It was the most memorable moment in the debates of the 2008 nomination cycle. Before the New Hampshire Primary, Sen. Hillary Clinton was asked by the debate moderator to respond to comments that she had a powerful resume, impressive achievements, but she didn’t measure up on the “likeability” scale.
Her response was charming. “That hurts my feelings.” But her opponent, freshman Sen. Barack Obama scored a knockout with his ultra-cool rejoinder. “Your likeable enough, Hillary.” You have to see it.
Hillary actually won that primary, narrowly. But it didn’t take away the sting of Obama’s barb. Likeable enough.
Clearly, she was trying to be more likeable in her debut as President Obama’s Secretary of State when she went to Geneva five years ago to meet with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Madame Secretary presented the normally dour Slavic diplomat with a red plastic button.
It was supposed to say: “Reset”. But Lavrov noted that it actually said: “Overcharge” And observers pointed out that the State Department types who had typed the word failed to write it in the Cyrillic alphabet. So, wrong word. Wrong alphabet. No big thing.
We just want to be more likeable. The news media, of course, focused on all the goodwill, the yuk-yuk making, and the promise of a new era in U.S.-Russian relations. No more of that nasty George W. Bush. Now, we would all have a Rodney King foreign policy: Can’t we all just get along?
The reset button was supposed to symbolize America’s willingness to wipe the 2008 slate clean. We would not hold Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia against them. It was a short, sharp clash that only served to show the former Soviet satellite—in fact, all the former Soviet regions--that the Russian bear still had sharp claws and big teeth.
As we look ahead, however, we will find that the reset button will figure more prominently. From that moment on, the Russian policy of this administration was to accommodate, temporize, forgive and forget.
In 2010, President Obama met with then-President Dmitri Medvedev in suburban Washington for what was billed as a “hamburger summit.” The two leaders mugged for the cameras and no one noticed that Medvedev was figuratively eating Obama’s lunch.
Just a few days later, ten Russian spies were arrested by the FBI. This untoward incident was not allowed to derail the reset, however. They were not whisked off to a black site for interrogation. No, they were escorted out of the country. They doubtless avoided even a TSA pat-down.
Now, historians of U.S.-Russian diplomacy may recall that in 1960, Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev raged at the Paris Summit when an American U-2 high altitude jet spy plane was shot down by a rocket. He railed at President Eisenhower. He demanded a cessation of all such flights. And a groveling apology, to boot.
Ike resisted Khrushchev’s bullying—and our NATO allies rallied around him. Khrushchev put the U-2 pilot—the CIA’s Francis Gary Powers—on trial in Moscow and milked the incident for all it was worth.
Fifty years later, the Russians could put ten spies in America, they could be arrested and returned, and there was hardly a ripple of protest.
What can you expect when everything was supposed to have been “reset”? With this week’s action by the Russians in the Crimea, we can point to that adolescent stunt of Hillary’s in 2009. Struggling to be more likeable, she forgot the importance of being respected.
The Russians are unlikely to respect a country that doesn’t respect itself. All of this brings back memories of the last U.S. administration so eager to be liked. Jimmy Carter spoke of the need to get over our “inordinate fear of communism” and its lead sponsor, the USSR. The Soviets treated that speech like a starter’s pistol for a footrace. They ran rampant in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Mr. Carter’s own pick as Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Malcolm Toon was a most competent professional diplomat with thirty years of experience. After the unlamented Carter administration was tossed out of office, Ambassador Toon said he had never feared war with the Soviet Union so much as when Carter was in office. The Georgian’s weakness was too tempting to the Kremlin bosses, Toon said.
Well, Georgia is always on our mind. We cannot reset reality. If you are looking for the source of Vladimir Putin’s power grab in the Crimea and Ukraine, you need look no further than Hillary’s bungled reset button.