What does the recent U.S.-Russian spy drama have in common with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s travels to Poland and Georgia and President Obama’s warm reception for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? If you said America’s mid-term congressional elections, you win the prize.
All three are largely politically motivated. Consider the facts. First, the best the United States could do was to charge the Russian agents with money laundering and failing to register as foreign agents—not with any actual espionage—something that demonstrates how little was at stake in the spy case. Especially when less than two weeks later, Washington gave them back to Russia.
Second, while the Obama administration maintains that the exchange was a good deal, the four men freed in exchange for the newly arrested spies had already spent years in Russian jails and, as a result, are unlikely to provide much intelligence value to the U.S. government. In fairness, to give credit where credit is due, once the White House decided to de-escalate, CIA Director Leon Panetta and Under Secretary of State William Burns worked effectively to bring down the curtain on the drama and move forward. Yet the swap was clearly a convenient way to end the scandal, not the reason behind the arrests.
Third, the administration argues that law enforcement professionals decided to arrest the ten Russian agents out of fear that some of the suspects could leave the United States. This—and the patient and successful work of law enforcement agencies in exposing the spy ring, suggesting that they aimed at prosecution, not a deal—is further evidence that the Vienna exchange was not planned in advance. The execution of the swap likewise demonstrates its origins in politics rather than security by exposing a fundamental contradiction between the two. If the United States did not need meaningful interrogations of the spies, then why arrest them? On the other hand, if interrogation was important, why release them so quickly?
Let’s get real. The president and his friend and confidant Attorney General Eric Holder have considerable latitude in deciding whom to prosecute. They decided not to bring charges against Black Panthers accused of intimidating voters. And they have taken a rather relaxed approach to illegal immigrants, to the extent that the administration is suing the State of Arizona.
So the president and the attorney general surely had the option of not arresting agents of a “friendly power,” as Mr. Obama has been portraying Russia, with whom his administration is trying to develop closer cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan and other national-security concerns that threaten American lives. In fact, President Obama could easily have told his friend Dmitry Medvedev during a quiet moment at the recent White House summit that he would be prepared to let the spies and their diplomatic contacts leave quickly and quietly—but that Medvedev would really “owe” him and should start by releasing several people important to the United States from Russian jails. Why, then, were we treated to this public soap opera?
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that the action “sends a clear signal to, not only Russia, but other countries that will attempt this, that we are on to them.” Is releasing the agents after just eleven days without even properly interrogating them or exposing the Russian diplomats that acted as their control officers really going to send a strong signal to Vladimir Putin and his associates to stop spying? Not a chance.
More likely, the White House wanted to send a “clear signal” to its domestic audience—also the apparent goal of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tough talk in Warsaw and Tbilisi and President Obama’s nice talk with Mr. Netanyahu.
Mrs. Clinton strongly condemned Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, calling it an “invasion and occupation” and dismissing the State Department’s and the European Union’s earlier term “disproportionate use of force” “as if there is a proportionate use to, you know, occupy other countries’ territory.” She also pledged U.S. support to bring the lost territories back into Georgia’s fold. Yet she did not actually promise the new weapons requested by President Mikheil Saakashvili, nor did she suggest that Russian concessions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a precondition for its membership into the World Trade Organization. This is why the Russian government has taken a rather benign view of Secretary Clinton’s rhetoric, portraying it as meaningless encouragement to Central and East Europeans primarily for domestic political consumption in America. Russian expert Andranik Migranyan wrote the same in recent commentary on The National Interest Online, stating that as far as Moscow was concerned, “it was pretty clear this time around that the secretary of state was grandstanding for a domestic-political audience.”
President Obama’s White House love fest with Mr. Netanyahu is in the same category, reflecting less administration policy than political campaigning—seeking to deprive Republican House and Senate candidates of an opportunity to attack the administration and their electoral opponents for insufficient support of Israel. As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote recently, rather than hoisting an Israeli flag from Blair House during Mr. Netanyahu’s visit, “White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender” after Netanyahu “routed and humiliated” Obama in their dispute over settlements this spring.
In fairness, no president can be effective abroad if he loses support for his initiatives at home and some degree of foreign-policy politicking is inevitable. However, President Obama’s domestic agenda seems to be a higher priority that his international agenda—and subordinating foreign policy to domestic considerations to too great an extent will likely come at a cost.
So far, the Russian government has played it safe by claiming the spy exchange is evidence of a stronger relationship with America. However, deep down, Russian leaders know that President Obama has humiliated them, arresting the agents just days after President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Washington. And Russian skeptics of the reset have new ammunition to fire when arguing against accommodating American priorities.
In Georgia, highly visible support from Secretary Clinton may tempt President Mikheil Saakashvili—already excitable and prone to hearing what he wants to hear—to test his luck against Russia again, with unpredictable consequences. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may well conclude from President Obama’s strong public support that he has tamed the White House and that he can safely act contrary to U.S. preferences, whether in failing to stop the settlements, ignoring efforts to negotiate peace and an independent Palestinian state, or in unilaterally attacking Iran.
The administration needs to learn that good politics does not always make good policy.
Dimitri K. Simes is the publisher of The National Interest. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine.