Farewell, Ambassador McFaul
Published: February 19, 2014 (Issue # 1798)
Although Michael McFaul masterminded the “reset” between the U.S. and Russia, ushering in a welcome, albeit short-lived, period of warmer relations, his ambassadorship to Moscow was doomed from the start.
The sandy-haired Montana native fell right into the Kremlin’s anti-American propaganda trap during his first days on the job, and he never managed to pull himself out. Last week, McFaul announced that he was leaving after only two years in Russia to return to his old professorship at Stanford University.
McFaul arrived in Moscow only a month after the December 2011 protests that attracted tens of thousands of people in the largest anti-government demonstrations since August 1991.
For the Kremlin, the timing couldn’t have been better. Instead of a standard, reserved career diplomat, McFaul was a public figure whose critical views on Russia’s democracy and human rights were well-known, given his track record as an author, television commentator and chief adviser on Russia to U.S. President Barack Obama.
Immediately, the Kremlin labeled McFaul’s pro-democracy positions as identical to those of Russia’s “radical opposition,” which was to say “subversive.” Notably, one of the main slogans at a large pro-Kremlin rally in Moscow on Feb. 4, 2012, two weeks after McFaul’s arrival, was “No to the Orange plague! No to the U.S. Embassy!”
State television seized on McFaul’s well-received 2002 book “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin,” claiming that the words “Russia’s unfinished revolution” provided clear evidence of McFaul’s subversive plans to overthrow the government of President Vladimir Putin. At first, the ridiculous distortion prompted laughter in the West. Then, it evoked indignation when the Kremlin crudely attempted to turn a respected scholar and Russia expert into a modern-day Che Guevara.
Throughout McFaul’s two years as ambassador, the Kremlin never stopped spinning the primitive myth that the U.S. sent McFaul to Russia to fund the opposition movement, turn street protests into million-man marches, and carry out an Orange-style revolution in the country.
Admittedly, McFaul made himself an easy target at times. He invited opposition leaders and human rights activists to a meeting on his second day on the job, on Jan. 17, 2012. The Kremlin spin machine went into overdrive, with state television reporting about the meeting in menacing tones. NTV, for example, ran a special program “Receiving Instructions From the U.S. Embassy,” in which journalists badgered opposition leaders on their way into and from the meeting with McFaul with questions like “Why did you come here? What is your mission?” The Kremlin conveniently ignored the fact that McFaul had met with senior government officials the day before, or that dual-track diplomacy — meeting with both government officials and the opposition — has been considered standard diplomatic practice all over the world for decades, including by Russian ambassadors in Washington.
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