When Ronald Reagan was running against the hapless Jimmy Carter in 1980, a reporter challenged him. What would you do differently? Gov. Reagan, ever genial, smiled and said crisply: Everything.
And he did. That's why his administration is viewed as a smashing success and Carter's malaise is remembered with a shudder-if it is remembered at all.
President Obama is in danger of following the Carter model. He had no choice about cancelling a summit with Vladimir Putin--certainly not while Putin is providing asylum for NSA mega-leaker Edward Snowden. But Mr. Obama's comments about that summit cancellation were, to put it mildly, unhelpful.
Russians are not impressed with empty gestures. And there could be no emptier gesture than President Obama's talking about Vladimir Putin's "slouching like the bored kid in the back of the classroom."
The president went on to stress that he and Putin actually have substantive and sometimes helpful discussions. Well, scratch those. And with Mr. Obama's massive cuts to the U.S. military, maybe it's just as well they don't meet.
The idea in this administration and in the Washington press corps seems to be that things have turned frosty since Putin returned to power as president of the Russian Republic. There is almost a nostalgia for the good old days of the more congenial President Dmitri Medvedev. This is like thinking the organ grinder is your friend because the monkey dances so engagingly. Putin took power New Year's Eve 2000.Since that moment-and probably for several years prior to Boris Yeltsin's last, boozy Auld Lang Syne, Putin has been the real power in Russia. Arguably, he is the only power.
For President Obama not to understand this is troubling. Imagine if FDR had thought to score points in 1943 by cozying up to Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin-and stiff-arming Josef Stalin! For the Washington press corps to pine for Medvedev is to realize they wholly miss the power realities of the Kremlin. Putin won't deport Snowden for a very simple reason: If he did, no other American would ever defect. In fact, in the entire history of Russia in the last century, only one Western defector of note has ever returned. And that sole returnee: Lee Harvey Oswald. Thereby hangs a tale. One talks of going to Britain and to France, but they talk about going into Russia. It is an envelope.
We began with this administration's embarrassing "Reset" button. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton got off on the wrong foot. She gave a large, red plastic button to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at their first meeting in 2009.The word "Reset" was spelled wrong. It wasn't even written in Russia's Cyrillic alphabet. We can still see re-runs of Hillary's manic cackle and see Lavrov's unsmiling countenance at being forced to endure such an adolescent prank. Lavrov's body English says it: Incompetent.
The Russian word for such antics is neseriozno-not serious. And for too long, we Americans have been dismissed by Russians as not serious. President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin at Glassboro State College in New Jersey in June 1967. Johnson thought he'd impress the Communist hardliner with his toughness. So LBJ stared unblinkingly into Kosygin's eyes for long wordless periods. He did impress Kosygin-who thought him mentally unbalanced. We don't think Johnson was unbalanced, but he was certainly unwise and ill advised. Not serious.
LBJ was determined to show steely resolve. The Soviets preferred to show just steely tanks. Their T-34 tanks rolled over the Czechs next summer-and Johnson did nothing. Their cat's paws in North Korea seized the U.S.S. Pueblo and captured our Navy crew. And Johnson did nothing.
We need a policy toward Russia for adults. Today, Putin poses as the champion for Christians being slaughtered in the Mideast. We don't think that posture is sincere, but at least he is protecting millions of endangered Arab Christians. What is the Obama administration's stance? They want to include the Muslim Brotherhood in power sharing in Egypt. The MB is burning Coptic churches and killing their members. Mr. Obama's people want to empower the former PLO in the West Bank. There, the Arab Christian population has plummeted from 70 percent to 25 percent under misguided State Department policies. The Obama team is siding with the Syrian rebels. Those rebels are murdering Syria's Christians.
We certainly don't side with Putin. We doubt his sincerity. But there's no question: Putin is serious about advancing Russian power and influence in the Mideast. We want America's cause to prevail. But what is the good of American power if America is not a power for good? What should we do differently with Russia and Mideast?