Don't Blacklist Russia

December 9, 2010 Topic: Human Rights Region: United States Blog Brand: Jacob Heilbrunn

Don't Blacklist Russia

Isolating Russia over human-rights concerns will only backfire. And it's not like America's record has been stellar over the last decade, either.

The Washington Post is urging the Obama administration to start a new cold war. In a pungent December 5 editorial titled "Mr. Putin's show trial," the Post demanded that the Obama administration consider placing up to 60 Russian officials on a blacklist to punish Moscow for its judicial system. The result would be to destroy any nascent warming of ties between the two countries.

According to the Post,

A ready vehicle is at hand: Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, has proposed that the State Department impose visa sanctions on 60 Russian officials implicated in the death in prison of a lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. A committee of the European Parliament recently endorsed similar action. The Obama administration could send a clear message to the Russian elite by sanctioning all those officials involved in the persecution of Mr. Khodorkovsky, Mr. Magnitsky and other victims of lawlessness. A Russia where "political enemies are eliminated with impunity" cannot be a reliable partner for the United States.

The Post is right to condemn Russia's justice system, which barely merits the name, at least when it comes to high-profile cases.  But it's hard to see how creating a separate watchlist for Russian officials is going to remedy the problem. Russia isn't a partner of the United States. But it can at times be a helpful comrade.

There are two obvious drawbacks in calling for targeting Russian officials. First, Russia is not Iran. It is not deaf to American concerns. It is not aiding terrorists; instead, it is working together with the United States to prevent new attacks. Nor is this all. It is cooperating, or has promised to cooperate, with NATO if the New START treaty is approved by the Senate, on missile defense. Isolating Russia and trying to humiliate it will only backfire. The same approach, incidentally, could be tried with China, which also conducts show trials. But if the internal justice system of a foreign country is the only measure by which America assesses its relations abroad, then it's going to be quite a lonely superpower.

There is a second, and perhaps weightier, problem. It is that America's own human rights decade over the past decade has been an insalubrious one. A signal example comes in a new WikiLeaks cable which reveals that American officials exerted enormous pressure on Germany not to insist upon the extradition of 13 CIA operatives who were implicated in the "rendition," i.e. kidnapping, in December 2003 of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who traveled to Macedonia, as part of the war on terror. He turned out to have absolutely nothing to do with terrorism, but that didn't prevent him from being tortured and sodomized, in Afghanistan and, eventually, dumped on an isolated road in Albania. The case is a standing disgrace to the United States, testament to the Bush administration's sinister black sites prison program.

According to the New York Times' Michael Slackman:

intense political pressure from Washington was the reason that Germany never pressed for the arrest and extradition of 13 operatives believed to be from the C.I.A. who were ultimately charged in indictments issued in Spain and in Munich.

“I am not surprised by this,” said Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of the Green bloc in Parliament who then sat on the legislative
investigative committee. “It was confirmed once again that the U.S. government kept the German government” from seeking the arrest of the agents.

In one cable, written before Mr. Koenig’s warning to Germany’s deputy national security adviser, the embassy in Berlin reported that diplomatic officials had “continued to stress with German counterparts the potential negative implications for our bilateral relationship, and in particular for our counter-terrorism cooperation, if further steps are taken to seek the arrest or extradition of U.S. citizens/officials.”

It also appears that American officials have been meddling in German politics. Parliamentarians in the Free Democratic Party, the junior coalition partner of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, are calling upon the United States to withdraw its ambassador to Berlin, Philip Murphy. Murphy apparently met with foreign minister Guido Westerwelle's office manager, Helmut Metzner, who has now been dismissed by the Free Democrats, to examine internal party documents about coalition negotiations and to discuss Free Democratic party chief and foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. In the WikiLeaks cables, Murphy declares that Westerwelle is "arrogant, vain, and critical of America."

Judging by America's actions over the past decade, there is a lot to criticize.