Meredith Alexander, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail email@example.com
McFaul takes knowledge of Russia to the Oval Office
To hear Michael McFaul tell it, meeting Vladimir Putin now president of Russia was hardly a memorable experience.
It was in the spring of 1991, and McFaul was escorting U.S. legislators to Russian cities to share ideas about preparing budgets. Putin was in charge of external affairs and served as McFaul's government liaison.
"At the time, if you had asked me to list 5,000 Russians that might be the next president of Russia, he would not have made the list," McFaul says. "He was a bureaucrat. ... I don't remember anything distinguishing about him, and I had a hard time remembering his name."
Times have changed. Today, McFaul is known in Washington for having a strong grasp of Russian politics, and Putin was the topic of a meeting he had with President George W. Bush in May. McFaul also has a long-standing relationship with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a Russia expert and former Stanford provost.
Following the publication of his book Russia's Unfinished Revolution, McFaul has undertaken a new project: researching a book on U.S.Russia relations in the 1990s. Examining the relationships between Bush senior and Gorbachev, Clinton and Yeltsin, and now, George W. Bush and Putin, McFaul identifies an ongoing pattern: U.S. presidents persistently "personalize" their relations with Russia and see only what its leader shows them.
"These guys just can't help themselves," he says. "They become president, they see their counterparts, especially in a big country like Russia, and they see the politics of that country through their lens." They do so even though "people like me come in to brief them to tell them otherwise," McFaul says. This has sometimes made his advising role difficult.
The danger is that whole layers of ugly political realities may be ignored. For instance, while Americans thought of Gorbachev as some kind of superhero, he was always unpopular among certain Russians and a coup attempt nearly undid his efforts to democratize the Soviet Union. More recently, despite Bush's heavy criticism of former President Bill Clinton for personalizing his relationship with Yeltsin, "Dubya" has turned around and done the same thing with Putin, McFaul says, overlooking, perhaps, things like Putin's efforts to shut down or manipulate media outlets.
"In my opinion, it's gone too far," he says.
McFaul points out another blemish on Putin's record his "war on terrorism" in Chechnya, which has resulted in a brutal bloodbath.
"There is credible evidence showing some of the people in Chechnya have ties with bin Laden," McFaul says. "But the problem is ... that Russians treat all people of Chechnya as terrorists." In so doing, they have overstepped the line on human rights many times, McFaul believes.
Going beyond his work on Russian leadership, McFaul has begun to write about the war in Afghanistan. In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, he underlined the parallels between the war on terrorism and the fight against another "ism" Communism. Echoes of the Cold War abound terrorists are anti-Western, anti-capitalistic trans-nationalists who are quick to use violence to further their goals. The same could have been said about Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, McFaul argues.
Using this parallel is not only the best way to define the fight but the best way to win it, he says. "The real battle is a battle of ideas. The Soviet Union collapsed not because we invaded and took it over, but because the people who lived under Communism embraced a different set of ideas," McFaul says. The best way to win in a war of ideas? Offering an alternative, more moderate vision and a better way of life through material support, McFaul argues.
The political scientist is optimistic about this fight. He accounts for his sense of hope by saying that 10 or 20 years ago, many people said that Russia would never be democratic that its age-old culture, religion and geography would always keep the nation autocratic. That's what people say about Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan now, McFaul points out.
"I don't think culture and religion are these innate things that never change," McFaul says. "The story of what's happened in Russia in the past few years demonstrates it. If you can have democracy in Russia, why not Afghanistan, why not Saudi Arabia, in the long haul?"
By Meredith Alexander