McFaul, as his stories make clear, is a hands-on academic; he not only studies Russian politics, he helps shape them.
Now McFaul has the opportunity to shape U.S.-Russian relations at the highest level, serving as special assistant to the president for National Security Affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the United States National Security Council.
The popular professor’s rise to influence, however, was not been free from controversy in some foreign policy circles, both on the left and the right, nor has his brief time in the White House been free from missteps.
Throughout the past two years, questions about McFaul’s beliefs have related directly to larger questions about Obama’s geopolitical grand strategy. Most importantly, McFaul has had difficulties distinguishing his personal brand of democracy promotion from the democracy-obsessed rhetoric of Bush and neoconservatism.
Attack from the Left
McFaul first began informally advising the Obama campaign about Russian/Eurasian affairs in the summer of 2007. At the time, Obama was running second to a heavily favored Clinton campaign. Because of Obama’s relative obscurity McFaul never expected his role with the Obama campaign to lead to a position of influence, according to a McFaul advisee that spoke anonymously with Review.
During the early portions of the 2008 Presidential campaign, Russia was not central to foreign policy debates.
By the middle of 2008, however, Obama’s foreign policy views—and therefore Professor McFaul—were at the forefront of the presidential race. In the spring of 2008, McFaul’s boss, Senator Obama, clinched the Democratic nomination. The gig he never expected to go anywhere suddenly had a 50% chance of ending up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
With this rise in McFaul’s clout came controversy, however. Though the USA Today noted McFaul’s conciliatory hopes to Russia that spring, criticism of McFaul came on July 2, 2008 from The Nation, a stalwart magazine of the American left. In a blog post for “The Dreyfuss Report” entitled, “The Rise and McFaul of Obama’s Russia Policy,” the investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss painted Professor McFaul as equally or more hostile to Russia than Bush’s “neoconservative” policy planners.
“In Obama’s case,” Dreyfuss wrote, “ . . . He’s getting advice from some of the hardest of hardliners on Russia policy. Most prominent is Michael McFaul, who, if not a neoconservative, is a well-known advocate for a bare knuckles approach toward Russia… McFaul doesn’t care about stability, since his main goal vis-à-vis Russia is to call attention to the autocratic nature of Putin’s rule.”
Dreyfuss also points out that McFaul spent several years in Washington D.C., “during which time he provided advice to Bush on Russia.”
Several days later, Professor McFaul responded the bruising attack from the left in the form of a letter to the editor of The Nation. Dreyfuss published the letter on his weblog. McFaul’s letter was equally bruising.
McFaul starts off by plainly stating, “A little more investigative work — an email or phone call to me or even consultation of some of my writings, all posted at http://cddrl.stanford.edu–might have helped him to avoid printing some statements that are inaccurate and misleading.”
He then went on to refute Dreyfuss’s charges, one-by-one. McFaul first clarified that his time in Washington between 2004 and 2006 was spent at the Stanford-in-Washington program and with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as well as the Hoover Institution.
McFaul also points out that he did not meet with Bush during those years. McFaul did, however, meet with Bush in 2001, according to a student of McFaul’s. Professor McFaul was an infrequent, informal advisor to the Bush Administration in his first term.
McFaul also rejected the notion that he supports “disengagement” from Russia. He wrote in his letter, “Even a skimming of the titles of some of my articles, including “Reengaging Russia: A New Agenda” or “Realistic Engagement: A New Approach to American-Russian Relations,” could have given Mr. Dreyfuss a more accurate assessment of my views . . .”
McFaul did go on to acknowledge that his beliefs were at the center of a larger ideological debate. He wrote, “The more general point of Mr. Dreyfuss’s article is an important one for Democrats to debate. Dreyfuss believes that the US should favor stability and remain indifferent to those in other countries fighting for democracy and human rights.”
McFaul is an unabashed idealist, favoring a Wilsonian, pro-democracy agenda for American foreign policy. Professor McFaul’s popular class, Political Science 114d, argues that democratic actors and ideas—democratic revolution like the kinds seen in the late 1980’s in Eastern Europe—are the most effective means to democratic governments and, therefore, world stability.
In McFaul’s opinion, “In dealing with countries like Russia, Democrats should seek to engage both the state but also societal leaders and organizations advocating democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Championing values of freedom, justice, and equality is an old Democratic tradition that now needs to be recaptured and pursued more pragmatically, humbly, and strategically, and not abandoned in kneejerk reaction to eight years of failed Bush policies.”
Despite McFaul’s personal efforts to dispel the label of “hawk” or “neoconservative,” the meme lingered in the media for most of 2008.
In November 2008, The Politico wrote, “The makeup of Obama’s Russia team offers a glimpse of his stance, which tends toward hostility toward the autocracy introduced by now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It includes Mark Brzezinski, a Clinton National Security Council official, and was led by McFaul, who has warned for years that there’s no silver lining to Putin’s authoritarian cloud.”
The Georgia Test
Professor McFaul’s first challenge as advisor came just a month later when Russia invaded Georgia in mid-August of 2008.
The McCain campaign, sensing that their candidate’s advantage was foreign policy experience and tenacity, used the invasion to strongly condemn Russia and praise Georgia.
McCain immediately linked the invasion to Russia’s dangerous regional belligerence and autocratic regime. He famously said, “We are all Georgians.”
Professor McFaul and the Obama campaign, on the other hand, refused rush to judgment. The potential invasion had been brewing for months, but the invasion itself came swiftly.
McFaul frequently assumed a public tone of caution when discussing the invasion; he believed in getting tough on Russia, but he refused to posture aggressively like McCain. Time Magazine wrote, “Obama adviser Michael McFaul, a hawkish Democrat, says the Illinois Senator has been calling for more action on South Ossetia for months but disagrees with some of McCain’s more aggressive approaches.”
In the same article, McFaul was quoted as saying: “Would kicking Russia out of the G-8 have stopped this invasion?” McFaul says. “I don’t see how those two are related. That is the test of leadership: are you proposing things that can advance American interests?”
Following Barack Obama’s lead, Professor McFaul’s response to the invasion of Georgia was measured and avoided rush to judgment. In the face of Russian aggression, McFaul’s supposed “neoconservative” and “hawkish” side were not on display last August.
A Part of the Grand Strategy?
In mid-January, McFaul was officially named to the National Security Council. Around the same time, the foreign policy community began speculating about Obama’s promised change in American foreign policy direction. Would he continue the Global War on Terror? What were his plans for Iraq? How would he handle Iraq? Where would McFaul’s beloved democracy promotion fit into the Obama vision?
On January 29th of this year, the New York Times published an article, “Talking Softly About Democracy Promotion,” about the role of democracy promotion in the Obama White House. After years of Bush’s soaring pro-democracy rhetoric, would Obama and McFaul continue the trend?
McFaul told the Times that he and Obama planned to “talk less and do more.” He went on, “Rather than speeches or even grand goals, the next administration should seek to achieve small, concrete outcomes that advance political freedoms in very tangible ways and do so, without talking about doing so.”
This dichotomy met some criticism, however, “Shadow Government,” a blog of Foreign Policy Magazine about “the loyal opposition” to Obama responded to the McFaul’s thoughts by criticizing McFaul’s rejection of Bush-style, pro-democracy rhetoric.
“If the Bush administration is to be faulted on democracy promotion,” the blog responded to McFaul’s remarks, “It is not in talking too much but in comparison not doing enough.”
McFaul’s unique brew of international relations beliefs has been criticized for both being too similar to Bush – focused on democracy – and too different – too committed to action and not committed enough to rhetoric.
Lost in Translation
On March 6, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, in Moscow.
In a gesture of good will, Secretary Clinton presented Lavrov with a red button that had “Peregruzka” written on it, supposedly the Russian word for “reset,” a symbolic refreshing of U.S.-Russian relations.
“We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?” Clinton asked.
“You got it wrong,” said Lavrov bluntly.
The embarrassing gaffe was seized on later by Lavrov as a symbol of America’s insincerity and even by John McCain who claimed that he would have been more careful.
In the Clinton and Obama camp, blame was quickly caste. According to the Politico, Reines showed the button to officials who spoke Russian, who apparently weren’t well versed in Russian technology terms.
According to several witnesses, Reines sought to place public blame on McFaul.
McFaul had no comment on the issue to the media.
A McFaul ally said “the notion that it was all on him, if that’s what they’re saying, is clearly unfair. He was asked to look at it.”
Though small and insignificant in some respects, the incident sets a temporarily sour tone in the geopolitically important relationship.
Professor McFaul has assumed enormous responsibility. He has an intimate role in not only U.S.-Russian relations, but the entire shape of Obama’s foreign policy worldview for the next four years.
When McFaul returns to Stanford, he will have plenty of new stories to entertain his students.