Jackson Diehl believes the Obama administration should be more outspoken on behalf of foreign dissidents. At no point does Diehl bother to explain why he thinks condemning other governments’ crackdowns is useful or necessary. Perhaps he thinks the reasons are obvious, or perhaps there are no good reasons. Apparently, the administration should be doing this for no other reason than that Obama said so at his last General Assembly address. I suppose Diehl could fault Obama for not doing enough to follow through on a public pledge. After all, why did Obama say, “Don’t stand idly by, don’t be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protestors are beaten”? He knows as well as anyone that our idleness and silence may be more useful than our activity and complaints. When he said this, Obama effectively conceded to the critics of his response to the Iranian crackdown in 2009 that they had been right and he had been wrong, when it is quite clear that something much closer to the opposite is true.
Diehl is particularly annoyed that the U.S. is not doing more to help persecuted members of the Bahraini opposition. I can’t imagine how it is our government’s responsibility to help political dissidents in Bahrain, but at least as an allied state with which we have generally good relations Bahrain’s government might be receptive to our complaints. Then again, it is possible that the administration could be interceding for some of the dissidents privately, and it is possible that public hectoring of the Bahraini government would undermine such efforts by embarrassing the Bahrainis and forcing them to issue defiant demands that the U.S. mind its own business. What seems clear is that publicly denouncing a government’s crackdown will not end the crackdown, could intensify it, and might adversely affect U.S. interests in the process. Unless fruitless moral posturing that harms concrete American interests is the goal, I don’t see the point.
This brings me to Khodorkovsky. I don’t doubt that Khodorkovsky and Lebedev are being targeted for prosecution for political reasons, and I am under no illusions that the Kremlin would have ever cared about Khodorkovsky’s past corrupt dealings had he not tried to enter politics as an opponent of the Kremlin. So, yes, Khodorkovsky’s trial was politically-motivated, and I assume it was designed to send a message to any other ambitious tycoons that they should steer clear of political opposition. What I fail to see is how this has ever been a problem that the United States government could or should address.
Why are we going to make our relationship with Russia contingent on their development of a competitive political system and the rule of law? If we did, would this actually aid Russian dissidents? It almost certainly wouldn’t. It would reinforce the impression created during the 1990s that Russian “liberals” are little better than Western stooges, and it would remind us that they have no political base in Russia because they have been openly antagonistic to Russian interests. As Anatol Lieven wrote in 2009 for The National Interest:
Tragically however, many Russian liberals in the 1990s-through the policies they supported and the arrogant contempt they showed towards the mass of their fellow Russians-made liberals unelectable for a generation or more across most of Russia; and to judge by these and other writings of liberals like the ones under discussion, they have learnt absolutely nothing from this experience. They think that they form some kind of opposition to the present Russian establishment. In fact, they are such an asset to Putin in terms of boosting public hostility to Russian liberalism that if they hadn’t already existed, Putin might have been tempted to invent them.
This is one reason why focusing on Khodorkovsky is particularly misguided. Khodorkovsky is a very unsympathetic figure and a corrupt tycoon, but Western critics of the Russian government seem intent on making him into the poster boy of Russian dissent. If one wanted to continue discrediting and marginalizing Russian liberalism, linking political reform in Russia to the fate of Khodorkovsky would not be a bad way to do it. Instead of separating the cause of political reform from the fortunes of an oligarch, everyone who claims to oppose Putinism wants to tie them together inextricably. They also want to go back to confronting and provoking Russia, which would make it even harder for political reformers to gain any traction. As Lieven argued in the same article:
This is not just because there is something bizarre and twisted about pro-Western Russian liberals attacking the recommendations of the Hart-Hagel Commission or statesmen such as Henry Kissinger and James Baker. It is also because their criticism serves as a mouthpiece for the agendas of the most bitterly anti-Russian and geopolitically aggressive liberal interventionists and neocons who help maintain tensions between Russia and the West-and actually between the United States and the rest of the world.
And these tensions are extremely damaging to any hopes of the long-term liberalization and Westernization of Russia which these liberals want to further. Do Piontkovsky, Shevtsova and the others seriously think that the U.S.-Russian rivalry in the Caucasus, and the war over South Ossetia which resulted, helped the cause of liberalism in Russia?
This is where criticism of the administration’s “notoriously weak defense of human rights around the world” seems especially foolish. The people complaining the most about the administration’s insufficient zeal on behalf of human rights and democracy are the very same people who want to resume confrontational, aggressive policies towards the governments they want Obama to criticize over internal affairs. In other words, they are among the most enthusiastic for policies that will help authoritarian governments smother their political opponents.
As I have said before, these people see U.S. relations with authoritarian governments in binary terms: appeasement or confrontation. Expressing support for foreign dissidents is simply another means of poking the other government in the eye, and it seems to be unimportant to the hawkish critics whether this works to the advantage or the ruin of the dissidents in question. If confrontational U.S. policies work to subvert the cause of internal political reform, so much the better for the hawks who want to perpetuate the dynamic of escalating confrontation.
Do we want our government to be in the business of stirring up political opposition to the governments of other major powers? To what end? Would we be doing this if the opposition were more nationalist, more antagonistic to Western influence, and more skeptical of “democratic capitalism”? We know the answer to the last question, and it is no. That tells me that the only dissidents most administration critics are interested in helping are those that they see as reliably “pro-Western” or “pro-American,” and that almost certainly means that they have staked out positions that are very unrepresentative, unpopular, and unwelcome in their own countries.
As Greg Scoblete said last week, it doesn’t make sense to judge the “reset” with Russia on the basis of how the Russian government operates inside Russia, and I agree with him entirely when he writes:
It’s also not quite clear to me how the United States can go about changing Russia’s political institutions (have public figures whine loudly about them?) or why such a complex and ill-defined effort should be the key priority going forward.
What is clear is that the people complaining most loudly about Russian domestic authoritarianism desperately want to sabotage improved relations with Russia, and so they are trying to re-define the goals of the “reset” to make it seem as if improving relations with Russia is a waste of time and effort. If they have their way, it won’t help Russian dissidents one bit, but it will harm U.S. interests in the meantime and cause U.S.-Russian relations to begin deteriorating again, which will make it that much easier to perpetuate the status quo in Russia.