“Trust but verify” vs. “Trust and concede”

Michael Rubin persuasively argues that President Obama’s misreading of Vladimir Putin was not idiosyncratic. Rather, it reflects the broad leftist consensus (fantasy, I would say) of how the world (outside of the domestic realm) works. That view, in essence, is that if we’re nice enough to our adversaries there’s a good chance they will stop being adversarial.

Rubin identifies some of the government officials and academics who applauded the Obama-Clinton “reset.” They include former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, and Juan Cole, the leftist blogger and University of Michigan professor.

Rubin writes:

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations.

The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

The NSA and the CIA may be spooky, but the State Department is truly frightening.

It may be impossible to embarrass our smug foreign policy establishment. But some evidence of embarrassment can be found in its argument that President Bush misread Putin too.

This argument fails to get Obama and the “echo chamber” he reflects off the hook. It’s certainly true that Bush misread Putin early on, and deserves criticism for this. But it’s also true that in the early days of the Bush administration, Putin lacked the clear track record that would have made it easy accurately to assess his “soul.”

Several years later, as that track record emerged, Bush reassessed Putin. Peter Baker describes the process in Days of Fire, his excellent account of the Bush presidency. Bush became disgusted with Putin and finally concluded that we had “lost” him. After Putin made his power play in Georgia, Bush imposed sanctions.

Obama’s removal of these sanctions was a key element of his reset of relations with Russia. But Obama didn’t stop there. He also made enormous concessions regarding the “nuclear shield” of Eastern Europe.

Bush, of course, had proposed the shield to which Russia so strongly objected. This illustrates the fundamental difference between his approach to Putin and Obama’s. Bush may initially have been too trusting, but he still adhered to “trust but verify.” Obama’s policy is more like “trust and concede.”

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