The whitest of white papers

The old joke about a camel being a horse designed by committee is unfair to camels and committees. No committee could have come up with the camel's ungainly elegance and humorous ugliness. Committees are more likely to produce the bland than the unique. That is certainly the case with "The Right Direction for U.S. Policy Toward Russia," a report produced by the Nixon Center and Harvard University's Belfer Center. Chaired by former U.S. Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart, the commission's members include former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, Nixon Center president Dimitri Simes and Harvard professor Graham Allison, all of whom I am glad to read individually.

But the report, bland with abstraction and exhortation, comes close to being unreadable. In ringing tones we are told the obvious: "Not only rhetoric but swift action is essential to build a relationship with Moscow ... " In fact, the report itself is mostly rhetoric lacking the action of strong verbs and good ideas. "The Obama administration must establish an effective, comprehensive bilateral structure to facilitate consultation, dialogue and negotiation." Why must it, don't we have any such structures already? And, if not, what is this new structure supposed to look like? Not a word.

In the report's list of specific recommendations, we find this in its totality: "Seek to make Russia an American partner in dealing with Iran and the broader problem of emerging nuclear powers." An airier statement could hardly be imagined. And what if Russia does not want to be "made" into an American partner and prefers an Iran that is hostile to the West and therefore cannot become the alternative energy source that Russia dreads? The report makes an appeal to "support European efforts to develop non-Russian sources of natural gas ... " without once wondering how these contradictory goals can be reconciled.

There are a few good points, even if they are made hesitantly. The report acknowledges that "options other than NATO membership" might be best for Georgia and Ukraine and that the planned missile defense system in Poland deserves a "new look." The one sharp-edged idea is to reduce proliferation risks "perhaps by exploring the creation of an international nuclear fuel bank that would render national enrichment efforts unnecessary."

As with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in China, the authors signal that human rights are not at the top of the agenda. "What is most important to U.S. security interests in Russia, however, is a rational and competent government" (always Russia's strong suit). The goal is partnership, "however uneasy," on the big issues of nonproliferation, arms control, terrorism and economic recovery.

The one time the paper does take a strong, clear stand, it gets itself into trouble: "Even if the U.S.-Russian relationship should break down completely, Russia does not have the will or the resources for a new Cold War." But what could cause the biggest problems in the bilateral relationship is if, for example, Russia gobbles more of Georgia or if the Russian part of Ukraine secedes. As far as "will" is concerned, ill will is never lacking anywhere. And as for the supposed lack of Russian resources, this won't cost so much. The recent cyber-incursions into the U.S. energy grid by computers in China and Russia weren't expensive. Besides, authoritarian regimes usually have no trouble finding the funds they need to cause trouble.

Maybe we'll get some ideas we can sink our teeth into when the authors of this whitest of white papers start writing again as individuals.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."

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