On January 17—less than 24 hours after presenting his credentials—the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, met with a group of Russian opposition figures, “civil-society activists,” and street-demonstration leaders at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. It was a provocative first move, the equivalent of a new Russian ambassador in Washington ostentatiously hosting the leaders of Occupy Wall Street in the middle of the presidential campaign next October.
“I know I’m just going to go in full force, I’ve got nothing to hide, and we feel very confident in our policy and in selling our policy,” McFaul told the New York Times a week later, on January 23. “I ain’t going nowhere else . . . And so I am here to do that in a very, very aggressive way.”
McFaul was true to his word. Over the ensuing ten days he went on to address the Russian public on Moscow’s Echo Radio, a bastion of the opposition, and to give an interview to Kommersant, the most influential pro-Western newspaper. He also posted a two-minute video on YouTube introducing himself to the people of Russia, in which he tactlessly announced that the United States would “help” or “assist” the people of Russia. As one American diplomat has noted, “Of all things Russians dislike most about foreigners, it is condescension of any sort on their part.” McFaul also promised that he would be in contact with “civil-society activists,” whom he pointedly set apart from “regular Russians.” His video drew over 2,000 mostly unprintable comments in Russian.
The reaction from the hosts was quick and unsurprising. The print media accused McFaul of intending to use his tenure for “democracy promotion” and “preparing for an orange revolution in Russia.” Izvestia opined that his arrival signaled a return to the 18th century, when “an ambassador’s participation in intrigues and court conspiracies was ordinary business.” “The fact is that McFaul is not an expert on Russia: he is a specialist in promotion of a particular pure democracy,” Russian state television said in a prime-time commentary, noting that Obama’s choice of a noncareer diplomat for the post in Moscow violated a long-established tradition. “Has Mr. McFaul arrived in Russia to work on his specialty?” the report went on, alluding to McFaul’s 2002 book Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. “That is, to finish the revolution?”
All this may appear as an overreaction to a novice diplomat’s unsteady early steps, but McFaul’s past career suggests that the suspicion is well founded. In 1992 he was the Moscow representative of the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. taxpayer-supported NGO. NDI funds are provided directly by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department, and indirectly through the National Endowment for Democracy (which is itself 100-percent government financed). Its task is to promote the kind of “democracy” that fits the objectives of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Chaired by Madeleine Albright, NDI has been implicated in a series of color-coded regime changes, from Belgrade and Tbilisi to Kiev and Bishkek. It is one of several agencies, dating to the Reagan era, that were created to subvert communist regimes. With the end of the Cold War, as Pat Buchanan has noted, these agencies were not decommissioned but recommissioned to serve as an American Comintern.
In Russia’s Unfinished Revolution, McFaul attempted to map Russia’s “course to democracy” without clarifying its central term: Is it the will of the Russian people, expressed through constitutionally defined mechanisms, or is it the end result of a revolutionary process desired by himself and evaluated for “democratic” bona fides by a few dozen like-minded experts across the Atlantic? McFaul’s 400 pages of error-laden prose show that his definition of the term has nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of Russia’s political system per se, and that he has a deep contempt for the country’s purportedly ignorant and manipulated masses.
The period of Russia’s collapse under Boris Yeltsin was more democratic, according to McFaul, than the ensuing attempt by Vladimir Putin to restore the country’s eroded state institutions. Putin “inflicted considerable damage to democratic institutions,” as if those institutions had been well established in the preceding period. He glossed over Yeltsin’s use of tanks against democratically elected legislators, his years of rule by presidential decree, and the dreary, Soviet-like sameness of the Russian state-controlled media in the 1990’s.
McFaul’s verdict on post-Yeltsin Russia is on par with the Soviet claim that post-1945 “people’s democracies” east of the Iron Curtain were more democratic than their bourgeois predecessors: The narrative makes no sense outside the ideological paradigm of the narrator. This was confirmed by McFaul’s subsequent assertion in an article in The American Interest that, “even while working closely with Putin on matters of mutual interest, Western leaders must recommit to the objective of creating the conditions for a democratic leader to emerge in the long term.”
Prof. Andranik Migranyan, a former member of the Russian Presidential Council, recalled in a recent article that back in the 1990’s many Russians resented the impression that all important decisions made in the Kremlin about key domestic and foreign matters had to be approved in Washington. This humiliation came at a time when the ex-superpower was undergoing an economic, social, and psychological catastrophe:
Since the 1990s, therefore, many Russians have harbored an aversion toward American meddling in Russian affairs—or otherwise put, toward American participation in managing Russian affairs either directly or through U.S. political and economic advisers.
McFaul is an embodiment of the irritating meddler, in Russia and in her “near abroad” alike. In 2006 he was coeditor of a book celebrating the regime change in Kiev two years earlier, Revolution in Orange: The Origins of Ukraine’s Democratic Breakthrough. The book’s authors “write with authority about the challenges and opportunities Ukraine faces today,” George Soros enthused in a cover blurb. “This book should be read carefully by students and policy makers alike.”
Policymakers did not need to read it. They had developed the “color” blueprint well in advance. Five years later, however, the Orange project ended ingloriously: McFaul’s hero Viktor Yushchenko’s support had collapsed to single digits, with the country mired in corruption and authoritarian practices reminiscent of an earlier era. Another “democrat” McFaul lionized, Yulia Tymoshenko—reputedly the richest woman in the former Soviet Union—is currently in jail awaiting appeal on her seven-year sentence for embezzlement.
Ukraine was merely a case study, however, an element in the global revolutionary project. In 2010, McFaul summarized his worldview in a remarkable book, Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can. His chief points were that “democracy promotion” should be a key component of U.S. global strategy, and that “democracies” resulting from such strategy turn out to be dependable American partners. His litmus test is their reliance on the United States for security and their embrace of open markets, both of which “have historically created the most favorable conditions for democratic advancement.” Examples from history are lacking in this fact-free manifesto, however.
McFaul may not be a career diplomat in the strict sense, but he is an establishmentarian par excellence. Before his recent appointment he was special assistant to the President for national-security affairs and senior director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council. In his convictions and actions he is an ideologue, not an analyst or a foreign-policy practitioner. Shortly before leaving for Moscow he declared that his task in Russia would be to support “not American values, not Western values, [but] universal values.”
“Few Americans know Russia or know democracy better than Mike McFaul,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at McFaul’s swearing-in ceremony. “And I can think of no better representative of our values and our interest in a strong, politically vibrant, open, democratic Russia, as well as a deepening U.S.-Russian partnership.”
“Values” first, “partnership” second. The Russia-bashing Republican hawks who oppose the “reset” can live with that—notably Mark Kirk (R-IL), who supported McFaul’s confirmation “because he will be good in working with the opposition and human rights communities in Russia.” If Mitt Romney wins in November, the atavistically Russophobic neoconservative zealots will have the run of Foggy Bottom.
Michael McFaul is the archetype of a liberal interventionist who is oblivious to the limits of American power and unable to outline a rational correlation between its ends and means. Like President Obama, whose confidence he enjoys, McFaul favors incessant foreign meddling that is not only unnecessary but detrimental to U.S. interests. “Making the world safe for democracy” has morphed since 1917 into many strange pursuits: making Libya, Syria, and Bosnia safe for Islamic radicals; making Kosovo safe for the KLA; making the streets of Christian capitals safe for gay-pride parades. The continuity of imperial assumptions and practices remains unbroken, even if the ideological obsessions are different from the Bush era.
McFaul’s beliefs and actions are bad for U.S.-Russian relations, which need a new “Reset” badly in the aftermath of the misnamed “Arab Spring” and the buildup for the Iran war. His zeal offers an unintended boon to the Kremlin, however. By sneaking into the U.S. ambassador’s residence last January, Putin’s “pro-democracy” opponents discredited themselves in the eyes of ordinary Russians. Putin’s enemies cringed before TV cameras, covering their faces with newspapers and declining comment. Seeking to compensate for their lack of grassroots support by getting an NDI grant here and a plate of McFaul’s canapés there will do nothing for real democracy, in Russia or anywhere else. It may, however, make for a less troublesome third presidential term for Putin.
The schemes of McFaul are deeply detrimental to the American interest. He and his fellow global revolutionaries want to lead the world not by example but by dictum, with the threat of force never far behind.