amazes me, that here you were a Communist, KGB operative, and yet you were willing to wear a cross. That speaks volumes to me, Mr. President. May I call you Vladimir?
Putin instantly sensed that Bush judged others–even world leaders–through the lens of his own fundamentalist Christian theology.
Falling back on his KGB training, Putin seized on this apparent point of commonality to build a bond. He told Bush that his dacha had once burned to the ground, and the only item that had been saved was that cross.
“Well, that’s the story of the cross as far as I’m concerned,” said Bush, clearly impressed. “Things are meant to be.”
Afterward, Bush and Putin gave an outdoor news conference.
“Is this a man that Americans can trust?” Associated Press correspondent Ron Fournier asked Bush.
“Yes,” said Bush. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue.
“I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.”
Of course, no one from the Right is now recalling such embarrasing words.
It’s far more politically profitable to pretend that all of America’s tensions with Russia began with the election of Barack Obama.
And that those tensions will vanish once another Rightist President enters the White House.