There's an old axiom from the intelligence community, "admit nothing, deny, counter-accuse," that can be as useful in politics as it is in the shadowy espionage world. Faced with a high-level summit bound to scrutinize President Obama's much-touted "reset" policy with the Soviet Union, that unimaginative tact ended up serving as the administration's primary defense for a widely publicized engagement strategy which has accomplished little.
On Wednesday, the Foreign Policy Initiative hosted a panel of experts on the Russian Federation to examine the veracity of the administration's bold claims about reset (analysis here), followed by a keynote speech by Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina). Several legitimate, pressing concerns were raised about the White House's effusive engagement of Moscow, from arms control to human rights to the treatment of Russia's democratic neighbors. Unfortunately, instead of responding to these concerns with meaningful counterpoints, the administration chose to attack DeMint personally.
...when it comes to Russia, DeMint's rhetoric is hurting his case. That was on full display during an event on the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held by the Foreign Policy Initiative Wednesday afternoon at the Capitol building, where the senator referred to Russia several times as the "Soviet Union."
"Clearly the Soviet Union as a democracy is a fraud. Rule of law is very loose, foreign investment is very low," he said. "The Soviet Union, I mean Russia, is making the countries around it concerned with how Russia is constantly trying to manipulate their elections, undermine their freedom, and impose some control..."
At the FPI event, DeMint also explained his overall take on Russia. "Russia is trying to undermine American strength in different parts of the world. As we think of Russia, it s important to think of them as a threat to many and a protector of none," he said. He also at one point said, "I don't pretend to be an expert..."
Inside the Obama administration, officials look at DeMint's Russia activity with a mixture of amusement and concern. They believe that he is sacrificing his own credibility by fumbling on the issue, but at the same time, they worry that foreign governments and publics might actually take him seriously.
"We are happy to let Senator DeMint keep digging away at the hole he is already in," an administration official told The Cable.
You'd think that aides to a president who has had his own share of minor gaffes--such as referring to the 'Austrian' language--would be careful about throwing stones at Senator DeMint. But they clearly want to shift the debate away from the administration's largely failed Russia policy. President Obama is betting the farm on reset, occasionally at the expense of U.S. allies in eastern Europe, and has received nearly nothing in return for his efforts. That failure has broader implications for his engagement strategy with other totalitarian regimes like Iran, as well as our relationship with friendly powers. Counter-accusing, it seems, is easier than having to explain yourself.
Aside: Owen Graham of the Heritage Foundation has a fantastic post up on restarting reset. Read the whole thing, as they say.