Stranger Things Have Happened

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I was halfway through a good new book on US-Russian relations last week when it occurred to me that I might very well vote for Jeb Bush, that is, if I get the chance.

I was startled by the thought. For the last ten years, at least, I’ve thought of myself as being unshakably wedded to the broad program of the Democrats going forward. That’s meant expecting that a Democrat would continue to occupy the White House.

For instance, when the great political reporter Martin F. Nolan said the other day at lunch that he expected a Republican would be elected president in 2016, I thought he must be mistaken.

About the same time, I dismissed Karl Rove, when he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “It’s hard for a political party to win three consecutive terms in the Oval office.  Since 1952, only George H.W. Bush was able to do it for his party after Ronald Reagan’s two terms.”

Only a candidate beats another candidate, I thought. The Republican Party doesn’t have one for 2016 who could attract potential crossover voters like me.

That was before John Ellis “Jeb” Bush more or less declared his candidacy last week and the GOP primary season began. I am no longer quite as certain. I have been thinking about my prospective change of heart ever since, if that is what it is.  (It’s not, of course; I am simply a believer in the zigzag of politics.)

To return to where I began:  I was reading The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, by Angela Stent, of Georgetown University.  It appeared early this year, just before the Sochi Olympics began. The book was on my desk mainly as a framework for thinking about the significance of Harvard’s Russia scandal of the mid-1990s (as usual, the episode doesn’t come up).

Stent’s book turned out to be a highly readable account of US foreign policy during the twenty-five years since the Berlin Wall came down, with respect not just to Russia, but the Eurasian continent generally.

Stent is a veteran observer.  She served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, first as a member of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning (1999-2001), then as officer for Russia and Eurasia for the National Intelligence Council (2004-2006). She structures the narrative according to broad initiatives of four successive US presidents.

After 1989. George H.W. Bush coped as best he could with the collapse of the former Soviet Union.  After its dissolution in 1991, there suddenly existed four nuclear states instead of just one – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The Lisbon Treaty and the Nunn-Lugar Act greatly diminished the threat. Secretary of State James Baker opened embassies in all twelve post-Soviet states, to underscore the US commitment to their continued independence, but otherwise postponed a major reappraisal of the relationship in anticipation of a second term.

Bill Clinton picked up where Bush left off, bringing Russia into the G7, but otherwise settling into what Stent calls “the Bill and Boris [Yeltsin] Show,” standing by as Russia improvised a form of “Wild East” capitalism that was all its own: “opaque, and [involving] levels of corruption and patronage unanticipated by Washington.” Critics who think the Clinton administration could have done otherwise “vastly overestimate” the power of outsiders to influence events, she says. Meanwhile. Clinton overcame Yeltsin’s objections to expanding NATO to the east — a step some view as a major achievement and others regard as an equally great mistake.

Newly-elected presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin briefly joined forces after 9/11 in the interests of keeping Islamic terrorism, at bay. Then came the US invasion of Iraq and an accompanying “freedom agenda,” including NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine. Vice President Dick Cheney in particular advocated tough policy towards Russia and support for its neighbors after their “Rose” and “Orange” revolutions. In 2007 Putin declared at a Munich conference that the US had “overstepped its national borders in every way.” Eighteen months later, Russia provoked a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia rather than see Georgia pursue NATO membership.

Barack Obama, elected amidst a thunderous financial crisis in the West, pursued a “reset” policy for a time. Russian leaders were underwhelmed. Obama liked President Dmitry Medvedev well enough, but when Putin replaced him as president, in 2012, photographs of the leaders’ chilly meetings told the story. The Arab Spring in Egypt, Libya, and, in particular, Syria, made matters tense again. The Boston Marathon bombing, with its lackadaisical Russian police work, and the decision to grant Edward Snowden asylum kept them on a low boil.

The Limits of Partnership ended there, with a line from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: “It is not our job to reorganize their society.”.  A paperback edition, to appear in March, will include a chapter about the cascade of events since Ukraine renewed its attempt to break away from the Russian sphere of influence in February  — a chapter especially worth reading.Obama may have brought US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to formal conclusions, and ended an unproductive fifty-year stand-off with Cuba, but, by embracing inherited policies and escalating them, his ad,ministration has created a confrontation with Russia whose ill effects that may last nearly as long.

A special mystery is how Victoria Nuland, national security aide  to Dick Cheney for the Iraq war, and ambassador to NATO after that, wound end up as assistant secretary for Russia and Eurasia in John Kerry’s State Department.  Stent’s next book should be very good as well. She concludes this one by quoting.

And that brings us to the present day, and the prospect of the presidential election in 2016.  That leads, in turn, directly to the villain of this piece: the intransigent, no-hold barred tendencies in American politics that have become so pronounced since the Cold War ended in 1989. George H.W Bush’s re-election campaign was done in by the first of the wackos, H. Ross Perot.  Newt Gingrich followed closely behind.

Jeb Bush’s path to the White House would require not one but several “Sister Souljah moments,” in which he disavowed the views of the more extreme fringes of his party. For instance, the next Republican candidate to be elected president probably will have to find some way (at a minimum) to embrace and extend Obamacare, and take the lead against climate change. The path to the nomination would seem to require, among other things, the absence of such sacrilege. It is easier to imagine it in 2020, after another ruinous defeat, rather than in 2016.

But let expectations be rational and skip ahead to a point at which the presidential campaign was actually Bush vs. Clinton. Which of the two dynasties has the better story to tell? Plenty of detailed appraisals will be written over the next two years. The history of US-Russian relations is not a bad place to begin.  Hillary Clinton is presumably a defender of the NATO enlargement her husband began. Jeb Bush will presumably assert that he’s the cautious one in his family, the one who modeled himself on his father and learned from his brother’s mistakes.

Is it possible to set the Wayback machine to 1992 by electing the well-modulated son instead of the smart-alecky one?  Of course not.  But just running for office might have the effect of turning US foreign policy in a new direction, less cocksure, more conservative internationalist – never mind getting elected. My hunch is that this will become a central question in the next twenty-one months. Bush vs. Clinton?  Stranger things have happened in presidential politics, as recently as 2008.