The announcement that the US Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Michael McFaul, will resign after the Olympic Games in Sochi comes just over two years after he assumed the post. At the time, his appointment was greeted with enthusiasm from his many admirers in the Washington foreign-policy establishment. The prevailing view was captured in a fawning profile in the pages of Foreign Policy in which he was described as a ‘brilliant scholar’; as ‘a man of profound intellectual and personal integrity’; and ‘with his shock of blond hair, Hollywood handsome.’
The reaction to the appointment among the professionals over at Foggy Bottom was somewhat less ecstatic. Those familiar with McFaul's work as the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs noted with disdain that it was he who was responsible for the memorable ‘reset’ button flub which saw Secretary Clinton hand a ‘reset’ button to the Russian foreign minister that was instead labeled with the Russian word for ‘overcharge.’
Worse was the perception among some career officers that McFaul out-maneuvered the sitting Ambassador to gain the post in Russia. As 2012 approached, the assumption at State was that the widely respected John Beyrle would be reappointed as Washington's man in Moscow. By all accounts Beyrle had excellent relations with his counterparts in the Russian government and was widely admired by the Embassy staff. The speculation is that McFaul, as the 2012 elections approached, was uncertain of Obama's reelection chances and persuaded the President to unceremoniously drop the experienced and long-serving Foreign Service officer Beyrle and appoint him in Beyrle’s stead.
The incident involving the reset button was a preview of what was to come as McFaul settled into his new position. A similar language-related snafu occurred during his first months in office when he tweeted that he would soon ‘be in Yoburg for the InnoProm Exhibition.’ By ‘Yoburg’ he meant Yekaterinburg, but as some of his Russian critics gleefully pointed out, the American colloquial he used translates to ‘Fuckburg’ in Russian. Later on—this time in May 2013—while giving what was supposed to be a background press briefing during Secretary Kerry’s trip to Moscow, he blew his cover by telling the reporters, ‘Secretary Kerry will have a meeting with representatives from civil society at my home, at Spaso House.’ So much for staying on background.
To be sure, the reception accorded McFaul when he arrived in Moscow in February 2012 was disgraceful, and by all accounts he handled himself with dignity amidst the onslaught of negative and occasionally vile coverage in Russia’s state-controlled media. Not unreasonably, Western press reports at the time wondered if this presaged a coming crackdown on Russian civil society once Putin reassumed the Russian presidency a few months later. If that was part of the explanation, then the Putin’s likely reaction to having a democracy activist serving as US Ambassador forms the other part.
Here we should take a moment to consider what, if anything, President Obama was thinking when he decided to swap out John Beyrle for Michael McFaul. By the time the decision was reached, then-prime minister Putin surprised no one, except possibly Dmitry Medvedev, by announcing he would run for a third presidential term. It’s discouraging that no one in the White House or within the national-security apparatus thought to make the case against McFaul’s appointment based solely on his past scholarly work, journalism and testimony before Congress.
Perhaps they didn't have time or the appointment was extremely close-held, I do not know. In any event, even a cursory look through McFaul’s oeuvre would turn up titles such as 2001’s Russia's Unfinished Revolution or 2010’s Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can. And a sample of his journalistic output should have raised another red-flag over the appointment. In pieces that are easy enough to find, McFaul—in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2008—repeatedly went on the attack against fellow academics and Russia specialists who he deemed insufficiently hard on Vladimir Putin, referring to them as ‘Putin apologists.’ In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2007 he referred to Putin’s government as ‘Russia’s new autocratic regime.’
For twenty years McFaul had been a prolific and consistent promoter of the idea that Western democratic values, American-style capitalism, and Western norms with regard to press freedoms are universal and that it ought to be the goal of American statecraft to impose those norms on Russia. And if the Russian government wasn’t interested in this transformative project, America should engage directly with Russian ‘civil society’ instead. Indeed, writing in the Washington Post in 2000, McFaul was firmly of the opinion that ‘democracy in Russia is a precondition for cooperation.’
Did anyone at the White House think to say: “Mr. President, is this really the right person to send to Moscow at this time?” It seems no one did—and so what should have been entirely predictable came as a total surprise, and the relationship between the world’s two remaining nuclear superpowers deteriorated precipitously.
By the time Putin assumed office for the third time in May 2012, McFaul had been on the job for several months, and the reset had already begun to recede from the high-water mark set by the signing of New START agreement in April 2010. This is not to place the entire blame for the demise of the reset on the shoulders of Dr. McFaul. Indeed, as the architect of the reset policy, McFaul deserves much credit for rescuing the relationship from the gross mishandling to which it was subjected to under George W. Bush.
But his appointment as ambassador at the very time Putin was signaling a return to the Kremlin was a serious mistake made by a president who never has seemed to recognize the global ramifications of the US-Russian relationship. In appointing a well-meaning democracy activist/academic to lead Mission Russia, Mr. Obama was ill-served by both his own instincts and by his national-security team.
James W. Carden served as an advisor to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.