Secretary Hillary Clinton was at the Naval Academy recently. She went there to deliver a prestigious Forrestal Lecture. And she was well received by the 4,000 Midshipmen and hundreds of students attending the Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference.
One Midshipman asked Sec. Clinton about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Hillary responded with poised professionalism. She crisply outlined all the steps that were taken and the vast, complex operations that had to come together in time and space to bring success. She tells the story well. And, interestingly, she gives no hint of envy that it was Barack Obama who got to make that critical call, not Hillary herself.
Well, good for Hillary! It would be unchivalrous of us to deny Madame Secretary credit for the most praiseworthy act of the Obama administration. Even better, she did not tell Pakistan. Recall the invertebrate Sec. of State Cyrus Vance. He reigned in protest from Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet in 1980--not because Carter failed to rescue our hostages in Iran, but because he tried!
Sec. Clinton was also asked about Russia’s unhelpfulness and Syria. She replied:
Part of the difficulty is the change in leadership that is occurring in Russia. Vladimir Putin will assume the presidency very soon, but he’s not president yet. It appears that Medvedev will be appointed prime minister. He’s putting together a government, but it’s not put together yet. So the Russians have a long-term relationship with the Assad family. They sell a lot of arms, continuing to do so, to the Assad regime. They use a port in Syria that has been made available to them for a number of years. So there are a lot of deep connections between Russia that go beyond whoever the leader is and Syria. So I think there will be a very rough couple of days in trying to determine whether we go to the Security Council seeking action knowing that Russia is still not on board but continuing to require them to have to either veto or abstain, and see what we can try to bring about because we’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep pushing for both humanitarian and strategic reasons.
It would be hard to imagine more errors in a single answer. Russia’s change of leadership? What change? Putin has been in charge since New Year’s Eve 2000. That has never been in doubt. The Obama administration made much—too much—of its closeness to Medvedev, even giving the appearance of disrespect to Putin in the process. That’s like cozying up to the monkey in the hopes of showing up the organ grinder.
This is the same Russia whose foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Hillary famously gifted with a red “Re-set” button on their first meeting. That was to signal the new administration in Washington wouldn’t fuss about Russia’s 2008 aggression against the Republic of Georgia. Except that the Russian word for “Re-set” was spelled wrong. And the writing didn't even use the Russian Cyrillic alphabet!
Worse, the Obama administration abandoned missile defense for Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. This was, we were told, to make Russia more amenable on such matters at the Iranian nuclear program. Since then, the Russians pocketed Mr. Obama’s concessions and have given us no help on Iran’s nukes. And on Syria, Iran’s puppet? Don’t even ask.
When the FBI collared ten Russian spies just days before an Obama-Medvedev “hamburger summit” in the U.S., the spies were all kicked out. They were allowed to go home to Russia with no harsh interrogation. They didn’t even get a TSA pat down. No wonder President Obama seemed not to notice that Dmitri Medvedev was eating his French fries.
Then, there was the quickie ratification of the deeply flawed START treaty. Sec. Clinton and Vice President Biden helped push that one-sided measure through a lame-duck U.S. Senate in December, 2010.
In every way imaginable, this administration has telegraphed - no, tweeted - its weakness to the Russians. Whatever else we know about Russians, we know they respect the vozhd. That’s the Russian word for “boss.” Based on our experience dealing with Russians—at the top and the bottom levels—they respect strength—constancy and firmness. Let’s see some of it.
Editor’s Note: Bob Morrison co-authored this column. Former Ambassador Ken Blackwell negotiated on human rights in Moscow with the Russians. He worked with Ronald Reagan’s top arms negotiator, Max Kampelman. Bob Morrison served as a Russian interpreter aboard a Coast Guard cutter. He dealt with the Soviets about fish.