Michael McFaul's memoir: Yesterday's man rages against the dying of the light

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
Michael McFaul's memoir: Yesterday's man rages against the dying of the light
‘From Cold War to Hot Peace:’ 483 pages of a controversial former US ambassador to Moscow venting his agitation over unfulfilled potential.

SAINT PETERSBURG - As Theresa May might say, it’s “highly likely” that Michael McFaul, given he’s a professional scholar, is familiar with the work of George Berkeley. For the uninitiated, or those who couldn’t care less, he was a philosopher from Kilkenny, Ireland, famous for advancing a theory now known as “subjective idealism.

Whether he knows it or not, McFaul has spent decades channeling Berkeley, except he’s substituted the Irishman’s mystic optimism for a messianic devotion to his own “higher calling:” that of “democracy promotion.” Yet, in reality, the former US ambassador to Russia has mostly indulged in pretty selective idealism.

McFaul isn’t interested in just any form of democracy: he only considers those which mimic the American ‘liberal’ system legitimate. Thus, just as the late bishop of Cloyne couldn’t imagine a world without the presence of God, our hero can’t envisage a planet where the United States is not calling the shots everywhere.

However, McFaul is offering readers a romanticized version of the American order, a system which often sees its custodians behave in the manner of a compromised preacher exulting his flock to do as he suggests rather than what his church does in practice. And that’s where Berkeley’s most famous observation, "esse est percipi (to be is to perceived)," comes into play.

Because, make no mistake, either the ex-ambassador genuinely lacks the self-awareness to understand why he is so poorly regarded in Moscow, or he’s playing what the English would call “silly buggers.” Meaning the question is which Peter Sellers character McFaul most resembles: Chauncey Gardner (Being There) or Inspector Clouseau (The Pink Panther). And it’s clearly the latter because this author is far more inept and incompetent than naive or stupid.  

Origin of the species

McFaul’s academic speciality encompasses transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. An early supporter of pro-Western post-Soviet Russia, he’s angry with Vladimir Putin for ending the country’s transformation towards an orientation subservient to Washington. One assumes this is why he wrote a 52-page paper, in 2005, entitled ‘American Efforts at Promoting Regime Change in the Soviet Union and then Russia: Lessons Learned.’ Something which he omits from his book. Now, arriving in Moscow with this sort of legacy pretty much amounts to turning up in Pamplona and waving red rags at the local bull population.

READ MORE: America’s elite thinks it has a divine right to rule the world

This is especially so given McFaul arrived in the capital in January 2012, in the midst of large liberal opposition protests and just about two months after his old boss, Hillary Clinton, had appeared to encourage the demonstrators, drawing a furious response from Putin.  

Of course, McFaul could have tried to distance himself from what was happening but, instead, he devoted his first meeting as ambassador to Putin's opponents – which surely didn’t impress the Kremlin. Here, he indicates how he actually wasn’t in favor of the event, claiming it was US Assistant Secretary William Burn’s idea. And this may be true, but surely McFaul could have feigned a flu to avoid it, if he really wanted, knowing the potential optics?

Soon after this faux pas, Mikhail Leontiev, a Russian TV host, ran a flagrant attack on McFaul, which certainly smeared him and was absolutely factually challenged. The author chastises Leontiev for building up anti-American hysteria, but his argument is diluted now he's happy to appear, as a fixture, on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show, which does the same thing in reverse – whipping up anti-Russian sentiment, using dodgy facts.

Furthermore, despite his protestations, McFaul betrays his interests when, later in his book, he considers taking a “democracy promotion” gig focused on the Middle East. It suggests he’s an ideologue who chose Russia as his chariot due to the circumstances of his time, rather than being a hardcore Russophile. This theory is bolstered after he admits that the type of Russians who interest him come from a small circle (referring to Moscow in 1985): “I met refuseniks, black marketeers, the spoiled children of Communist Party leaders.” There’s nothing about heading into the regions and engaging with “middle Russia,” which tends to be conservative and sceptical of change – but also elects the country’s leaders.

‘Righteous struggle’

Indeed, early on, he uses variations of the word “democratic” 13 times in one single paragraph which is notable for its disregard for the conventions of word repetition but also speaks volumes about the priorities at play – especially given it's paired with the phrase “righteous struggle.”

For this reason I was expecting at least a chapter on the events of 1993 when Boris Yeltsin destroyed Russia’s nascent democracy and created the “hyper-presidential” system which has made Putin so powerful. Back then, Yeltsin shelled his own parliament with tanks, in defiance of democratic norms, and 158 people died (130 of them civilians).

Instead of scrutinizing the effects of those actions, McFaul devotes a few paragraphs, concluding how “everyone made mistakes and everyone lost.” Presumably, he felt he couldn’t delve into it because Bill Clinton “explained to the American people” that Yeltsin was “on the right side of history.”

More delusive meandering comes when McFaul admits how, in 1994, after Yeltsin unilaterally invaded – though the idea of ‘invading’ part of your own country seems a bit bizarre – Chechnya, he himself lectured Russians on national TV about “how decisions to go to war are made in the US… the President (must) consult with Congress before taking military action.” This is surely news to Donald Trump, who has twice attacked Syria (illegally) without consulting either chamber of Washington’s bicameral legislature.

Then there’s the 1996 Russian election, when American advisors meddled to assist Yeltsin’s victory: something later celebrated in a Hollywood movie and an iconic Time magazine cover. But McFaul doesn’t feel it merits comment, despite his almost daily protestations on US network TV about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 American presidential contest.

Telling revelations

That said, there is some valuable information in ‘From Cold War to Hot Peace’ such as the author’s insider accounts of Putin-Obama meetings. His revelation that Putin insisted “Dmitry (Medvedev)” was in charge of foreign policy, during his presidency, is interesting in the context of the latter’s later acquiescence to the West's 2011 Libyan intervention – seen as a colossal mistake inside Russia. Indeed, McFaul does acknowledge how American manipulation of Medvedev over Libya ended all hopes of him challenging for a second term in the Kremlin. Another stand-out observation is the description of Putin’s 2007 Munich speech, where he lashed out at Washington's attempts to create a unipolar world, as “shocking” and “infamous.”

However, the most interesting revelation is that the Americans offered Putin a White House visit in May 2012, before the G8 summit, which took place in Maryland. But he refused, and also avoided the main event: for reasons McFaul deems spurious. This is noteworthy because it suggests Putin had already given up on Russia’s integration with the West about two years before it was commonly realized. And it also means Russia’s 2014 “suspension” from the G8 wasn’t much of a punishment at all. Something Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has already intimated.

I was very cautious about reviewing this book because – oddly for a man with Celtic blood – McFaul is a sensitive soul. So, in the interests of disclosure, I need to explain how he has blocked me on Twitter, apparently, because I described him as “arguably, the least successful US ambassador to Russia in history” in an exchange with a Russian journalist, something I’d hardly consider a controversial statement. As a result, I had decided not to review the book – until McFaul popped up with a March tweet to RT saying he “couldn't wait for your reviews.” Well, now he need linger no more.

From Cold War To Hot Peace’ is widely available, both online and in bookstores.

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