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Epiphanies from Jack Matlock

Epiphanies from Jack Matlock

The post-Cold War order that reigned over Eastern Europe for more than two decades is cracking — some might even say shattering. In Kiev, the tumultuous Maidan revolution gave birth to a fragile new government, and Ukraine is still teetering on the verge of civil war. The Crimean peninsula now belongs to Russia, which has also massed troops for months along Ukraine’s eastern border. And amid the chaos, Washington and Moscow have relentlessly traded angry insults over which of them is to blame for the unrest. Indeed, relations between the United States and Russia have arguably reached their lowest point since the fall of the Soviet Union.

As Jack Matlock sees it, the situation likely could have been avoided: From 1987 to 1991, Matlock was the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, where he had a front-row seat to the end of the Cold War, and he sees current tensions as largely the result of poor policy choices in the intervening decades. Foreign Policy spoke with Matlock in June about U.S.-Russia diplomacy, NATO expansion, and whether all the furious criticisms of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy hold water.

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The Ukraine crisis was a product, in large part, of the policy of indefinite expansion of NATO to the east. If there had been no possibility of Ukraine ever becoming part of NATO, and therefore Sevastopol becoming a NATO base, Russia would not have invaded Crimea. It is as simple as that.

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Americans have lived for nearly two centuries with the Monroe Doctrine. Why don’t we understand that other countries are sensitive about military bases from potential rivals not only coming up to their borders, but taking land which they have historically considered theirs? These are extremely emotional issues — issues that are made to order for any authoritarian ruler that wants to strengthen his rule.

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It was our goal in 1991 to try to keep the republics of the Soviet Union, other than the three Baltic states, together in some sort of federation. We didn’t force the breakup of the Soviet Union. To think that you can just treat the states as if they were traditionally independent countries with a sort of a hands-off relationship to each other is simply absurd.

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The basic concept of the Obama administration’s "reset" had the flaw that the United States continued to, quote, "support democratic forces within Russia." What Vladimir Putin believes is that the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia were plots actually organized by the CIA and that the United States is trying to do the same thing in Russia. When people started demonstrations in Moscow the year before last and Washington made it publicly clear it was dismayed by Putin coming back into the presidency — that was not very smart diplomacy. You may not like him, but you shut up if you’ve gotta deal with the guy.

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In the case of Syria, there was a definite difference of opinion about what the impact of trying to remove Bashar al-Assad would be. The Russians were convinced that al Qaeda would seize a good part of the territory. So the idea that they are helping keep Assad in power: Yes, they are! They are afraid of what would happen to the country. They have pointed out that America didn’t do all that well in Iraq, invading it. We haven’t done all that great in Libya. Why the hell do we want to keep on? The American people certainly don’t want us to. But you have almost a clique in Washington that just can’t look at any atrocity in the world without wanting the United States to get involved militarily.

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I think Obama is moving in the right direction in general. I’m with his foreign policy about 80 percent, and most of the criticism of him, I think, has been quite unfounded — these ridiculous investigations over Benghazi and now over the prisoner release. I’m almost ashamed of our politics. Obama is handling those things as well as he can.