Did Erickson suppose that Rice could have parachuted into the Kremlin and forced Russia’s leadership to abort what has been their historical predilection to balance against the preeminent power of the day all on her own?
Since I mentioned the worsening of U.S.-Russian relations in this morning’s post, I should explain why Erickson is correct to include this in the criticisms of her record. Of course, Bush was ultimately responsible for administration policy, but Rice was involved in shaping that policy, and because of her background she was supposed to be best-equipped in handling the relationship with Russia. U.S. Russia policy from around 2002 until the end of his second term was badly misguided, and Rice shared responsibility for the failures of that policy. The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations resulted from a series of provocative moves that the U.S. made beginning with the withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and concluding with the recognition of Kosovo and the promise at Bucharest to make Ukraine and Georgia members of NATO in the future. Relations naturally soured because of all of this, and they reached their nadir in August 2008 when Saakashvili blundered into escalating a conflict in South Ossetia in the mistaken belief that the U.S. would support Georgia.
One cannot fully understand Putin’s past and present distrust of American intentions without recognizing that he saw U.S. moves in ex-Soviet space and eastern Europe between 2002 and 2008 as aggressive and anti-Russian moves that ignored his earlier cooperation after 9/11. Rice should have known what the Russian reaction to these moves would be. She should have either tried to get the administration to avoid provoking Russia further, or she should have attempted to reduce tensions once they had built up. This isn’t a matter of criticizing with the benefit of hindsight. It was obvious at the time that the Bush administration was wrecking relations with Russia. Rice is on record in early 2007 admitting that she didn’t understand why it was happening. She evidently did not foresee the Russian reactions to continued NATO expansion, the missile defense plan, and the recognition of Kosovo. Negative Russian reactions to these things were foreseeable and entirely predictable.
U.S.-Russian relations hit their lowest point since the end of the Cold War by the end of Bush’s second term. This didn’t just happen on their watch. To a large extent, it happened because of their misjudgments and mistakes. Rice was partly responsible for those misjudgments and mistakes, and that ought to be reflected in any assessment of her time in the Bush administration.
Update: Jim Henley makes a good point about Rice’s expertise.
Second Update: Noah Rothman replies, and he isn’t helping his case. Cancelling the Bush-era missile defense plan did lead to a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations. That was obvious at the time, and it still is. It marked the beginning of what Medvedev referred to as “the best three years” in bilateral relations in the last decade. As Lukyanov wrote recently:
On the other hand, the reset policy launched in 2009 became possible only when Moscow decided that Obama, unlike his predecessor, would keep his word. Obama promised to review Bush’s missile defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic, and he has done so.
The failures of Bush’s Russia policy weren’t limited to the missile defense plan, but it was a big part of it, and Rice shares in the responsibility for these failures. It would be very silly to pretend otherwise.