Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Retro 2: Kagan Bitin' My Style

Robert Kagan has a column in today's WaPo that picks up on the point I made yesterday in Retro, though, to be fair, he puts a finer edge on it. Here's an excerpt:

Throughout the past couple of years, however, the Bush administration has turned a blind eye to anti-democratic trends in Russia. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a strong statement against Putin's treatment of opponents last spring, and he expressed concerns about Putin's actions yesterday. But the White House has been relatively quiet. And the president's voice, the only one that really matters, has not yet been heard.

A great deal is riding on whether President Bush can muster the will to denounce the man he has regarded as an ally in the war on terrorism. Some will argue, and Bush may feel, that Putin is "with us." But now Bush needs to make a different calculation. Putin is not really "with us." With Russians confronting vicious terrorists, Putin is consolidating his own power. How, exactly, does that help us win the war on terrorism?

In fact, it will hurt. Failure to take sides with democratic forces in Russia will cast doubt on Bush's commitment to worldwide democracy. A White House official commented to the New York Times that Putin's actions are "a domestic matter for the Russian people." Really? If so, then the same holds for all other peoples whose rights are taken away by tyrants. If the Bush administration holds to that line, then those hostile to democracy in the Middle East will point to the glaring U.S. double standard; those who favor democracy in the Middle East will be discredited. That will be a severe blow to what Bush regards as a central element of his war on terrorism.

Nor should the president and his advisers doubt that vital U.S. interests are at stake in the Russian struggle. Fighting the war on terrorism should not and cannot mean relegating other elements of U.S. strategy and interests to the sidelines. A dictatorial Russia is at least as dangerous to U.S. interests as a dictatorial Iraq. If hopes for democratic reform in Russia are snuffed out, Russia's neighbors in Eastern and Central Europe will be rightly alarmed and will look to the United States for defense.

And there is an even more fundamental reality that the president must face: A Russian dictatorship can never be a reliable ally of the United States. A Russian dictator will always regard the United States with suspicion, because America's very existence, its power, its global influence, its democratic example will threaten his hold on power.

Finally, there is the matter of the Russian people themselves. Did the United States help undo Soviet communism only to watch as tyranny takes its place? Is that the legacy President Bush wants to leave behind?

Much depends on what Bush does and says in the coming days. No one should imagine there are any easy answers. If Bush denounces Putin, we will pay a price. If he goes further, as he should, and begins taking tangible actions in the economic and political spheres to express U.S. disapproval of Putin's latest moves, we may suffer a loss of Russian cooperation. These are chances we will have to take, however.

Perhaps in the face of global pressure, led by the United States but including Europe, Putin might feel compelled to back down. In any case, President Bush needs to try. He must remain true to his stated principles, both for the sake of principle and for the sake of U.S. interests.

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