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>Obama Won Nothing In Russia

>The Russians Walked All Over Obama In Recent Trip

By Don White
When you go to a country soon after being elected, you don’t give away the store. But that’s what President Obama did. He got nothing, really, for eliminating 500 nuclear warheads from the U.S. arsenal. Russia was going to destroy some old nukes, anyway.

In the following story, in the small bold type I make jabs at our president for failing to watch out for America’s interests. He went to Russia like it would be another chance to shine personally, another holiday for Michelle and the kids, another cake walk to look good amongst the peasants. Well, it backfired and here’s how.____________________

Obama Puts Medvedev Ahead of Putin

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Forget the nuke deal, forget the speech, forget even the Russians’ lack of interest in Michelle: The real surprise of President Obama’s trip to Moscow this week was that he spent most of his time talking to the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and took only a couple of hours to pay a courtesy call on the Russian prime minister and former president, Vladimir Putin.

When you visit the home of a cute girl you hope to date and maybe eventually marry, you don’t spend all your time with the girl’s little brother watching demolition derby. Ignoring the girl on the other end of the sofa gets you nothing. That’s just a metaphor for what Obama did by pretty much ignoring the man who makes most of the big decisions in Russia, Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister and President Dmitry Medvedev’s mentor and strong-arm protector.

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Almost anywhere else in the world, this sort of thing would be a matter of protocol. Generally speaking, the American head of state spends most of his time with other heads of state when traveling abroad. Exceptions are made for those countries whose heads of state are monarchs or some other figurehead, in which case our president pays a courtesy call and then hangs around with the chancellor or prime minister. If Obama were following that pattern in Russia, he would have spent most of his time with Putin.

Yes, Medvedev is the president and, yes, the Russian constitution gives the president the lion’s share of power. But ever since his profoundly undemocratic election last year (following his selection by Putin and an orchestrated parody of a campaign), it has been abundantly clear that the Russian president is not in charge. After the invasion of Georgia last August, it was Putin, not Medvedev, who appeared on television and negotiated behind the scenes. And during the Ukrainian gas crisis this winter it was Putin, not Medvedev, who spoke for Russia. Those who have watched the two men together generally come away impressed by Medvedev’s exceptional deference to the prime minister. Someone who took part in a meeting with them some months ago told me afterward that Putin did all the talking while Medvedev took notes.

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In recent months, Medvedev has chosen to play a kind of “good cop” to Putin’s “bad cop,” giving an interview to the last remaining opposition newspaper; saying nice things about democracy and electoral reform; even smiling, on occasion, in photographs with foreign leaders. But none of this has resulted in profound changes in foreign policy, economic policy or human rights, leaving most observers inside and outside the country to assume that Medvedev is playing his part in an elaborate public relations campaign.

Isn’t it interesting that Medvedev and Obama seem to be cut out of the same cloth — presidents who seek attention but who don’t really matter too much.

The decision to focus the American president’s visit on Medvedev instead of Putin could therefore be what British civil servants call “very brave,” not least because if you don’t talk to the person who’s really in charge, you can’t expect to get much done.

At last, someone who agrees with me and a score of conservative writers. He didn’t expect to get much done and he didn’t get much done, did he? PR was his aim, but it backfired in Russia when Putin and, I suppose, Medvedev did not allow national television to give him a huge audience and the Russian people were non-pulsed and were not at all excited to see the first black American president and his first lady. “So what, they were saying.”

As I understand it, this decision (to spend more time with Medvedev) was made at least partly on pragmatic grounds: Meetings with Putin nowadays tend to turn into extended rants about Russia’s grievances (this week’s breakfast between Putin and Obama apparently being no exception), which doesn’t leave much time to pursue productive conversation. Putin wasn’t going to get into the subject of Russia’s recent military maneuvering on the Georgian border (thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks began exercising there at the end of June), and Medvedev can’t do anything about it anyway, so the Obama administration seems to have figured that there wasn’t much point in dealing with the issue. Instead, it dealt with less controversial subjects — such as nuclear arms reductions (which were mostly going to happen anyway) and rights for U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan to fly over Russian areas (nice, apparently, but not crucial) — that Medvedev might actually be able to sort out.

But what a great opportunity lost. Obama should have pressed Putin about the joint maneuvers Russian naval vessels have been having with the Hugo Chavez regime just 90 miles off our shores. He wasn’t there sightseeing or to show Michelle and the girls a good time at government expense.

He should also have discussed in no uncertain terms with Putin the massing of troops on Georgia’s borders in June. Now Obama comes off looking weak. It would be easy for the Russian leaders to interpret the lack of special talks with Putin about these subjects must mean Obama doesn’t care if Russia takes over an almost defenseless Georgia — a country that has all along wanted to be member of NATO, a nation that needs America’s help, both physical and moral, to keep Russia at bay. George Bush and the EU including French President Sarkozy were very forceful about the Russian invasion into sovereign Georgian territory, but apparently Obama doesn’t care.

Communication, man! It isn’t always in what you say but in how you act and how forceful you become. And Obama is supposed to be the Democrat’s answer to the Great Communicater, meaning Ronald Reagan? Hardly.

Putin, the strong man of Russia, now has every right to interpret this to mean that he could wrap this slender and naive new president around his little finger any time he wanted and do what he pleased.

That is just the opposite reaction from the one that George Bush gave him. Of course, we must realize that Obama has given other signs of weakness to the Russians, the Chinese, to Iran, and to North Korea — and also to Hamas about his determination to keep the North Koreans out of the South, to retaliate if he hits our territory or a friendly nation’s and to stand by Israel in case of attack. Strong words and a show of determination is needed, and our president once again missed an excellent opportunity.

Instead, he’s paranoid. He wants to “mend fences,” even if he has to criticize our own country as he frequently does.

The upside of this policy is that it might make Medvedev more powerful, though this is a rather naive and forlorn hope. The downside is that Putin might take offense at being ignored. But given that Putin appears to be generally offended all the time, no matter how often or how sweetly U.S. presidents talk to him, this latter concern seems rather beside the point.

In any case, this sort of chilly calculation is preferable to the carefully staged walks in the woods, bear hugs and holiday outings that characterized the Clinton-Yeltsin and Bush-Putin relationships. It also beats the lame “let’s press the reset button with Russia” metaphor that the Obama administration was using in its first few months in office. It’s absolutely true that the worst problems were not resolved this week and that everything hard — from Georgia to missile defense to Iran — has been left aside until further notice. But at least no one is pretending otherwise.

The problem with leaving it ’till later is that often we only get one chance of making impressions.

applebaumletters@washpost.com

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