We didn't start the fire

Bombings in Iraq. A resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. A global economy on the brink. A $12 trillion national debt. And President Barack Obama decides to axe an approach to missile defense that most experts said wasn't effective in the first place, and which the people living in the host nations didn't like.

So why are so many experts fuming about "capitulation to Russian pressure," as one Washington Post author recently claimed? If the plan "[was] never a threat to Russia," how does its abandonment constitute a victory for Medvedev, or even Putin?

Obama's decision was a coming together of interests: His administration, and many defense experts, decided the program was too costly and ineffective, and Russia didn't want the missiles near its border. Obama corrected a mistake and eased strained relations with Moscow.

It is the last point that draws so much ire in Washington, interestingly, among the same people who usually accuse Russia of having a "Cold War mentality." They believe "we can't do it only because it would please the Russians." Any gain, any positive gesture in Russia's favor is interpreted as a "betrayal." I'm pressured to find a better example of "Cold War" or "zero-sum" mentality than that.

Obama's decision proves he is able to look beyond this approach to foreign policy, and it could become one of the best of his career. Yet it also raises a critical question: What did Russia do in the first place that was worthy of such contempt?

Over the last 20 years, Russia has built a semi-functioning democracy and market economy, and completely abandoned its massive army that once threatened Europe.

Gulags and bread lines have become a thing of the past, while "consumer rights" have entered the lexicon of ordinary people. Many forget that Sovietologists of the 1970s insisted only a miracle could bring about the end of Communism without a global war. Russia and its neighbors did it.

Meanwhile, the U.S. expanded its military budget, launched wars in Russia's vicinity and edged its bases toward Moscow's borders in Europe and Asia. Whatever benign intentions (remember how the Iraq War was originally about WMD?) the U.S. claims for such moves, Russians are nervous about having thousands of NATO troops on their Western flank, from which they've been invaded at least three times in the past 200 years.

I'm the first to admit Putin should re-privatize major TV channels and help build a civil society that punishes the murderers of journalists and human rights activists, and Western organizations (including governments) are right to pressure the Kremlin on this. But does this justify the hawkish Russia policy so popular in Washington when its proponents openly embrace the leaders of countries with even worse human rights records (Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia)?

Western claims that the "gas wars" were entirely motivated by politics are nonsense given they also ensued with Russian "allies" Belarus and Armenia. The above examples illustrate the one-dimensional paradigm Washington has become hostage to: Russia - bad, anything against Russia- good. The mentality originates from those unable to accept Russia as the only remaining nation able to challenge the U.S. with its nuclear arsenal. Following the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, some continue to cling to the concept of unilateralism. Just like during the Cold War, a nuclear Russia is their natural enemy.

The Bush presidency demonstrated where such an approach leads. Many Americans elected Obama in hopes he would correct, among other mistakes, America's foreign policy. Given the international nature of the many economic and political problems the U.S. faces, Russia, with its technology and resources, could be a critical ally.

However, as Vice President Joseph Biden pointed out, many problems prevent Russia from being on par with the United States. As the only remaining superpower, the U.S. must continue to take the initiative in resetting its bruised relations with Moscow. Kudos to Obama for realizing this.

Artem Zagorodnov is Editor of the U.S. and U.K. editions of Russia Now.

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