Jackson Diehl’s column on Obama and Putin engages in some of the same misleading myth-making about Bush-era policies that I was just discussing:

Now that Putin has canceled, maybe it’s time to put human rights in Russia back on the agenda.


The implication is that human rights used to be on the agenda in dealings with Russia, and that this was somehow productive or valuable for Americans and Russians. As Mark Adomanis notes in his refutation of Diehl’s column, promoting human rights has never been “central” to U.S. Russia policy:

George W. Bush, of course, started to emphasize human rights in his Russia policy only after Putin opposed the Iraq war: he was perfectly content to cooperate with Putin during the initial stages of the “war on terror,” a time when Putin was most dramatically consolidating his power and would have been most vulnerable to American pressure. Even in the most confrontational days of the Bush administration when tensions between the US and Russia were almost at a Cold War level, human rights was not at “the center” of US-Russian relations but was merely one of an extremely large number of considerations.

More to the point, putting human rights on the agenda during the remainder of Bush’s presidency had absolutely no positive effect on the protection of human rights inside Russia. Insofar as Moscow perceived the “freedom agenda” as a conspiracy directed against Russia and its government, the Bush administration’s public hectoring of Russia on democracy and human rights may very well have encouraged the government to try to tighten its controls at home and increase its abuses of political opponents. The period when the U.S. was ostensibly so committed to the cause of supporting foreign dissidents and promoting democracy abroad coincided with increasing Russian authoritarianism, which suggests that it makes no constructive difference whether these issues are on the agenda or not.

Then again, perhaps all that we can conclude from the experience of the Bush years is that such issues should not be advanced in a heavy-handed, antagonistic manner. Therein lies one of the main flaws of Diehl’s argument. He believes human rights should be put back on the agenda with Russia in the context of a more antagonistic U.S. relationship with Russia, which is exactly the sort of relationship that will make U.S. support for human rights in Russia completely ineffective. It isn’t hard to notice that some of the loudest advocates for human rights in Russia also happen to be Russophobes, and they want U.S. Russia policy to be much more aggressive and confrontational than it has been in recent years.

The Magnitsky Act is a good example of what I mean. It is a piece of legislation that has no chance of changing Russian officials’ behavior, it will needlessly sour relations with Russia, and it would make it impossible for the U.S. to benefit fully from the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Raymond Sontag’s description of the bill’s flaws is very good, and this quote needs to be repeated every time someone complains about the administration’s opposition to the bill:

The Magnitsky Bill, however, is very unlikely to improve human rights in Russia, and it is also reflective of a broader problem affecting U.S. foreign policy: an impulse to engage in self-righteous posturing rather than in crafting serious strategy.

Diehl would like Obama to engage in more self-righteous posturing, and he clearly wants him to stop trying to build a constructive relationship with the Russian government. No one should be fooled by this. Following Diehl’s recommendations won’t improve human rights in Russia, it won’t advance a single American interest, but it will contribute to the sabotaging of U.S.-Russian relations. One has to assume that this last part is the goal.

* Diehl uses the news of Putin’s non-attendance at the G-8 summit as the foundation for his argument, but it seems that he has completely misunderstood the significance of Putin’s decision.