Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wants to punish U.S. businesses in response to Russian arms sales to Syria:

In light of Russia’s policy in Syria, the Obama Administration’s string of concessions to Moscow must stop, including the latest effort to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment to give Russia preferential trade benefits. We must not give a U.S. blessing to Russia’s policies in Iran and Syria or we will simply invite Moscow to redouble its efforts to undermine U.S. interests around the world.

What Ros-Lehtinen doesn’t mention here is that it will be American companies that will lose out if the U.S. doesn’t establish permanent normal trade relations with Russia. Repealing Jackson-Vanik is a thoroughly self-serving move on America’s part, since it will allow U.S. companies to take full advantage of Russian membership in the WTO. Opposing repeal of the amendment to make a symbolic protest against Russian policy in Syria will not only fail to change Russia’s position on Syria, which was not likely to happen in any event, but it will needlessly hamper U.S. commerce and investment. Some Russophobes in Washington are so fixated on rejecting anything related to the “reset” that they are blinded to what their preferred policy of antagonism and provocation would cost the U.S. Like most criticisms of policies associated with the “reset,” this reaction is short-sighted and detrimental to U.S. interests.

More to the point, Ros-Lehtinen is linking things that have nothing to do with one another. Establishing normal trade relations with Russia doesn’t confer a “blessing” on Russia’s arms sales to the Syrian government. Refusing to establish those relations isn’t going to increase U.S. leverage with Moscow on Syria or Iran. It will give Moscow another pretext to withhold cooperation on these issues.

On a related point, Russian arms sales to Syria aren’t new, and don’t tell us much of anything about the successes or failures of the “reset.” Attributing Russian arms sales to the Syrian government to a failure of the “reset” is as dim-witted as it would be for some Russian hard-liner to say that U.S. arms sales to Bahrain proves that it was a mistake for Russia to help in resupplying the U.S. war in Afghanistan. No doubt, Russian hard-liners do think this was a mistake. They perceive the “reset” to have been a lopsided arrangement in favor of the United States, and it has been.

Syria has been a Russian client for a long time. The “reset” was never intended to reinvent all of Russian foreign policy. How could it? The purpose of the “reset” was to cooperate with Russia on areas of common interest to improve the bilateral relationship. If the U.S. adopted a different Russia policy characterized by mistrust and hostility as Ros-Lehtinen and others would prefer, Russia would still be selling weapons to Syria today, because Russian arms sales to its clients are not contingent on the nature of U.S. policy towards Russia. The Bush administration was much less accommodating and more adversarial towards Russia, especially after 2003, and naturally that did not make Russia more receptive to U.S. appeals when it came to issues on which there were strong disagreements.

As it happens, I don’t believe that efforts to persuade Russia to abandon Assad and/or the Syrian regime are likely to have much success, because there is no interest in the West in giving Moscow any incentives to do this. The things that the U.S. could trade with Russia in exchange for its cooperation in cutting off Assad from its patronage are things that no one in Washington is willing to trade. The U.S. is in no position to guarantee Russian interests with a post-Assad Syrian government, and arguments that pretend that the U.S. understands Russian interests better than the Russians do are bound to fall on deaf ears. None of that is an excuse to shoot ourselves in the foot economically by refusing to repeal an antiquated piece of legislation that should have been tossed out twenty years ago.