No More Mr. Nice Guy
The sad end of Ambassador Michael McFaul's troubled tenure in Moscow.
Strange as it may seem, there is no tutorial for U.S. ambassadors that teaches them how not to look like fools. The State Department may have its courses on diplomatic protocol, and the White House its talking points on the best and least boat-rocking means of articulating U.S. foreign policy. But there’s a reason that our finest diplomats never learn how to project sangfroid and seriousness even in the face of unremitting hostility. That’s because these are traits that cannot really be taught. George Kennan, with his incisive and prescient observations about Stalinism, and Robert Schwarz Strauss, with his f-bomb-dropping stewardship of the post-Communist order, were to-the-manner-born and knew exactly what and whom they were up against. It may have also helped that neither of them tweeted.
The news on Tuesday, Feb. 4, that Michael McFaul, the headline-grabbing, social media-obsessed U.S. ambassador to Moscow, has decided to call it quits and return to the calmer quadrangles of Stanford University has been met with a characteristic public outpouring of praise for a job well done. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying that, among other things, "Mike has a clear-eyed understanding of the realities of diplomacy." Maybe, but Mike’s family seems to have an even clearer-eyed understanding of those realities — they got the hell out of Russia months ago, repairing to the family home in California, which prompted now-confirmed rumors of McFaul’s intent to join them imminently. Other emotions — principally sadness and relief — attend this diplomatic departure, even if these are to be kept decorously private for now.
The Kremlin, for instance, will be sad to see the nicest, most eager-to-please man to ever inhabit Spaso House quit the joint after only two years of floundering and squirming under the Kremlin’s systematic, Vienna Convention-violating sadism. Since first landing in Moscow in January 2012, McFaul has been labeled by various Putinist mouthpieces as a spy, an agent provocateur trying to foment revolution (this on his first day, no less), and even a pedophile. Sometimes, it must be said, he fashioned a rod for his own back. McFaul once told a group of economics students at a Moscow university that the Kremlin had "bribed" Kyrgyzstan into booting the United States off the Manas airbase — a vital transport hub for troops and supplies into Afghanistan. (The statement was true, but the Russian Foreign Ministry was not amused.) Just last week, he tweeted an ITAR-TASS article featuring his open invitation to Vladimir Putin to come and watch the Super Bowl with him at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, one of those many aw-shucks moments of Twitter diplomacy rendered unintentionally hilarious by the context. The only known association between the Russian president and American football was Putin’s alleged theft of Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s diamond-studded Super Bowl ring in 2005. But then, that was our Mike, ever willing to extend the hand of friendship even if its intended recipient could only return the gesture with a punch in the face or a pocketing of the jewelry.
McFaul had a style that was hard to account for or justify, as when he admitted, by way of an apology, that he was "not a professional diplomat." This, too, had the merit of being true; but what, it prompted many to wonder, was he doing in the most difficult diplomatic posting on the planet advertising as much? Or consider the campaign-styled YouTube video heralding his appointment as ambassador, in which McFaul was meant to present himself as a genial Russophile to his host nation, complete with folksy comparisons between Montana, where he grew up, and the Russian regions, where most Russians wish they hadn’t. He narrated this introduction, bizarrely, in English.
He did, however, save his bilingual fluency for pique rather than comity. McFaul was stalked so mercilessly by the state-run propaganda channel NTV — almost certainly with the assistance of Russian intelligence, which knew his schedule in advance and may have even bugged his phones — that he famously unleashed on a particularly aggravating red-haired correspondent after she buttonholed him outside the office of Lev Ponomaryov’s venerable For Human Rights, an NGO which has now been targeted under Putin’s "foreign agents" law. On a dreary, snowy day early in his tenure, she interrogated McFaul: Why was he there and what was he really up to? Here, that famous Montana permasmile (which always denoted to me a Bruce Banner-like volatility lying just beneath the surface) disappeared entirely. "[Y]ou guys are always with me," McFaul thundered, coatless, in the cold. "In my house! Are you not ashamed of this? You’re insulting your own country when you do this, don’t you understand?"
The NTV stoogette did understand, only too well, and this primetime gobbet of American dyspepsia was further sensationalized by McFaul’s follow-up comment that Russia was a "wild country" (dikaya strana), a slip that gave the state propagandist exactly what she came for. (He later apologized for this, too, saying lamely that he only meant NTV was "wild.")
The outburst led the Russian news cycle and even prompted a State Department rebuke of the Kremlin’s suspected surveillance methods, although it apparently did McFaul no favors with the staid old hands at Foggy Bottom, from whose ranks he never graduated and for whom such improvisational defiance was simply not done. The old hands were wrong, though. This was McFaul’s finest hour on the job — a mad-as-hell primal scream that told the truth of what it was like to live under the thuggishness and tedium of Putinism rather than dress it up remotely in impossible theoretical constructs. It was also the perfect moment for introspection in America’s approach to Russia because the most high-flown of those theoretical constructs was one of McFaul’s own devising. And here is where the relief factor of his resignation comes into play.
McFaul’s legacy will undoubtedly be the U.S.-Russian "reset," a policy which a few brave Beltway types still celebrate as an enduring triumph of statecraft. He was its principal architect and foremost exponent, first as the go-to Russianist on Obama’s National Security Council, then as ambassador. Yet the policy got off to a memorably bumpy start in 2009 when the word "reset" (perezagruzka) was mistranslated as "overload" (peregruzka) on a button which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented to a bemused Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a solecism that would prove accidentally correct. The reset was, in practice, a lot like a truck tipping over, or an elevator falling down a shaft, under the weight of an unbearable burden.
This is because it combined cynicism and naiveté simultaneously, beginning with the belief that the placeholder presidency of Dmitry Medvedev augured an era of substantive reform and that all Washington needed to get past the previous era of bad feelings with Moscow was endless dialogue, economic back-scratching, and bilateral commissions on PR-friendly issues such as civil society — something the Kremlin was only interested in destroying, not cultivating. (An early indicator of this was the appointment of chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov as the Russian co-chairman of a new working group on civil society, an act tantamount to placing a pit bull in charge of a nursery.) Most dangerously, however, the reset codified the lie that the Cold War was a thing of the past and that, after the bad old years of the Bush administration, Russia and the United States could finally cooperate with each other in a spirit of mutually-assured good faith.
So it was a bath of very cold water indeed for the man who, after the NTV "gotcha" and much else, confessed to Foreign Policy near the end of his ambassadorship’s first year: "What I did not anticipate, honestly, was the degree, the volume, the relentless anti-Americanism that we’re seeing right now. That is odd for us. Because we have spent three years trying to build a different relationship with this country. I mean, I’m genuinely confused by it."
That he was genuinely confused by it was precisely the problem.
No one is more disappointed with McFaul’s fundamental misapprehension of the Putin regime than Russian dissidents who have long believed, justifiably, that the Obama administration could care less about them because it prefers a transactional realpolitik ("a different relationship"), premised on trade and intermittent episodes of cooperation. Most of these episodes, from nuclear de-proliferation to Iran sanctions to the Syrian chemical disarmament agreement have lately proved subject to diminishing returns where they have not been completely vitiated by Russian provisos, foot-dragging, or outright double-crosses. Yet anti-Putin protestors never believed that McFaul could care less about them. He was always seen as their ally and champion to a degree that has many of them now wishing that some of that hysterical Kremlin propaganda had been legitimate.
His first official meeting in Moscow was — either famously or notoriously — with members of the opposition (even though it had been pre-scheduled and not intended to provoke the Kremlin); his first official tweet was directed at Alexey Navalny, now the undisputed leader of that opposition (here, though, it was all McFaul ad-libbing). He also, admirably, tweeted at Navalny during the verdict and sentence reading at the latter’s show trial for "embezzlement" last July: "Hi, I’m watching," this time in appropriate Russian. It may not have been "tear down this wall," but it’s hard to imagine a career diplomat saying anything to Putin’s arch-nemesis facing five years in the gulag.
Many of the dissidents now in the dock, under house arrest, or on probation will nevertheless be happy to see the back of an agonized pantomime that tried too hard to keep up appearances and navigate too many contradictions — a peregruzka embodied in statesman form. After all, McFaul made a name for himself as an academic pushing democratization and human rights in post-Soviet Russia and then wound up working for a president who sees these as obstacles, rather than objectives, of U.S. foreign policy. The irony could be bitterly disappointing.
A low point in his tenure was McFaul’s attempt, at an event held in Washington at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in March 2012, to enlist Navalny in the White House’s stated policy of "de-linking" the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment — a dated, Soviet-era piece of U.S. legislation that made trade with Russia contingent on Moscow’s human rights record — with the passage of the Magnitsky Act, an up-to-date piece of legislation that aimed to blacklist and sanction Russian officials accused of gross human rights abuses. (The act, named for the most famous Russian whistleblower of the Putin era who later, as a corpse, was subjected to his own perverse show trial, became law last year, in spite of not-so-subtle White House pressure to prevent this from happening.) The logic was simple. McFaul needed Jackson-Vanik repealed in order to complete Russia’s full accession to the World Trade Organization — a linchpin of the reset — and so he claimed at the Peterson event that Navalny was in favor of de-linkage too. Except that Navalny wasn’t.
The attempt back-fired catastrophically and earned McFaul a personal reprimand from Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov in the pages of the Wall Street Journal as well as an implicit rebuttal from Navalny, whom they quoted unambiguously on his views. McFaul’s real offense, however, was trying to co-opt an embattled dissident in order to sell the Obama administration’s agenda — a cardinal sin in diplomacy and one that still inspires winces among European diplomats who remember it. Every nice tweet, it seems, had a not-so-nice counterpart action.
McFaul said in that YouTube video in 2012 that he’d be coming to Moscow to "help Russians understand who Americans are, what we stand for, and what we seek in our relationship with Russia and the Russian people." Unfortunately, he’s leaving with the Russian media portraying America as a country that tortures orphans to death, brainwashes children into becoming homosexuals, supports al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East, eggs on neo-Nazis to overthrow the government of Ukraine, and otherwise behaves as both a bumbling colossus and a serially defrauded and discombobulated mug in world affairs.
U.S. diplomacy in Moscow is and always will be a difficult trade, not for the faint-of-heart, much less the sensitive bookworm. But trying too hard to be liked and to have your country esteemed at a time when such are not really feasible has a certain quaint American nobility to it, even if it is an enterprise that Saul Bellow would have rightly characterized as the Good Intentions Paving Company.