Is Russia Pushing Obama's Buttons?

As Barack Obama departed for Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev showed he was well pleased with his counterpart's famous "reset button." Commenting on Iran, Mr. Medvedev said: "If I understand correctly, the United States would like to establish more open and more direct relations with Iran. We support this choice. It would be counterproductive to resort to other sanctions."

Mr. Medvedev's path was at least consistent with his quick endorsement of Iran's June 12 "election" results. Inconveniently for Mr. Obama, however, widespread vote fraud, suppression of dissent, brutality and bloodshed got in the way of his moving rapidly to open bilateral talks with Tehran's military theocracy.

But Mr. Medvedev was entirely right to assess that Iran's "election" and its aftermath were not ultimately distasteful enough to dissuade Mr. Obama from seeking direct negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program. Despite rhetorical flourishes about free elections, Mr. Obama and Joe Biden both reaffirmed after Mr. Medvedev's remarks that they will try what six years of European Union negotiations with Iran have failed to do--namely, divert it from its decades-long quest for deliverable nuclear weapons.

Americans may have voted for a lower profile in Iraq, but they did not vote for a weaker United States globally.

Iran's nuclear program is far from the only issue where Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Obama likely found themselves agreeing. Major new restrictions on strategic nuclear weapons, postponing construction on U.S. missile-defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic and, indeed, downsizing America's entire missile-defence program, sidelining Georgia's and Ukraine's NATO membership applications, and leaning hard on Israel to stop all West Bank settlement construction and accept a Palestinian state--these are all potential points of agreement.

Russia's strategic interests in these outcomes are clear. Limiting the U.S. missile-defence program, particularly its presence in former Soviet satellites and territories, reduces America's global umbrella, as would dramatic cuts in strategic nuclear warheads (which Russia's creaking economy would require whether or not it agreed with Washington). Keeping Georgia and Ukraine from NATO membership is a clear warning to other former Soviet republics not to get too cozy with the West. NATO's reluctance to do much in response only underlines the warning.

Pressing Israel and covering for Iran (and North Korea) also help Moscow's long-standing campaign to reduce U.S. influence in the Middle East. Russia has major commercial interests in Iran, including constructing the Bushehr reactor and selling Tehran pricey, high-end conventional weapons, such as new anti-aircraft defences.

Russia's positions are not surprising, but U.S. acquiescence in them, undercutting not only Israel but NATO ally Turkey and pro-Western Arab states, certainly is. These governments may have little sympathy for Israel, but they are legitimately concerned about Iran, which poses an immediate, existential threat through its nuclear program and through continuing support for terrorists, Sunni (Hamas and Taliban) and Shia alike.

If all this comes to pass, we may conclude that the "reset button" has, indeed, been pushed. Russian-American relations, after an initial uptick, undoubtedly went downhill during the Bush administration, especially after one of Russia's important trading partners, Saddam Hussein, was removed in Iraq. But the deterioration in relations came almost entirely from more belligerent and provocative Russian behaviour, not from a desire in Washington for confrontation. Thus, all the "new" directions emanating from the Moscow summit are all essentially reversals of recent U.S. policy. The Russians should be happy; most people are when they get their way.

Supporters of Mr. Obama's "reset button" point to new U.S. overflight rights through Russian airspace for resupplying NATO forces in Afghanistan as a benefit of his new policy. That is only slight comfort, since most supplies for Afghanistan flow through European and Middle Eastern bases, requiring no Russian overflights. And it is hard to think of anything less costly to Russia, or easier to revoke than the airspace transit permission.

Some European countries are actually becoming a bit queasy over Mr. Obama's new policies, despite warmly welcoming his arrival on Jan. 20. On Iran, European G8 members may be favouring a tougher line on sanctions this week than Moscow or Washington. Europe may well worry about a Russia now free to throw its weight around in the near abroad, and in Central and Eastern Europe, while continuing to threaten cutoffs in the oil and natural gas supplies Europe depends on. And Europe should begin asking itself how strong NATO will be in the future, as Europe continues not to pull its share of the load in an actual conflict such as Afghanistan.

Obamamania, whether in the U.S. or Europe, has likely reached its limit. Americans may have voted for a lower profile in Iraq, but they did not vote for a weaker United States globally. This week's Moscow meetings may well convince many Americans that their President's "reset button" was a dangerous toy indeed.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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John R.
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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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