As President Obama prepares to visit Russia, the new neocon organization called the Foreign Policy Initiative (the successor to the defunct Project for the New American Century) has issued a letter, which was also signed by several liberal hawks, imploring him to raise the issue of human rights. It also points to what it calls Russia's attack on Georgia as a sign of renewed imperialism, even though it was Georgia that attacked Russia. Simultaneously, former UN ambassador John Bolton declares in today 's Washington Post that the crackdown in Iran shows that Obama should stop trying to play kissyface with the mullahs. It's time to prepare for a military assault.
Not so fast.
These messages, as I argue in the National Interest online, ring somewhat oddly in light of a remarkable page one story by Glenn Kessler that appears in the Washington Post. Apparently, Saddam Hussein, in a number of interviews with the FBI, explained that he had no interest in antagonizing America or in forging any alliances with terrorist groupings. Instead, he saw Iran as his main enemy. In fact, he would have liked to forge an alliance with Washington--perhaps like the one he originally enjoyed when Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad as a Reagan administration emissary to fete the Iraqi despot?
Now urging Obama to stand up for human rights is all well and good. But what, exactly, would he accomplish by upbraiding Vladimir Putin for his lapses? Not much. He can and should raise human rights issues, but Russia is not the Soviet Union of yore, a totalitarian power that seeks to expand its influence wherever and whenever it can. Instead, it displays a wounded nationalism. Seeking to reach an accommodation with Moscow and prod it it improve its record seems like a better approach than condemning it out of hand, which would indeed create a new cold war, something that not a few neocons seem to hankier after.
But America needs Russia's cooperation in Iran and elsewhere. The neocons, by contrast, subscribe to a Michael Jackson theory of foreign policy in which we are the world, but it isn't so. Similarly, there should be more circumspection about launching military strikes on Iran. Tehran doesn't need to be undermined from abroad. It's undermining itself.
As Obama clearly understands, as important as what America does is what it does not. Though Obama was attacked for his lack of foreign policy experience during the campaign, it has become his strong suit. Obama, you could argue, has performed even better in foreign than in domestic policy. His trip to Russia is likely to further bolster his credentials--and weaken the arguments of his critics on the right.