It seems that with much of American foreign policy attention focused on the Middle East, the United States has begun to forget about its old Cold War adversary Russia. Yet, if the United States is committed to winning the global War on Terror, it had better try to salvage what is left of the steadily deteriorating relationship with the Russians.
The United States above all countries should know something about Russian influence; after all, it spent a good half of a century fighting it. Yet it seems since the end of the Cold War, America has pursued an arrogant foreign policy toward Russia, seemingly treating interest in Russia as a thing of the past.
Give George H.W. Bush's administration credit, though. A deed not often acknowledged is its handling of the former Soviet satellite states upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Mr. Bush's accomplishments, especially in the Central Asian states, should actually go down as some of the most important American foreign policy successes of the post-Cold War period.
After the dissolution of the Soviet empire, Mr. Bush insisted U.S. policymakers exercise some restraint and treat the collapsing superpower with dignity and respect. At the same time, his foreign policy focused largely on improving American relations in the old Soviet republics and easing their transition into capitalist market economies by offering aid and promoting disarmament. The United States is still feeling the positive effects of these policies today.
Outside of these accomplishments, American foreign policy quickly became cold and distant toward its old nemesis when it was no longer regarded as a threat. With sharp criticism from then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign on his opponent's focus on foreign policy, Mr. Bush backed away from sending a massive aid package to Russia that could have helped it get back on its feet economically.
With Mr. Clinton's victory in 1992, it ended an era of promise and reconciliation in Russo-American relations, as the Clinton administration, as put by Dimitri Simes in Foreign Affairs, failed miserably by "taking advantage of Russia's weakness."
The Russian threat was arrogantly cast aside as a thing of the past, and Mr. Clinton and Congress took a self-interested approach toward the crippled nation. Mr. Clinton attempted to get everything he could out of Russia while it was down, and American policymakers tried to convince the Russians that Americans knew what was best for them.
The United States went as far as condoning Russian President Boris Yeltsin's desire to do away with the Russian Duma, Russia's representative legislature, as long as the country kept progressing economically. This continued economic development in Russia of course served Mr. Clinton's interests, but it risked Russia once again becoming a modern authoritarian regime. All in all, during the '90s, the Clinton administration simply assumed Russia could not and would not be a world power any time in the near future.
That brings us to today, when the George W. Bush administration has largely carried on the same arrogant disregard for the resurgent power of the Russians. And what a surprise — Russia has suddenly reemerged as global power with the willingness and the ability to counter U.S. interests specifically in the Middle East, and worse yet, they have not forgotten the arrogance of American foreign policy when they were on their knees.
While American influence and prestige in the Middle East has weakened, Russian influence has been steadily increasing, and only now when Russia is suddenly becoming so important again are policymakers beginning to open their eyes to the real power Russia is once again enjoying.
Now the United States and Congress, which has turned its foreign policy focus from Russia to the Middle East, finds itself once again having to deal with the Russians in order to make any progress in the region. It's suffice to say Russia is loving the fact that the United States must come crawling to them to advance policy in the Middle East much like the Russians had to come crawling to us in the '90s.
Besides its arms sales to Iran and Syria, Russia's effort to legitimize Hamas in Palestine has made it increasingly difficult for the United States to bring about meaningful negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been surprisingly successful in returning Russia to a prestigious position of power in the region, and he has taken on an increasingly Cold War-like hostility toward the United States and a sense of his own power that should be unnerving to anyone in Washington.
It is for this reason the United States must work at mending the fragile relationship with Russia and again recognize it as a power that needs to be given some credibility. If the United States is truly committed to victory in the War on Terror and in bringing democracy to the Middle East, it is going to have to do it by dealing with an increasingly powerful Russian state.
Joe Trovato ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism.