Published on October 8, 2004
© 2000- The Chicago Tribune
If it wasn't so serious it would be easy to joke that today's relationship between the U.S. and Russia can be compared to the view one gets from looking at a fun-house mirror, where the tall, good-looking kid becomes short and round when he sees his image in the concave glass.
This distorted reflection was clearly mirrored in the manner in which Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush reacted to the horrific acts of terrorism in their individual countries. For the semiautocrat Putin, in a country with, at best, a limited free press and a compliant parliament, the school massacre in Beslan, Russia, last month was a total embarrassment. It was a failure of leadership so large that the Putin government tried desperately at first to manage the news, reverting to the old Soviet Union days when no bad news was told to the public.
Yet for Bush, Sept. 11, 2001, also became a showcase for his political leadership and strength. In the land of congressional inquiries and a ravenous free press, Bush was able to ignore such details as being forewarned by the CIA that terrorists might attack the U.S., and instead declared himself the champion in the fight against terrorism.
In order to feel more secure in a world out of control, political leaders in America and Russia have reverted to the safety net of the worst aspects of their political cultures.
Leaving aside the distortions in America's democracy that can be created by a troika of fear, spin and repetition, Russia has become a microcosm of what is wrong with the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy.
We say we are fighting for democracy in Iraq, yet we have not said a word as democracy withers in Moscow. From the time the first TV station was taken over by the Russian government; to the time when the Russian government essentially seized a private corporation; to the time Russia announced that it would do away with the election of governors, the Bush administration has basically been silent.
President Bush tells us that we are fighting a war in Iraq to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction but we ignore rogue nuclear bombs in Russia. Nothing threatens the lives of Americans more than unsecured nuclear materials and weaponry. In 1991, Congress passed the bipartisan Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, whose purpose was to assist the Russians with American technical expertise and money to safeguard and destroy weapons of mass destruction that remained in the former Soviet Union. Shockingly, the Bush administration's budget for the coming fiscal year actually cuts funding for Nunn-Lugar.
We were told by Bush during his last presidential campaign that he would cut off some aid to Russia if abuses in Chechnya continued. Bush stated at that time that "the Russian government will discover that it cannot build a stable and unified nation on the ruins of human rights." Now, however, in his grand strategy of seeing issues in black and white, Bush has allowed Putin to lump Chechen rebels with Al Qaeda, thus giving Putin a free hand to erode democracy in Russia.
The White House's larger policy failure toward Russia is its inability to treat the country as a friend and as an emerging energy power. Instead, Russia is being treated almost as a historic vestige that can be drawn out as propaganda during an anti-terrorism presidential election.
With its huge energy resources and it geographic position touching both East and West, Russia is becoming powerful. But with a 700-year cultural history of autocracy and only a recent 14-year history of semidemocracy, Russia needs honest friends to keep it from slipping back toward authoritarianism.
President Putin, as the leader of a country yearning for respect, was not afraid to publicly warn Washington about the perils of going to war in Iraq. But in the bizarre fun-house mirror that reflects today's relations between America and Russia, the Bush administration continues to ignore the importance of being straight with Russia. Instead, the White House chooses to treat the Putin government with a policy of benign neglect, at best, and, at worst, to acquiesce to its non-democratic reforms being enacted under the ruse of terrorism.
Edward Goldberg is president of the New York-based Annisa Group, which advises companies doing business in Russia.