فصل 19

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فصل 19

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CHAPTER 19

RUNNING FOR THE PRESIDENCY, I’d promised Americans a different kind of foreign policy than the sort we’d been practicing since 9/11. Iraq and Afghanistan offered stark lessons in how quickly a president’s options narrowed once a war had begun. I was determined to shift a certain mindset that had gripped not just the Bush administration but much of Washington—one that saw threats around every corner, took a perverse pride in acting unilaterally, and considered military action as an almost routine means of addressing foreign policy challenges. In our interactions with other nations, we had become obdurate and shortsighted, resistant to the hard, slow work of building coalitions and consensus. We’d closed ourselves off from other points of view. I believed that America’s security depended on strengthening our alliances and international institutions. I saw military action as a tool of last, not first, resort.

We had to manage the wars we were in. But I also wanted to put this broader faith in diplomacy to the test.

It began with a change in tone. From the start of my administration, we made sure that every foreign policy statement coming out of the White House emphasized the importance of international cooperation and America’s intention to engage other nations, big and small, on the basis of mutual interest and respect. We looked for small but symbolic ways to shift policy—like boosting the international affairs budget at the State Department or bringing the United States out of arrears on its U.N. dues after several years in which the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress had withheld certain payments.

Consistent with the adage that 80 percent of success is a matter of showing up, we also made a point of visiting parts of the world that had been neglected by the Bush administration, with its all-consuming focus on terrorism and the Middle East. Hillary, in particular, was a whirlwind that first year, hopping from continent to continent as doggedly as she’d once campaigned for the presidency. Seeing the excitement her visits generated in foreign capitals, I felt vindicated in my decision to appoint her as America’s top diplomat. It wasn’t just that she was treated as a peer by world leaders. Wherever she went, the public saw her presence in their country as a sign that they really mattered to us.

“If we want other countries to support our priorities,” I told my NSC team, “we can’t just bully them into it. We’ve got to show them we’re taking their perspectives into account—or at least can find them on a map.”

To be known. To be heard. To have one’s unique identity recognized and seen as worthy. It was a universal human desire, I thought, as true for nations and peoples as it was for individuals. If I understood that basic truth more than some of my predecessors, perhaps it was because I’d spent a big chunk of my childhood abroad and had family in places long considered “backward” and “underdeveloped.” Or maybe it was because as an African American, I’d experienced what it was like not to be fully seen inside my own country.

Whatever the reason, I made a point of showing an interest in the history, culture, and people of the places we visited. Ben joked that my overseas speeches could be reduced to a simple algorithm: “[Greeting in foreign language—often badly pronounced.] It’s wonderful to be in this beautiful country that’s made lasting contributions to world civilization. [List of stuff.] There’s a long history of friendship between our two nations. [Inspiring anecdote.] And it’s in part due to the contributions of the millions of proud [hyphenated Americans] whose ancestors immigrated to our shores that the United States is the nation it is today.” It might have been corny, but the smiles and nods of foreign audiences showed the extent to which simple acts of acknowledgment mattered.

For the same reason, we tried to include some high-profile sightseeing on all my foreign trips, something to get me out of hotels and beyond the palace gates. My interest in touring Istanbul’s Blue Mosque or visiting a local eatery in Ho Chi Minh City, I knew, would make a far more lasting impression on the average Turkish or Vietnamese citizen than any bilateral meeting or press conference talking point. Just as important, these stops gave me a chance to interact at least a little with ordinary people rather than just government officials and wealthy elites, who in many countries were viewed as out of touch.

But our most effective public diplomacy tool came straight out of my campaign playbook: During my international trips, I made a point of hosting town hall meetings with young people. The first time we tried it, with a crowd of more than three thousand European students during the NATO summit in Strasbourg, we weren’t sure what to expect. Would I get heckled? Would I bore them with long, convoluted answers? But after an unscripted hour in which members of the audience enthusiastically questioned me on everything from climate change to fighting terrorism and offered their own good-humored observations (including the fact that “Barack” means “peach” in Hungarian), we decided to make it a regular feature of my foreign travel.

The town halls usually were broadcast live on the country’s national stations, and whether they emanated from Buenos Aires, Mumbai, or Johannesburg, they attracted a large viewership. For folks in many parts of the world, the sight of a head of state making him- or herself accessible for direct questioning from citizens was a novelty—and a more meaningful argument for democracy than any lecture I might give. In consultation with our local embassies, we often invited young activists from the host country’s marginalized groups—religious or ethnic minorities, refugees, LGBTQ students—to participate. By handing them a microphone and letting them tell their own stories, I could expose a nation of viewers to the justness of their claims.

The young people I met in those town halls were a steady source of personal inspiration. They made me laugh and sometimes made me tear up. In their idealism, they reminded me of the youthful organizers and volunteers who had propelled me into the presidency, and of the bonds we share across racial, ethnic, and national boundaries when we learn to set aside our fear. No matter how frustrated or discouraged I might have felt going in, I always came out of those town halls feeling recharged, as if I’d been dipped in a cool forest spring. So long as young men and women like that exist in every corner of this earth, I told myself, there is reason enough to hope.

AROUND THE WORLD, public attitudes toward the United States had steadily improved since I’d taken office, demonstrating that our early diplomatic work was paying off. This heightened popularity made it easier for our allies to sustain or even boost their troop contributions in Afghanistan, knowing that their citizens trusted our leadership. It gave me and Tim Geithner more leverage when coordinating the international response to the financial crisis. After North Korea started testing ballistic missiles, Susan Rice was able to get the Security Council to pass robust international sanctions, in part because of her skill and tenacity but also, she told me, because “a lot of countries want to be seen as being aligned with you.” Still, there were limits to what a diplomatic charm offensive could accomplish. At the end of the day, each nation’s foreign policy remained driven by its own economic interests, geography, ethnic and religious schisms, territorial disputes, founding myths, lasting traumas, ancient animosities—and, most of all, the imperatives of those who had and sought to maintain power. It was the rare foreign leader who was susceptible to moral suasion alone. Those who sat atop repressive governments could for the most part safely ignore public opinion. To make progress on the thorniest foreign policy issues, I needed a second kind of diplomacy, one of concrete rewards and punishments designed to alter the calculations of hard, ruthless leaders. And, throughout my first year, interactions with the leaders of three countries in particular—Iran, Russia, and China—gave me an early indication of how difficult that would be.

Of the three, Iran posed the least serious challenge to America’s long-term interests but won the prize for “Most Actively Hostile.” Heir to the great Persian empires of antiquity, once an epicenter of science and art during Islam’s medieval golden age, Iran had for many years barely registered in the minds of U.S. policy makers. With Turkey and Iraq on its western border and Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, it was generally viewed as just another poor Middle Eastern country, its territory shrunk by civil conflict and ascendant European powers. In 1951, though, Iran’s secular, left-leaning parliament moved to nationalize the country’s oil fields, seizing control of profits that had once gone to the British government, which owned a majority stake in Iran’s biggest oil production and export company. Unhappy to be boxed out, the Brits imposed a naval blockade to prevent Iran from shipping oil to would-be buyers. They also convinced the Eisenhower administration that the new Iranian government was tilting toward the Soviets, leading Eisenhower to green-light Operation Ajax, a CIA-MI6-engineered coup that deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister and consolidated power in the hands of the country’s young monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Operation Ajax set a pattern for U.S. miscalculation in dealing with developing countries that lasted throughout the Cold War: mistaking nationalist aspirations for Communist plots; equating commercial interests with national security; subverting democratically elected governments and aligning ourselves with autocrats when we determined it was to our benefit. Still, for the first twenty-seven years, U.S. policy makers must have figured their gambit in Iran had worked out just fine. The shah became a stalwart ally who extended contracts to U.S. oil companies and bought plenty of expensive U.S. weaponry. He maintained friendly relations with Israel, gave women the right to vote, used the country’s growing wealth to modernize the economy and the education system, and mingled easily with Western businesspeople and European royalty.

Less obvious to outsiders was a simmering discontent with the shah’s extravagant spending, ruthless repression (his secret police were notorious for torturing and killing dissidents), and promotion of Western social mores that, in the eyes of conservative clerics and their many followers, violated the core tenets of Islam. Nor did CIA analysts pay much attention to the growing influence of an exiled messianic Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, whose writings and speeches denounced the shah as a Western puppet and called on the faithful to replace the existing order with an Islamic state governed by sharia law. So U.S. officials were caught by surprise when a series of demonstrations inside Iran at the start of 1978 blossomed into a full-blown populist revolution. In successive waves, followers of Khomeini’s were joined in the streets by disaffected workers, unemployed youths, and pro-democracy forces seeking a return to constitutional rule. By the beginning of 1979, with the number of demonstrators swelling into the millions, the shah quietly fled the country and was briefly admitted into the United States for medical treatment. America’s nightly newscasts were filled with images of the ayatollah—white-bearded, with the smoldering eyes of a prophet—stepping off a plane in triumphant return from exile before a sea of adoring supporters.

Most Americans knew little about this history as the revolution unfolded—or why people in a faraway country were suddenly burning Uncle Sam in effigy and chanting “Death to America.” I sure didn’t. I was seventeen at the time, still in high school and just on the cusp of political awareness. I only vaguely understood the details of all that happened next: how Khomeini installed himself as supreme leader and sidelined former secular and reformist allies; how he formed the paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to crush anybody who challenged the new regime; and how he used the drama that unfolded when radicalized students stormed the U.S. embassy and took American hostages to help solidify the revolution and humiliate the world’s most powerful nation.

But it’s hard to overstate just how much, thirty years later, the fallout from these events still shaped the geopolitical landscape of my presidency. Iran’s revolution inspired a slew of other radical Islamic movements intent on duplicating its success. Khomeini’s call to overthrow Sunni Arab monarchies turned Iran and the House of Saud into bitter enemies and sharpened sectarian conflict across the Middle East. Iraq’s attempted 1980 invasion of Iran and the bloody eight-year war that followed—a war in which the Gulf states provided Saddam Hussein with financing while the Soviets supplied Khomeini’s military with arms, including chemical weapons—accelerated Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a way to offset its enemies’ military advantages. (The United States, under Reagan, cynically tried to have it both ways, publicly backing Iraq while secretly selling arms to Iran.) Khomeini’s vow to wipe Israel off the map—manifest in the IRGC’s support for armed proxies like the Lebanon-based Shiite militia Hezbollah and the military wing of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas—made the Iranian regime Israel’s single greatest security threat and contributed to the general hardening of Israeli attitudes toward possible peace with its neighbors. More broadly, Khomeini’s rendering of the world as a Manichaean clash between the forces of Allah and those of “the Great Satan” (America) seeped like a toxin into the minds not just of future jihadists but of those in the West already inclined to view Muslims as objects of suspicion and fear.

Khomeini died in 1989. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a cleric who’d barely traveled outside his own country and never would again, apparently matched Khomeini in his hatred of America. Despite his title as supreme leader, Khamenei’s authority wasn’t absolute—he had to confer with a powerful council of clerics, while day-to-day responsibility for the running of the government fell to a popularly elected president. There’d been a period toward the end of the Clinton administration and the start of the Bush administration when more moderate forces inside Iran had gained a little traction, offering the prospect of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. After 9/11, Iran’s then president, Mohammad Khatami, had even reached out to the Bush administration with offers to help with America’s response in neighboring Afghanistan. But U.S. officials had ignored the gesture, and once President Bush named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech, whatever diplomatic window existed effectively slammed shut.

BY THE TIME I took office, conservative hard-liners were firmly back in charge in Tehran, led by a new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose manic anti-Western outbursts, Holocaust denial, and persecution of gays and others he considered a threat made him a perfect distillation of the regime’s most hateful aspects. Iranian weapons were still being sent to militants intent on killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. invasion of Iraq had greatly strengthened Iran’s strategic position in the region by replacing its sworn enemy, Saddam Hussein, with a Shiite-led government subject to Iranian influence. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, had emerged as the most powerful faction in Lebanon, with Iranian-supplied missiles that could now reach Tel Aviv. The Saudis and Israelis spoke in alarming tones of an expanding “Shiite Crescent” of Iranian influence and made no secret of their interest in the possibility of a U.S.-initiated regime change.

Under any circumstances, then, Iran would have been a grade A headache for my administration. But it was the country’s accelerating nuclear program that threatened to turn a bad situation into a full-blown crisis.

The regime had inherited nuclear facilities built during the time of the shah, and under the U.N.’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—to which Iran had been a signatory since its ratification in 1970—it had the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful means. Unfortunately the same centrifuge technology used to spin and enrich the low-enriched uranium (LEU) that fueled nuclear power plants could be modified to produce weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU). As one of our experts put it, “With enough HEU, a smart high school physics student with access to the internet can produce a bomb.” Between 2003 and 2009, Iran boosted its total number of uranium-enriching centrifuges from a hundred to as many as five thousand, far more than any peaceful program could justify. The U.S. intelligence community was reasonably confident that Iran didn’t have a nuclear weapon yet. But it was also convinced that the regime had narrowed its “breakout capacity”—the window of time needed to produce enough uranium to build a viable nuclear weapon—to a potentially dangerous point.

An Iranian nuclear arsenal wouldn’t need to threaten the U.S. homeland; just the possibility of a nuclear strike or nuclear terrorism in the Middle East would severely limit a future U.S. president’s options to check Iranian aggression toward its neighbors. The Saudis would likely react by pursuing their own rival “Sunni bomb,” triggering a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region. Meanwhile, Israel—reportedly holding a trove of undeclared nuclear weapons itself—viewed a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat and was allegedly drawing up plans for a preemptive strike against Iran’s facilities. Any action, reaction, or miscalculation by any of these parties could plunge the Middle East—and the United States—into yet another conflict at a time when we still had 180,000 highly exposed troops along Iran’s borders, and when any big spike in oil prices could send the world economy deeper into a tailspin. At times during my administration we gamed out the scenarios for what a conflict with Iran would look like; I left those conversations weighed down by the knowledge that if war became necessary, nearly everything else I was trying to achieve would likely be upended.

For all these reasons, my team and I had spent much of the transition discussing how to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon—ideally through diplomacy rather than by starting another war. We settled on a two-step strategy. Because there had been almost no high-level contact between the United States and Iran since 1980, step one involved direct outreach. As I’d said in my inaugural address, we were ready to extend a hand to those willing to unclench their fists. Within weeks of taking office, I’d sent a secret letter to Ayatollah Khamenei through a channel we had with Iranian diplomats at the United Nations, suggesting that we open a dialogue between our two countries on a range of issues, including Iran’s nuclear program. Khamenei’s answer was blunt: Iran had no interest in direct talks. He did, however, take the opportunity to suggest ways the United States could stop being an imperialist bully.

“Guess he’s not unclenching his fist anytime soon,” Rahm said after reading a copy of Khamenei’s letter, which had been translated from Farsi.

“Only enough to give me the middle finger,” I said.

The truth was, none of us in the White House had expected a positive response. I’d sent the letter anyway because I wanted to establish that the impediment to diplomacy was not America’s intransigence—it was Iran’s. I reinforced a message of openness to the broader Iranian public through a traditional Persian New Year’s (Nowruz) greeting that we put online in March.

As it was, any prospects of an early breakthrough were extinguished in June 2009, when Iranian opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi credibly accused government officials of vote rigging to help reelect Ahmadinejad to a second term as president. Millions of protesters inside Iran took to the streets to challenge the election results, launching a self-described “Green Movement” that posed one of the most significant internal challenges to the Islamic state since the 1979 Revolution.

The ensuing crackdown was merciless and swift. Mousavi and other opposition leaders were placed under house arrest. Peaceful marchers were beaten, and a significant number were killed. One night, from the comfort of my residence, I scanned the reports of the protests online and saw video of a young woman shot in the streets, a web of blood spreading across her face as she began to die, her eyes gazing upward in reproach.

It was a haunting reminder of the price so many people around the world paid for wanting some say in how they were governed, and my first impulse was to express strong support for the demonstrators. But when I gathered my national security team, our Iran experts advised against such a move. According to them, any statement from me would likely backfire. Already, regime hard-liners were pushing the fiction that foreign agents were behind the demonstrations, and activists inside Iran feared that any supportive statements from the U.S. government would be seized upon to discredit their movement. I felt obliged to heed these warnings, and signed off on a series of bland, bureaucratic statements—“We continue to monitor the entire situation closely”; “The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected”—urging a peaceful resolution that reflected the will of the Iranian people.

As the violence escalated, so did my condemnation. Still, such a passive approach didn’t sit well with me—and not just because I had to listen to Republicans howl that I was coddling a murderous regime. I was learning yet another difficult lesson about the presidency: that my heart was now chained to strategic considerations and tactical analysis, my convictions subject to counterintuitive arguments; that in the most powerful office on earth, I had less freedom to say what I meant and act on what I felt than I’d had as a senator—or as an ordinary citizen disgusted by the sight of a young woman gunned down by her own government.

Having been rebuffed in our attempts to open a dialogue with Iran, and with the country spiraling into chaos and further repression, we shifted to step two of our nonproliferation strategy: mobilizing the international community to apply tough, multilateral economic sanctions that might force Iran to the negotiating table. The U.N. Security Council had already passed multiple resolutions calling on Iran to halt its enrichment activities. It had also authorized limited sanctions against Iran and formed a group called the P5+1—representing the five permanent Security Council members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany—to meet with Iranian officials in the hope of pushing the regime back into Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty compliance.

The problem was that the existing sanctions were too weak to have much of an impact. Even U.S. allies like Germany continued to do a healthy amount of business with Iran, and just about everyone bought its oil. The Bush administration had unilaterally imposed additional U.S. sanctions, but those were largely symbolic, since U.S. companies had been blocked from doing business with Iran since 1995. With oil prices high and its economy growing, Iran had been more than happy to string along the P5+1 with regular negotiating sessions that produced nothing other than a commitment to more talking.

To get Iran’s attention, we’d have to persuade other countries to tighten the vise. And that meant getting buy-in from a pair of powerful, historic adversaries that didn’t like sanctions as a matter of principle, had friendly diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran—and mistrusted U.S. intentions almost as much as Tehran did.

HAVING COME OF AGE in the 1960s and ’70s, I was old enough to recall the Cold War as the defining reality of international affairs, the force that chopped Europe in two, fueled a nuclear arms race, and generated proxy wars around the globe. It shaped my childhood imagination: In schoolbooks, newspapers, spy novels, and movies, the Soviet Union was the fearsome adversary in a contest between freedom and tyranny.

I was also part of a post-Vietnam generation that had learned to question its own government and saw how—from the rise of McCarthyism to support for South Africa’s apartheid regime—Cold War thinking had often led America to betray its ideals. This awareness didn’t stop me from believing we should contain the spread of Marxist totalitarianism. But it made me wary of the notion that good resided only on our side and bad on theirs, or that a people who’d produced Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were inherently different from us. Instead, the evils of the Soviet system struck me as a variation on a broader human tragedy: The way abstract theories and rigid orthodoxy can curdle into repression. How readily we justify moral compromise and relinquish our freedoms. How power can corrupt and fear can compound and language can be debased. None of that was unique to Soviets or Communists, I thought; it was true for all of us. The brave struggle of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain felt of a piece with, rather than distinct from, the larger struggle for human dignity taking place elsewhere in the world—including America.

When, in the mid-1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev took over as the general secretary of the Communist Party and ushered in the cautious liberalization known as perestroika and glasnost, I studied what happened closely, wondering if it signaled the dawning of a new age. And when, just a few years later, the Berlin Wall fell and democratic activists inside Russia lifted Boris Yeltsin to power, sweeping aside the old Communist order and dissolving the Soviet Union, I considered it not just a victory for the West but a testimony to the power of a mobilized citizenry and a warning for despots everywhere. If the tumult that engulfed Russia in the 1990s—economic collapse, unfettered corruption, right-wing populism, shadowy oligarchs—gave me pause, nevertheless I held out hope that a more just, prosperous, and free Russia would emerge from the inevitably difficult transition to free markets and representative government.

I’d mostly been cured of that optimism by the time I became president. It was true that Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, who had come to power in 1999, claimed no interest in a return to Marxism-Leninism (“a mistake,” he once called it). And he had successfully stabilized the nation’s economy, in large part thanks to a huge increase in revenues brought about by rising oil prices. Elections were now held in accordance with the Russian constitution, capitalists were everywhere, ordinary Russians could travel abroad, and pro-democracy activists like the chess master Garry Kasparov could get away with criticizing the government without an immediate trip to the Gulag.

And yet, with each year that Putin remained in power, the new Russia looked more like the old. It became clear that a market economy and periodic elections could go hand in hand with a “soft authoritarianism” that steadily concentrated power in Putin’s hands and shrank the space for meaningful dissent. Oligarchs who cooperated with Putin became some of the world’s wealthiest men. Those who broke from Putin found themselves subject to various criminal prosecutions and stripped of their assets—and Kasparov ultimately did spend a few days in jail for leading an anti-Putin march. Putin’s cronies were handed control of the country’s major media outlets, and the rest were pressured into ensuring him coverage every bit as friendly as the state-owned media had once provided Communist rulers. Independent journalists and civic leaders found themselves monitored by the FSB (the modern incarnation of the KGB)—or, in some cases, turned up dead.

What’s more, Putin’s power didn’t rest on simple coercion. He was genuinely popular (his approval ratings at home rarely dipped below 60 percent). It was a popularity rooted in old-fashioned nationalism—the promise to restore Mother Russia to its former glory, to relieve the sense of disruption and humiliation so many Russians had felt over the previous two decades.

Putin could sell that vision because he’d experienced those disruptions himself. Born into a family without connections or privilege, he’d methodically climbed the Soviet ladder—reservist training with the Red Army, law studies at Leningrad State University, a career in the KGB. After years of loyal and effective service to the state, he’d secured a position of modest stature and respectability, only to see the system he’d devoted his life to capsize overnight when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. (He was at that time stationed with the KGB in Dresden, East Germany, and he reportedly spent the next few days scrambling to destroy files and standing guard against possible looters.) He’d made a quick pivot to the emerging post-Soviet reality, allying himself to democratic reformer Anatoly Sobchak, a mentor from law school who became mayor of St. Petersburg. Moving into national politics, Putin rose through the ranks of the Yeltsin administration with breathtaking speed, using his power in a variety of posts—including director of the FSB—to pick up allies, dole out favors, gather secrets, and outmaneuver rivals. Yeltsin appointed Putin prime minister in August 1999 and then four months later—hobbled by corruption scandals, bad health, a legendary drinking problem, and a record of catastrophic economic mismanagement—surprised everyone by vacating his office. That made Putin, then forty-seven, the acting president of Russia and provided him with the head start he needed to get elected to a full presidential term three months later. (One of Putin’s first acts was to grant Yeltsin a blanket pardon for any wrongdoing.) In the hands of the shrewd and the ruthless, chaos had proven a gift. But whether out of instinct or calculation, Putin also understood the Russian public’s longing for order. While few people had an interest in returning to the days of collective farming and empty store shelves, they were tired and scared and resented those—both at home and abroad—who appeared to have taken advantage of Yeltsin’s weakness. They preferred a strong hand, which Putin was only too happy to provide.

He reasserted Russian control over the predominantly Muslim province of Chechnya, making no apologies for matching the brutal terrorist tactics of separatist rebels there with unrelenting military violence. He revived Soviet-style surveillance powers in the name of keeping the people safe. When democratic activists challenged Putin’s autocratic tendencies, he dismissed them as tools of the West. He resurrected pre-Communist and even Communist symbols and embraced the long-suppressed Russian Orthodox Church. Fond of showy public works projects, he pursued wildly expensive spectacles, including a bid to host the Winter Olympics in the summer resort town of Sochi. With the fastidiousness of a teenager on Instagram, he curated a constant stream of photo ops, projecting an almost satirical image of masculine vigor (Putin riding a horse with his shirt off, Putin playing hockey), all the while practicing a casual chauvinism and homophobia, and insisting that Russian values were being infected by foreign elements. Everything Putin did fed the narrative that under his firm, paternal guidance, Russia had regained its mojo.

There was just one problem for Putin: Russia wasn’t a superpower anymore. Despite having a nuclear arsenal second only to our own, Russia lacked the vast network of alliances and bases that allowed the United States to project its military power across the globe. Russia’s economy remained smaller than those of Italy, Canada, and Brazil, dependent almost entirely on oil, gas, mineral, and arms exports. Moscow’s high-end shopping districts testified to the country’s transformation from a creaky state-run economy to one with a growing number of billionaires, but the pinched lives of ordinary Russians spoke to how little of this new wealth trickled down. According to various international indicators, the levels of Russian corruption and inequality rivaled those in parts of the developing world, and its male life expectancy in 2009 was lower than that of Bangladesh. Few, if any, young Africans, Asians, or Latin Americans looked to Russia for inspiration in the fight to reform their societies, or felt their imaginations stirred by Russian movies or music, or dreamed of studying there, much less immigrating. Shorn of its ideological underpinnings, the once-shiny promise of workers uniting to throw off their chains, Putin’s Russia came off as insular and suspicious of outsiders—to be feared, perhaps, but not emulated.

It was this gap between the truth of modern-day Russia and Putin’s insistence on its superpower status, I thought, that helped account for the country’s increasingly combative foreign relations. Much of the ire was directed at us: In public remarks, Putin became sharply critical of American policy. When U.S.-backed initiatives came before the U.N. Security Council, he made sure Russia blocked them or watered them down—particularly anything touching on human rights. More consequential were Putin’s escalating efforts to prevent former Soviet bloc countries, now independent, from breaking free of Russia’s orbit. Our diplomats routinely received complaints from Russia’s neighbors about instances of intimidation, economic pressure, misinformation campaigns, covert electioneering, contributions to pro-Russian political candidates, or outright bribery. In the case of Ukraine, there’d been the mysterious poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko, a reformist activist turned president whom Moscow opposed. And then, of course, there had been the invasion of Georgia during the summer of 2008.

It was hard to know how far down this dangerous path Russia planned to go. Putin was no longer Russia’s president: Despite dominating the polls, he’d chosen to abide by Russia’s constitutional prohibition against three consecutive terms, swapping places with Dmitry Medvedev, his former deputy, who upon being elected president in 2008 had promptly installed Putin as his prime minister. The consensus among analysts was that Medvedev was merely keeping the presidential seat warm until 2012, when Putin would be eligible to run again. Still, Putin’s decision not just to step down but to promote a younger man with a reputation for relatively liberal, pro-Western views suggested he at least cared about appearances. It even offered the possibility that Putin would eventually leave elective office and settle into the role of power broker and elder statesman, allowing a new generation of leadership to put Russia back on the path toward a modern, lawful democracy.

All that was possible—but not likely. Since the time of the czars, historians had noted Russia’s tendency to adopt with much fanfare the latest European ideas—whether representative government or modern bureaucracy, free markets or state socialism—only to subordinate or abandon such imported notions in favor of older, harsher ways of maintaining the social order. In the battle for Russia’s identity, fear and fatalism usually beat out hope and change. It was an understandable response to a thousand-year history of Mongol invasions, byzantine intrigues, great famines, pervasive serfdom, unbridled tyranny, countless insurrections, bloody revolutions, crippling wars, years-long sieges, and millions upon millions slaughtered—all on a frigid landscape that forgave nothing.

IN JULY, I flew to Moscow for my first official visit to Russia as president, accepting the invitation Medvedev had extended at the G20 meeting in April. My thought was that we could continue with our proposed “reset”—focusing on areas of common interest while acknowledging and managing our significant differences. School was out for the summer, which meant that Michelle, Malia, and Sasha could join me. And under the pretext of needing help with the girls (and with the promise of a tour of the Vatican and an audience with the pope when we continued on to Italy for a G8 summit), Michelle convinced my mother-in-law and our close friend Mama Kaye to come along as well.

Our daughters had always been great travelers, cheerfully enduring our annual nine-hour round-trip commercial flights between Chicago and Hawaii, never whining or throwing tantrums or kicking the seats in front of them, instead engrossing themselves in the games, puzzles, and books that Michelle doled out with military precision at regular intervals. Flying on Air Force One was a definite upgrade for them, with a choice of in-flight movies, actual beds to sleep in, and a flight crew plying them with all kinds of snacks. But still, traveling overseas with the president of the United States presented a new set of challenges. They got woken up just a few hours after falling asleep to put on new dresses and fancy shoes and have their hair combed tight so that they’d be presentable once we landed. They had to smile for photographers as we walked down the stairs, then introduce themselves to a row of gray-haired dignitaries who stood waiting on the tarmac—careful to maintain eye contact and not mumble, as their mother had taught them, and trying not to look bored as their dad engaged in meaningless chitchat before everyone climbed into the awaiting Beast. Rolling down a Moscow freeway, I asked Malia how she was holding up. She looked catatonic, her big brown eyes staring blankly at a spot over my shoulder.

“I think,” she said, “this is the most tired I’ve ever been in my entire life.”

A midmorning nap seemed to cure the girls’ jet lag, and there are moments of us together in Moscow that I recall as if they happened yesterday. Sasha striding beside me through the grand, red-carpeted halls of the Kremlin, followed by a set of towering uniformed Russian officers, her hands in the pockets of a tan trench coat as if she were a pint-sized secret agent. Or Malia trying to suppress a grimace after she gamely agreed to taste caviar in a rooftop restaurant overlooking Red Square. (True to form, Sasha refused the heap of slimy black stuff on my spoon, even at the risk of not getting a crack at the ice cream station later.) But traveling as the First Family wasn’t the same as traveling during the campaign, when we’d ride an RV from town to town and Miche and the girls would stay at my side through parades and county fairs. I now had my itinerary and they had theirs—along with their own support staff, briefings, and official photographer. At the end of our first night in Moscow, when we reunited at the Ritz-Carlton, the four of us lay on the bed and Malia asked why I hadn’t gone with them to see the Russian dancers and dollmakers. Michelle leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “Your father’s not allowed to have fun. He has to sit in boring meetings all day.” “Poor Daddy,” Sasha said, patting me on the head.

The setting for my official meeting with Medvedev was suitably impressive: one of the palaces within the Kremlin complex, its high, gilded ceilings and elaborate appointments restored to their former czarist glory. Our discussion was cordial and professional. At a joint press conference, we artfully finessed the continuing friction around Georgia and missile defense, and we had plenty of “deliverables” to announce, including an agreed-upon framework for the negotiation of the new strategic arms treaty, which would reduce each side’s allowable nuclear warheads and delivery systems by up to one-third. Gibbs was more excited by Russia’s agreement to lift restrictions on certain U.S. livestock exports, a change worth more than $1 billion to American farmers and ranchers.

“Something folks back home actually care about,” he said with a grin.

That evening, Michelle and I were invited to Medvedev’s dacha, a few miles outside the city center, for a private dinner. From reading Russian novels, I’d imagined a larger but still-rustic version of the traditional country home. Instead, we found ourselves on an enormous estate cloistered in a bank of tall trees. Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana—a cheerful, matronly blonde with whom Michelle and the girls had spent much of the day—greeted us at the front door, and after a brief tour, we walked out through a garden to dine in a large, wood-beamed gazebo.

Our conversation barely touched on politics. Medvedev was fascinated by the internet and quizzed me about Silicon Valley, expressing his desire to boost Russia’s tech sector. He took a keen interest in my workout routine, describing how he swam for thirty minutes each day. We shared stories about our experiences teaching law, and he confessed his affection for hard rock bands like Deep Purple. Svetlana expressed concerns about how their thirteen-year-old son, Ilya, would manage adolescence with the added attention of being the president’s son—a challenge Michelle and I understood all too well. Medvedev speculated that the boy would eventually prefer attending university abroad.

We bid the Medvedevs farewell shortly after dessert, taking care that the members of our team were fully loaded into the travel van before our motorcade snaked out of the compound. Gibbs and Marvin had been entertained by members of Medvedev’s team elsewhere on the property, plied with vodka shots and schnapps, putting them in a jovial mood that wouldn’t survive the next morning’s wake-up call. As Michelle fell asleep beside me in the darkness of the car, I was struck by just how ordinary the night had been—how, with the exception of the translators who’d sat discreetly behind us while we ate, we could have been attending a dinner party in any well-to-do American suburb. Medvedev and I had more than a few things in common: Both of us had studied and taught law, gone on to marry and start families a few years later, dabbled in politics, and been helped along by older, cagier politicians. It made me wonder how much the differences between us could be explained by our respective characters and dispositions, and how much was merely the result of our different circumstances. Unlike him, I had the good fortune of having been born in a nation where political success hadn’t required me to ignore billion-dollar kickbacks or the blackmailing of political opponents.

I MET VLADIMIR PUTIN for the first time the following morning when I traveled to his dacha, located in a suburb outside Moscow. Our Russia experts, Mike McFaul and Bill Burns, as well as Jim Jones, joined me for the ride. Having had some past interactions with Putin, Burns suggested that I keep my initial presentation short. “Putin’s sensitive to any perceived slights,” Burns said, “and in his mind, he’s the more senior leader. You might want to open the meeting by asking him his opinion about the state of U.S.-Russian relations and let him get a few things off his chest.” After turning through an imposing gate and continuing down a long driveway, we pulled up in front of a mansion, where Putin welcomed us for the obligatory photo op. Physically, he was unremarkable: short and compact—a wrestler’s build—with thin, sandy hair, a prominent nose, and pale, watchful eyes. As we exchanged pleasantries with our respective delegations, I noticed a casualness to his movements, a practiced disinterest in his voice that indicated someone accustomed to being surrounded by subordinates and supplicants. Someone who’d grown used to power.

Accompanied by Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s urbane foreign minister and former U.N. representative, Putin led us to a broad outdoor patio, where an elaborate spread had been arranged for our benefit, with eggs and caviar, breads and teas, served by male waiters in traditional peasant dress and high leather boots. I thanked Putin for his hospitality, noted the progress our countries had made with the previous day’s agreements, and asked for his assessment of the U.S.-Russia relationship during his time in office.

Burns hadn’t been kidding when he said the man had a few things to get off his chest. I’d barely finished the question before Putin launched into an animated and seemingly endless monologue chronicling every perceived injustice, betrayal, and slight that he and the Russian people had suffered at the hands of the Americans. He’d liked President Bush personally, he said, and had reached out after 9/11, pledging solidarity and offering to share intelligence in the fight against a common enemy. He’d helped the United States secure airbases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for the Afghan campaign. He’d even offered Russia’s help in handling Saddam Hussein.

And where had it gotten him? Rather than heed his warnings, he said, Bush had gone ahead and invaded Iraq, destabilizing the entire Middle East. The U.S. decision seven years earlier to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and its plans to house missile defense systems on Russia’s borders continued to be a source of strategic instability. The admission of former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO during both the Clinton and Bush administrations had steadily encroached on Russia’s “sphere of influence,” while U.S. support for the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan—under the specious guise of “democracy promotion”—had turned Russia’s once-friendly neighbors into governments hostile to Moscow. As far as Putin was concerned, the Americans had been arrogant, dismissive, unwilling to treat Russia as an equal partner, and constantly trying to dictate terms to the rest of the world—all of which, he said, made it hard to be optimistic about future relations.

About thirty minutes into what was supposed to have been an hour-long meeting, my staffers started sneaking glances at their watches. But I decided not to interrupt. It seemed clear that Putin had rehearsed the whole thing, but his sense of grievance was real. I also knew that my continued progress with Medvedev depended on the forbearance of Putin. After about forty-five minutes, Putin finally ran out of material, and rather than trying to stick to our schedule, I began answering him point by point. I reminded him that I’d personally opposed the invasion of Iraq, but I also rejected Russia’s actions in Georgia, believing that each nation had the right to determine its own alliances and economic relationships without interference. I disputed the idea that a limited defense system designed to guard against an Iranian missile launch would have any impact on Russia’s mighty nuclear arsenal, but mentioned my plan to conduct a review before taking further steps on missile defense in Europe. As for our proposed “reset,” the goal wasn’t to eliminate all differences between our two countries, I explained; it was to get past Cold War habits and establish a realistic, mature relationship that could manage those differences and build on shared interests.

At times, the conversation got contentious, especially on Iran. Putin dismissed my concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and bristled at my suggestion that he suspend a pending sale of the powerful Russian-designed S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the regime. The system was purely defensive, he said, adding that reneging on a contract worth $800 million would risk both the bottom line and the reputation of Russian arms manufacturers. But for the most part he listened attentively, and by the end of what had turned into a two-hour marathon, he expressed openness, if not enthusiasm, for the reset effort.

“Of course, on all these issues, you will have to work with Dmitry,” Putin told me as he walked me to my waiting motorcade. “These are now his decisions.” Our eyes met as we shook hands, both of us knowing that the statement he’d just made was dubious, but for now, at least, it was the closest thing I was going to get to an endorsement.

The meeting with Putin wreaked havoc on the rest of the day’s schedule. We raced back to Moscow, where I was slated to deliver the commencement address to bright-eyed young Russians studying international business and finance. Beforehand, in a holding room off the stage, I had a brief pull-aside with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Seventy-eight years old and still robust, with the signature red birthmark splashed across his head, he struck me as a strangely tragic figure. Here was a man who’d once been one of the most powerful people on earth, whose instincts for reform and efforts at denuclearization—no matter how tentative—had led to an epic global transformation and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. He now found himself largely disdained within his own country, both by those who felt he’d surrendered to the West and by those who considered him a Communist throwback whose time was long past. Gorbachev told me he was enthusiastic about a reset and my proposals for a nuclear-free world, but after fifteen minutes I had to cut the conversation short to deliver my speech. Although he said he understood, I could tell he was disappointed—a reminder for both of us of the fleeting, fickle nature of public life.

Then it was off to an abbreviated Kremlin lunch with Medvedev and a ballroom of important personages, followed by a roundtable discussion with U.S. and Russian business leaders, where boilerplate appeals for greater economic cooperation were exchanged. By the time I arrived at the summit of U.S. and Russian civil society leaders that McFaul had organized, I could feel jet lag kicking in. I was content to take a seat, catch my breath, and listen to the remarks of those speaking before me.

It was my kind of crowd: democracy activists, heads of nonprofits, and community organizers working at a grassroots level on issues like housing, public health, and political access. They mostly toiled in obscurity, jostled for money to keep their operations afloat, and rarely had a chance to travel outside their home cities, much less do so at the invitation of a U.S. president. One of the Americans was even someone I’d worked with during my organizing days back in Chicago.

Maybe it was the juxtaposition of my past and my present that kept me thinking about my conversation with Putin. When Axe asked for my impressions of the Russian leader, I’d said that I found him strangely familiar, “like a ward boss, except with nukes and a U.N. Security Council veto.” This prompted a laugh, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. Putin did, in fact, remind me of the sorts of men who had once run the Chicago machine or Tammany Hall—tough, street smart, unsentimental characters who knew what they knew, who never moved outside their narrow experiences, and who viewed patronage, bribery, shakedowns, fraud, and occasional violence as legitimate tools of the trade. For them, as for Putin, life was a zero-sum game; you might do business with those outside your tribe, but in the end, you couldn’t trust them. You looked out for yourself first and then for your own. In such a world, a lack of scruples, a contempt for any high-minded aspirations beyond accumulating power, were not flaws. They were an advantage.

In America, it had taken generations of protest, progressive lawmaking, muckraking journalism, and dogged advocacy to check, if not fully eliminate, such raw exercises of power. That reform tradition was in large part what had inspired me to enter politics. And yet, in order to reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe or another Middle East war, I’d just spent the morning courting an autocrat who no doubt kept dossiers on every Russian activist in the room and could have any one of them harassed, jailed, or worse whenever he pleased. If Putin did go after one of these activists, how far would I go in taking him to task—especially knowing that it probably wouldn’t change his behavior? Would I risk the completion of START negotiations? Russian cooperation on Iran? And how did one measure such trade-offs anyway? I could tell myself that compromises existed everywhere, that in order to get things done back home, I’d cut deals with politicians whose attitudes weren’t so different from Putin’s and whose ethical standards didn’t always bear scrutiny. But this felt different. The stakes were higher—on both sides of the ledger.

Standing up finally to speak, I praised the people in the room for their courage and dedication and urged them to focus not just on democracy and civil rights but also on concrete strategies to provide jobs, education, healthcare, and decent housing. Addressing the Russians in the audience, I said that America couldn’t and shouldn’t fight their battles for them, that Russia’s future was for them to determine; but I added that I would be rooting for them, firm in my conviction that all people aspire to the principles of human rights, the rule of law, and self-governance.

The room burst into applause. McFaul beamed. I felt glad about being able to lift, however briefly, the spirits of good people doing hard and sometimes dangerous work. I believed that, even in Russia, it would pay off in the long run. Still, I couldn’t shake the fear that Putin’s way of doing business had more force and momentum than I cared to admit, that in the world as it was, many of these hopeful activists might soon be marginalized or crushed by their own government—and there’d be very little I could do to protect them.

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