Months after Leonid Brezhnev had sent Warsaw Pact armies to crush the "Prague spring," President Nixon was sounding him out on arms control and reciprocal summits. Though the Red Army was brutalizing Afghanistan, President Reagan sought from day one to meet with the Soviet leaders and finally did at Geneva and Reykjavik.
Those were serious men dealing with a serious world.
These Cold War presidents recognized that their distaste for Soviet tyranny aside, U.S. vital interests and the peace of the world dictated that they meet with their coequal nuclear power.
Moreover, as measured by freedom of speech, religion, assembly and the press, China in 2008 was a far more repressive place than is Putin's Russia. Yet that did not prevent George W. Bush from showing up for the summer Olympics in Beijing.
And U.S. presidents have been able to work with Putin.
Putin approved NATO strikes on Libya. He has gone along with U.N. sanctions on Iran. He has held off sending Russia's most advanced air defense system to Iran. He has assisted the United States in the war in Afghanistan. He pulled Obama's bacon out of the fire in Syria when the American people and Congress told Obama that, red line or no red line, he had no authority to bomb Syria.
We are now working with Russia on Syria's chemical weapons. And her cooperation is crucial in handling North Korea and negotiating a deal to keep Iran away from a nuclear bomb.
Russia's assistance in the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers was also immediate and extensive.
Moreover, Russia is a part of our civilization. Before World War I, which began a century ago this August, Russia was an ally of France and Britain against Germany.
And when it comes to the war on terror, we are in it together. If Russia's end of the boat sinks, how long do we think ours will stay afloat?
A quarter century ago, Ronald Reagan was being cheered as he strolled through Red Square. Is Putin responsible for the fact that the Russian people themselves no longer view America as a friend?
Or did we, by pushing NATO onto Russia's front porch and cutting her out of the Caspian Sea oil, contribute as well? And did not Americans collude with the oligarchs who, in the Boris Yeltsin years, looted Russia of much of her national wealth?
Obama going to Sochi would turn a page, start a new chapter.
Perhaps it would not be reciprocated. But what does Obama have to lose with such a brave and bold beau geste?
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