Rich Lowry: ‘Wrong side of history’ will not faze Putin

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The “reset” with Russia had a brief, unhappy life. It began with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presenting her Russian counterpart with a mistranslated reset button reading “overcharged.” It ended with current Secretary of State John Kerry denying knowledge of the late, unlamented policy on “Meet the Press” on Sunday: “Well, I don’t know what you mean by the reset.”

Memories are short in Foggy Bottom. And understandably. Who wouldn’t try to forget a geopolitical initiative that has been exposed as willful naiveté and strategic obtuseness from the beginning?

George Kennan wrote the famous Long Telegram at the outset of the Cold War. President Obama would have needed only A Very Brief Telegram at the outset of his administration: “Bush’s fault.”

As he put it diplomatically in an interview with Noyava Gazeta in 2009, “Americans and Russians have many common interests, interests that our governments recently have not pursued as actively as we could have.”

This was a perverse misreading of recent history. Of all President Bush’s faults, not giving the Russians a chance wasn’t one of them. He notoriously looked into Putin’s soul at a meeting at the beginning of his presidency and saw sweetness and light. By the end, any illusions he had left were shattered by the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

President Obama picked up like this Russia act of aggression had happened back in the mists of time and been perpetrated by the Grand Duke of Muscovy, instead of by the very same regime he was resetting with.

In a 2009 visit to Moscow, the springtime of reset, President Obama professed his belief “that Americans and Russians have a common interest in the development of rule of law, the strengthening of democracy, and the protection of human rights.” He was 0 for 3.

His personal low point came in his groveling hot-mic request to Putin frontman Dmitry Medvedev in Seoul, South Korea, before the 2012 election for “space”: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” As if he had been a hardened Cold Warrior up to that point. “I understand,” Medvedev responded, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” Surely, Moscow understood only too well.

It didn’t take a student of Russian history, or of international relations or even of the model U.N. to know that this would end in ashes and tears.

At one level, the Obama administration was guilty of the very human impulse of wanting to see the world as you would like it to be rather than as it is.

Whereas Obama has the left’s traditional discomfort with American power and the robust pursuit of our national interest — and believes we’ve entered a paradisiacal new period in history when everyone can be constrained by international norms and agreements — Putin has no such guilty conscience.

Even after the invasion of Crimea, the attitudes behind the reset linger. John Kerry’s plaintive observation last weekend that the invasion is “a 19th-century act in the 21st century” carries the quaint assumption that raw power politics and nationalist pride are things we left behind two centuries ago.

In a similar vein, President Obama said last week that Ukraine’s stability and success are “not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia’s interest.”

Not if you are Vladimir Putin and stung by the humiliation of the Russian empire’s diminishment after the end of the Cold War and informed by Catherine the Great’s admonition that the only way to secure Russia borders is to extend them.

In an excoriating rebuke, President Obama says that Russia is on the wrong side of history. That may be a clinching argument in a debate over gay marriage at Wesleyan University, but won’t carry much weight with Vladimir Putin. He thinks he can make history move with lies, thuggery and iron, and the record of human affairs suggests he’s not necessarily wrong — unless he is made to pay a steep price.

Putin thinks he’s taken the measure of his adversary. It’s now Obama’s challenge to prove him wrong.

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