In the course of a discussion of how Vladimir Putin is rebuilding Russia’s Soviet-era spheres of influence, international affairs columnist Jackson Diehl raises yet another example of ineptness in American foreign policy.
It was 10 years ago this month that Mikheil Saakashvili, then a 35-year-old U.S.-trained lawyer, led a march on the parliament of Georgia that overturned a corrupt and autocratic regime in that post-Soviet Caucasian state and inaugurated a liberal democratic surge in Eurasia. The “Rose Revolution” was followed a year later by Ukraine’s “Orange revolution”; the brash and charismatic Saakashvili soon became Georgia’s elected president and a symbol of pro-Western change, as despised in Moscow as he was admired in Washington.
A decade later, the wave has receded. Last week, Ukraine, led by the same thuggish pol who had been ousted by the Orange revolt, backed away from an association agreement with the European Union and embraced Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. It followed Armenia, which succumbed to Putin’s heavy-handed pressure earlier this fall. Only Moldova and Saakashvili’s Georgia are now pursuing deals with the E.U. and the embrace of democracy and free markets they require. . . .
Putin bullies his neighbors with trade embargoes or, in Georgia’s case, military pressure, while offering tempting rewards to rulers whose commitment to liberalism is negotiable. “Putin’s soft power is corruption,” said Saakashvili. “If you want to go to the European Union you have to pass all these painful reforms so that you can fit in. For the Eurasian Union you only need to be weak and corrupt and willing to be manipulated by Putin. You can imprison your opposition and be praised for it.”
The other difference is in the United States. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration strongly pushed Eastern European nations toward NATO and the E.U. Now it is Putin who is pushing, and the United States is absent. “It’s not that Russia is so strong,” Saakashvili said. “It’s the perception of American weakness and American absence. The perception of Russia now is that no matter what they do in our region, America is not going to respond.”
Notice that this compares Obama’s foreign policy unfavorably not to that of Republicans but to that of Bill Clinton. Is this “American absence” the same kind of foreign disentanglement that some conservatives and libertarians are calling for?