Bush Should Borrow a Page From Kennan

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There was once a time when the phrase "quiet diplomacy" was redundant. In terms of how the United States has come to conduct its foreign policy of late, the phrase has become oxymoronic.

In its dealings with Russia and particularly with President Vladimir Putin, the administration of President George W. Bush would be wise to eschew the tendency to conduct its foreign policy in a conspicuously public manner. As troubling as an extension of Putin's rule might be to some in Moscow and many in Washington, the U.S. response to Putin's plan to serve as prime minister after his second term as president ends in May has been muted so far. It would be best for it to remain that way, for reasons both philosophical and practical.

In the twilight of a brilliant career, the late George Kennan, the distinguished diplomat and architect of the Cold War policy of containment, suggested that instead of preaching and posturing, the United States could best serve the spread of freedom and democracy by its own example. Part of this, Kennan would likely agree, would be to recognize the imperfections of its own democracy, including gerrymandering, lobbying, pork barrel, push polls, attack ads, filibusters and myopic partisanship.

Such activities do not go unnoticed abroad. Russians are keen observers of the shenanigans that take place in Washington and far-flung U.S. election precincts. Putin, reacting to U.S. criticism of Russia's democracy in the past, has skewered Bush with pointed references to the controversial U.S. presidential election that brought Bush to power in 2000. Putin would certainly return to such rhetoric if the Bush administration publicly denounced his maneuvering ahead of the March presidential election as another "step in the wrong direction" for Russia's democracy.

There is also an important practical reality in play: Russians' desire for continuity and stability. Mature democracies often value continuity at the top. In France, Charles de Gaulle served as president for 10 years; Francois Mitterrand for 14; Jacques Chirac for 12. (Chirac incidentally also served two stints as prime minister totaling four years.) German Chancellor Helmut Kohl served for 16 years. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher served as prime minister for 11 years and Tony Blair for 10. In Ireland, Eamon de Valera served as prime minister on three occasions for a total of 16 years, and then for 14 years as president before retiring at 90.

In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt served as president for 12 years. A "Bush dynasty" that will have totaled 12 years is coming to a close just as a possible "Clinton dynasty" -- that could combine for 16 years -- might be in the offing. And President John Quincy Adams "pulled a Putin" of sorts when he was elected to Congress after serving as president. His 17 years in the House of Representatives is considered by many to be his most productive years of public service. He actually died on the House floor.

Of course, by U.S. standards, Putin is no John Quincy Adams, Roosevelt or de Valera. Nevertheless, American policymakers need to accept that after the prolonged uncertainty that followed the traumatic breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians understandably view continuity as a good thing. Most also view Putin as a strong and capable leader who is leading the country down the right path, even though Western democracies are troubled by his muzzling of the opposition and independent media and abolishment of gubernatorial elections, to name a few things.

U.S. criticism of Putin, no matter how justified, would be interpreted by most Russians as meddling and would only serve to strengthen Putin's domestic appeal as a leader who has restored Russian confidence, strength and influence on the world stage.

Scolding Putin might make U.S. policymakers feel good, but it would do little to promote democratic reforms in Russia or help the United States ease tensions between Russia and its neighbors. It would certainly not encourage Putin to talk to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about Iran's nuclear program on behalf of the United States or entice him into becoming a willing and genuine partner on crucial security matters of common interest. The United States cannot effectively fight terrorism and nuclear proliferation without Russia's assistance. At the same time, it cannot turn a blind eye to Russian conduct that it finds troublesome.

One solution would be to recognize the subtle elegance and effectiveness of quiet diplomacy. Before pontificating on the "Putin problem," U.S. leaders would be wise to pause and ask themselves, "What would Kennan say?"

Thomas Raleigh is a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who served as a military attache in Moscow and is currently working in Baghdad. His e-mail is RaleighinIraq@gmail.com.