Can a U.S. Ambassador to Russia be expelled? The pending case of Michael McFaul

In the countdown to the nearly certain Senate confirmation of U.S. Ambassador to Russia designate Dr. Michael McFaul, it might pay to consider why, if he follows his instincts and his experience, he may be the first U.S. Ambassador to be declared persona non grata in Moscow since October 3, 1952. Read on to find out why….



Can a U.S. Ambassador to Russia be expelled? The pending case of Michael McFaul.


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


An article by Peter Baker in America’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, dated May 29, 2011 set out what might be called the State Department’s spin on the expected appointment of Obama adviser on Russia Dr. Michael McFaul to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Moscow.

The story line which Baker delivers is generally very favorable. We are told McFaul is the author of Obama’s ‘reset’ policy with the Russians which has resulted in a number of tangible benefits for the United States, including the New Start treaty to reduce strategic nuclear weapons, agreed tougher sanctions on Iran and substantial logistical assistance in supplying American materiel to its forces in Afghanistan. Thanks to reset, Russians even changed their stance on Libya to suit American wishes and crucially withheld their veto on military intervention in the Security Council.

The appointment of McFaul to Moscow is seen as bringing someone from Obama’s inner circle into play on the ground. Baker quotes unnamed ‘administration officials’ who point out that “Mike, as the guy who really helped the president establish the reset, is the perfect person to go to Moscow to make sure there’s no lapse in momentum in the relationship.” This is all the more important now, Baker explains, given that in the coming year and a half both Russia and the United States will be holding presidential and legislative elections, and at such times foreign policy generally tends to take a back seat in political life.

Meanwhile, against the background of this hazy optimism, Baker touches upon a few notes which might give one pause. We are reminded that if he is confirmed, McFaul will be just the second U.S. Ambassador to Russia in 30 years who is not a career diplomat. We are also told that McFaul has friendly ties with neoconservatives that ‘at times have generated suspicions among his fellow Democrats.’ Furthermore, he is known as a ‘vocal advocate of Russian democracy and sharp critic of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s crackdown on dissent.’

Typical of the NYT’s lazy style of non-investigative reporting, these odd points are not pursued in a way that might call into question the overall assessment that the appointment will be a plus for American-Russian relations.

As readers of my blog articles will be aware, unlike Mr. Peter Baker, I do not mince words, nor do I content myself with platitudes. In the essay below I will try to take a more searching view of Michael McFaul’s career and to explain why, if he follows his instincts and builds on his past experience, he may be the first U.S. Ambassador to Moscow to be expelled since fellow Soviet/Russian specialist George Kennan was declared persona non grata by the Kremlin in 1952. In the case of Kennan, the misstep was lèse majesté in the heyday of Stalinism. In the case of McFaul, he will be undone by his penchant for making history and not merely reporting it.

In what follows, I propose to explore the dichotomy between the scholarly credentials of McFaul and the de facto journalism and partisan politics he has engaged in both in Russia and in the United States from the mid-1990s right through his recent service in the Obama administration. Then there are the controversial individuals with whom he has co-authored publicistic writings. And with regard to his purely academic writings, even student reviewers in have spotted the stunning lacunae and anti-Putin tendentiousness of his best known books.

But before going into these particulars of Dr McFaul, I want to step back for a moment and compare him to another Russian specialist, Jack Matlock, who became Ambassador to Moscow under Ronald Reagan after serving his president as National Security Council Director for Russia and Eurasian Affairs over a number of years, just as Michael McFaul has now done.

Jack Matlock never got a Ph.D. in Soviet/Russian studies, as doctorates were quite rare in his day. He completed a Master’s Degree at one of the two pioneering university centers of area studies at the time, Columbia, and he taught Russian at Dartmouth before joining the Foreign Service in 1956. He then proceeded to work his way up the diplomatic ladder until he reached his crowning position as Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the end of his career.

By contrast, up to the recent past when he was brought to Washington by Barack Obama, Dr. McFaul had what might be called a purely academic career with no administrative experience to speak of. He would appear to be singularly unprepared to assume the responsibilities of running what is one of the largest American diplomatic posts in the world.

I have gone on record questioning the logic of assigning Ph.D.s to run U.S. diplomacy. See, in particular, my concluding remarks in Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. Some readers have chosen to see this as disparaging the doctorate, but that is not at all the case. What I have questioned is the raising of academic prima donnas to head large federal institutions. I had in mind the State Department, but running a major embassy, such as the US Embassy to NATO (Dr. Ivo Daalder) or the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (McFaul) without man management skills is of doubtful logic. Scholars are by definition not team players and can be positively destructive of the bureaucracies they are supposed to lead (Dr. Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State). Moreover, scholars, unlike ‘organization men,’ are rewarded for speaking their mind and, if successful at their job, carry a lot of intellectual baggage to whatever position they may eventually take outside of the university.

It would be no exaggeration to say that Jack Matlock was one of the most effective ambassadors in the U.S. diplomatic service in the second half of the 20th century. Surely his linguistic talents and area knowledge contributed greatly to his success as President Reagan’s personal emissary to the Kremlin of Mikhail Gorbachev. He brought to the job a loyal defense of his country’s interests and, at the same time, empathy for the country where he was posted so as to take note of its interests as well. He delegated extensively to key subordinates in order to be able to attend a great many events and meet a broad cross-section of the political elites. Indeed, he also made himself available to those working against the Kremlin, in particular the leaders of separatist movements in the Baltics. And yet his mission was very likely what he tells us in his memoirs: the traditional and wholly acceptable task of information gathering for his masters in Washington.

However, it also becomes clear from Matlock’s historical writings after he left office, Autopsy on an Empire and Reagan and Gorbachev, that the unprecedented conditions of Perestroika at times brought Matlock to exceed his purely diplomatic mission. The Soviet leader was attempting to reform the entire political and economic structure of his state, was heading into uncharted waters and sought advice from all sides, including the accredited diplomats and visiting foreign heads of state. This gave Matlock an illusion of not merely witnessing history in the making, but, through his responses to questions posed by Gorbachev tête-à-tête, that he was also helping to make history.

In the case of Michael McFaul, who during the mid-1990s was invited by Boris Yeltsin to provide counsel on electoral matters, there was no restraining hand of U.S. government service to hold him back from participating fully in the partisan warfare between the Kremlin and its opponents in the Russian polity. At this time McFaul made common cause with the Russian ‘democrats’ and ‘reformers’ against the Russian people. His allies included Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, the authors of a deconstruction of Soviet industry that caused massive economic dislocations and tremendous suffering among common people. They and their comrades-in-arms made ‘democracy’ a dirty word for a great many Russians to this day.

McFaul turned a blind eye to the widespread corruption of Russian officials around him, to the insider-trading of American and other Western advisers including university instructors from Harvard who flocked to Moscow to partake of rich pickings, to the sell-off of state assets at nominal values for the sake of funds needed to prop up the unpopular regime, to the rise of the oligarchs who took control of the media, monopolized political life and designated their presumably docile favorite, Vladimir Putin, to succeed Boris Yeltsin when the ailing president was losing his grip.

While working in Moscow in the 1990s, McFaul was publishing articles, op-eds and books, using the authority grounded in his academic credentials to write with pretended objectivity about the very developments where he was an insider and partisan. He appeared as consultant and political commentator on Russian political affairs to leading Western electronic and print media including CNN, the BBC, CBS, ABC, PBS and Reuters.

Early in the new millennium, McFaul published his major work entitled Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin, in which he drew upon his life experience to give a scholarly account of Russian politics in the 1990s. However, this would-be classic for undergraduates has glaring holes and does not deal with the ugliness of the Yeltsin years which I mentioned in passing above.

In the years leading up to his appointment as adviser to Obama on Russia, McFaul remained a prolific writer and self-promoter. He produced an enormous array of essays on Russia for the general public, as well as scholarly articles and books which he edited or contributed to. Many works were co-authored, and I find it especially revealing to see that one of his partners in several articles was the notoriously anti-Russian program director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, the late Ron Asmus.

Properly speaking, Asmus was not a Neoconservative. But he was the Democratic equivalent, and on policy matters was within a hair’s distance from the most extreme unilateralists of the Republican Right. Moreover, he provided a platform in the capital of Europe for the leading foreign policy thinker of the Neoconservatives, fellow expatriate Robert Kagan.

What McFaul and his co-authors like Asmus shared was a passionate Wilsonian idealism and the belief that promotion of democracy must be the defining moment of American foreign policy. Normally, this mind-set also entails a heavy admixture of Russophobia, and there is reason to believe that McFaul is a case in point, as we shall see. The most charitable thing one might say about McFaul, is that he has a love-hate relationship with Russia.

McFaul’s highly visible idealism is clearly what brought him to the attention of presidential candidate Obama, who knew remarkably little about foreign affairs and was seduced intellectually by crusading celebrity scholars and journalists from leading American universities. McFaul was on the faculty of Stanford. Another Obama foreign policy adviser and insider from this period is Samantha Power, the Harvard-based expert on genocide and ethnic cleansing. Power also joined the administration from the beginning notwithstanding her public denigration of presidential candidate Hilary Clinton which revealed a stunning lack of diplomatic tact and political discipline.

It is interesting to note that when McFaul’s impending nomination to the ambassadorship became known, the editors of Foreign Affairs magazine saw fit to remind its readership about an essay he had published there in 2008 together with fellow Stanford pro-democracy fighter Kathryn Stoner-Weiss entitled “Mission to Moscow. Why Authoritarian Stability is a Myth.” Given the current notion of McFaul as father to reset it is important to see that a year before he became the right-hand man on Russia to the leading advocate of political change in America, Barack Obama, McFaul was standing shoulder to shoulder with the Neoconservative claqueurs of the American foreign policy establishment in trashing Mr. Putin’s Russia.

The turn against President Putin and his denunciation by the administration of George W. Bush as an ‘autocrat’ who was rolling back democratic freedoms in Russia came soon after the Russian leader spoke out against post-Cold War American foreign policy at the Munich Security Conference 2007. America does not take kindly to public berating for violating the conventions of international law, least of all by the leader of a ‘revisionist’ country which was trying to claw back some of the glory it lost with the demise of the Soviet Union. By early 2008, when McFaul’s article in Foreign Affairs appeared, the anti-Russian campaign in the U.S. was going full blast. McFaul picked up every cliché of this campaign and made it his own.

We read in “Mission to Moscow” about Putin’s attack on press freedom as represented by the state’s takeover of television and radio stations, then of the print media from the oligarchs. We are told about the undermining of property rights through state intervention against oligarchs and certain foreign concerns who had privileged contracts wrested from the Russians in the Yeltsin years. We read that Putin has stripped away layers of self-administration by making the elective governorships appointed. And we hear about the assault on NGOs, in particular those with foreign connections and financing, amidst ludicrous charges of foreign meddling in Russian affairs.

What we do not find in “Mission to Moscow” is the context of official abuse and chaos inherited from the Yeltsin years which made these and other apparently anti-democratic measures necessary to save the state and even to save democracy from license and violence perpetrated by gangsters in and out of government.

Not content to argue that Putin has undermined democracy and freedoms in Russia, McFaul dares to state that many indicators of living standards for Russians have also become worse since Yeltsin’s times: “In terms of public safety, health, corruption, and the security of property rights, Russians are actually worse off today than they were a decade ago.”

Without wishing to get into a spitting contest, I will say flatly that these contentions are patently false. The statistics he produces to support his allegations can be challenged at every turn.

So what is going on? Either the father of ‘reset’ is a phenomenal opportunist who took a 180 degree policy turn to secure the position as Russia adviser to Mr. Change, or, by common understanding with his boss, the real content of McFaul’s ‘reset’ is rather different from the kind of bonhomie that détente once upon a time suggested in the Nixon era.

I believe it takes a bit of both elements to explain how McFaul may have indeed become the father of reset and why reset is not in fact a love-in with the Russians, but could turn quite nasty in the not too distant future.

It was fairly revealing that New York Times reporter Peter Baker listed only benefits to American foreign policy which have accrued from the reset policy with Russia. Indeed, the Russians have gained almost nothing from the improved atmospherics that go under the heading ‘reset.’ Even the New Start Treaty was not on the Russian wish list, whereas it was a key item in Obama’s nonproliferation policy which has as its final objective to justify turning up the pressure on Iran. Meanwhile, the foreign policy objectives of the Medvedev administration – negotiation of a new strategic architecture for European security, a halt to the US missile defense program in Central and Eastern Europe and visa-free travel for Russians, have not met with a positive response from Washington. The only shared objective which is prioritized by ‘reset’ is early admission of Russia to the WTO, and within Russia that objective enjoys support from only half of the country’s elites because of its equivocal impact on nascent re-industrialization in the automotive sector and elsewhere.

Meanwhile ‘reset’ has not put an end to U.S. hectoring over alleged human rights abuses and democratic deficiencies in Russia. Nor has it prevented fairly blatant U.S. meddling in the Russian internal politics.

The headline meddling has been done by Vice President Joe Biden. On his first visit to Moscow earlier this year, Biden made it plain at a closed meeting with opposition politicians that the U.S. favored the continuation of genial (and weak) Dmitry Medvedev in the presidency, while it hoped Vladimir Putin would trim his ambitions and settle for a post with the Olympics Committee.

Back in Washington, Michael McFaul has been lower in profile with the U.S. media, but has signaled to the anti-Putin ‘democrats’ in Russia that his door is always open. Thus, when Boris Nemtsov visited Washington in November 2010 to press for U.S. sanctions against those in high places in Moscow who had made possible the death in police custody of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, McFaul was one of his key contacts with the administration.

One must ask if the real significance of McFaul’s appointment to Moscow to serve precisely now, in the period running up to the legislative and presidential elections there, is not to allow him to use his great knowledge and contacts with the Opposition to influence the outcome of those elections.

Looking at McFaul’s books on sale in, it is fairly astonishing to see that while serving on the National Security Council in the Obama Administration, he has continued to publish new jointly-authored books (2009, 2010). Normally one would imagine that active government service, particularly in the field of intelligence and foreign policy formulation, is incompatible with the scholarly detachment one associates with university writings. And in his own homepage, McFaul presents himself with his academic robes as professor, faculty member and research associate.

Will this very pampered intellectual-soldier, warrior of the Yeltsin years, defender of the indefensible be able to assume a pin-stripe mentality of information gatherer and implementer of policies written by others when he moves to Moscow? I think this is a doubtful proposition. And if he consorts in Moscow with the folks he knew back then and whom he has received in his Washington office and counsels them on electoral strategy and tactics as he once did Boris Yeltsin, then his days in Moscow will be numbered.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011

*  *   *   *  *




G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book,  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.