Two Houses, Alike in Dignity…

The spectacle of four American presidents and one presumptive candidate for the office gathering last week in Little Rock, Arkansas, to open Bill Clinton’s presidential library should be enough to cheer all but the United States’ most dour European friends.

Almost everyone has seen the photographs by now:  Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton sitting together cheerfully beneath umbrellas on a stage.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that a dozen years from today, two Bushes and two Clintons will have led the United States without interruption in the years from 1988 to 2016. Not a sure thing by any means, but as of today, perhaps the likeliest scenario.

If it happens that way, it should give all but the most avid haters the opportunity to blow themselves out. Eight years of Mrs. Clinton should put the U.S. back on speaking terms with the rest of the world as well. The civility and mutual respect that was on display in Little Rock last week will have been contagious. A decent respect for the opinions of mankind once again will have become Washington’s rule.

There remains the tragically gone-wrong war in Iraq. That sorry miscalculation sponsored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney not to bother to attempt to maintain order in the wake of their military conquest already has cost a hundred thousand lives, in the name of freedom and democracy — goals that today seem very far away.

Many more lives will be lost before the Iraqi thugs and foreign jihadis who are fomenting the turmoil are bought off or put away. Long before that, of course, Rumsfeld and Cheney will be gone, in permanent disgrace.

But the very possibility that Mrs. Clinton could follow Bush as president is grounds for pulling back and opening up a longer vista. That means thinking about tax policy, of course. But it also means keeping an anxious eye on Russia.

Why Russia?  Because the situation there is potentially very dangerous.

For just as understanding the arc of the Bush family presidencies means going back thirty years to Bush the elder’s service in the Ford administration and the end of the Vietnam War, so following the arc of the Bush and presumptive Clinton presidencies means thinking about the role the rivalry between the Bush and Clinton families has played in America’s shifting stance towards Russia.

Remember, the end of the 45-year Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union occurred during George H. W. Bush’s single term as president. When Mikhail Gorbachev attended the G-7 Summit in Paris as a guest in 1989, he flatly asserted that the USSR neither wanted nor needed Western aid.

Less than a year later, with his economy in free-fall, he wrote the G-7 leaders to reverse himself.  Without the “radical step” of significant long- term financing, he wrote, “further renewal of our society will be impossible.”

West Germany by then was pouring aid into Moscow, as a means of winning rapid reunification.

President Bush, however, was preoccupied with the prosecution of the First Gulf War — itself a significant contributor to further Soviet collapse.  And in the aftermath, when Gorbachev was threatened by the August coup in 1991, a weak economy rendered the Bush administration determinedly cautious abroad and financially timid at home.

At a time when an ambitious program of foreign aid might have made an enormous difference to the future of Russian society, the Bush administration treated Gorbachev with extreme caution.

So Boris Yeltsin took over and in October 1991 announced a plan to administer “shock therapy” to the Russian economy — a rapid transition from a centrally planned to a decentralized market economy of a sort attempted by Poland a couple of years before.

Then Bill Clinton defeated Bush in November 1992.

Under Clinton, U.S. policy switched to enthusiastic support of the pell-mell Russian privatizations of the 1990s. The U.S. State Department hired Harvard University to advise the Russian government — a mission that ended disastrously in 1997 when Harvard’s team leader and his deputy were found to have been investing in Russian securities on their own accounts.

Russian privatizations continued to spin out of control. Eighty percent of the country’s assets were sold off, all but given away, most of them winding up in the hands of a couple dozen individuals — “the oligarchs,” as the overnight billionaires were known.

By the end of 1998, Russia had become embroiled in the series of financial crises that had begun in Asia the year before. A $22 billion IMF aid package was under siege. (Much of it eventually passed through into private hands.) A giant American hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, tottered on the verge of bankruptcy when the Russian Treasury defaulted on its bonds. Dire outcomes were forecast.

Instead, Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. Former head of the Federal Security Service (successor organization to the KGB), he began centralizing power almost immediately. He was re-elected by a wide margin earlier this year, having become more and more authoritarian with each passing year.

By way of explanation of current trends in the Soviet Union, Putin said last week: “It’s an open secret that in the complex conditions of the early 1990s — at the dawn of the creation of democratic institutions — social, economic, territorial and geopolitical factors were not always taken into proper consideration.”  It is convenient shorthand for a widely-held opinion: Russian botched its transition, badly.

It was nothing we hadn’t heard before.  Having let go of political authority altogether, the men who govern Russia are clawing some of it back.  The real question is, How much?  How much worse could it get?

What had not been heard before was Putin’s boast to military leaders last week that Russia was on the verge of developing a new missile system “like none other in the world.” It would consist, he said, of “systems that other nuclear states do not have and will not have in the immediate years to come.”

With nothing more substantial than that on which to rely, Robert Park of the American Physical Society reported, some analysts thought that Putin was talking about a ballistic missile capable of evasive action. Russia is thought to have been working on such a missile, but there have been few details, and its military is strapped for funds.

The United States, meanwhile, for decades has been working on extremely expensive and elusive systems of missile defense.  A zig-zag missile might put such “Star Wars” concepts permanently out of reach, and restore the old “balance of terror” between two fully-armed nuclear powers.

So what’s with the prospect of a new arms race? Just as we need scenarios for the U.S., we need plausible scripts to help us think about what’s likely to happen next in Russia. Last summer, George Washington University professor Peter Reddaway outlined three broad possibilities for the next four years. (Reddaway’s 2001 book with Dimitri Glinski, The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy, is a particularly good primer.)

Putin succeeds in his role as a balancer-in-chief among competing clans. He plays the elites off against one another — oligarchs, siloviki (former communist managers who now want their own cut of the swag), reactionaries and hyper-nationalists who long for the old regime. He resists the forces of reaction, seeks to buttress the pursuit of a market economy, and cooperates with the West.  Russia makes steady progress.

The siloviki get the upper hand: Putin chases more of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs out of the country and puts others on trial. He consolidates his authority, but always under pressure from those who wish to force his hand. Dissent is stifled, political participations collapses, markets become less free. Putin seeks to avoid having to make major shifts in foreign policy.  Maybe he succeeds. Maybe not.

There is a coup.  One or more setbacks force Putin to resign or be ousted. A terrorist attack, military mutinies, an epidemic or environmental crisis, or (worst of all) a plunge in oil prices, and the siloviki and the nationalists combine to force the president out of office. They begin to dismantle the constitutional machinery. The government is transformed behind the scenes — either smoothly, as when Khrushchev was replaced in 1964, or dangerously, as in the period after Stalin’s death and in 1990-91 and 1993.

Right now, says Reddaway, things in Russia seem to be barely holding together. Putin responds to each behind-the-scenes challenge as it arises. There is no long-range plan, no margin for error, just a leader adept in judo responding to one crisis after another.

The story of Romeo and Juliet it’s not — unless you stretch a point to dwell on Clinton’s affinity for Boris Yeltsin and George W. Bush’s instant approval of Vladimir Putin.  But like Shakespeare’s famous play, the story of the clumsy overtures toward Russia by both Bush administrations and the Clinton administration is a tale of lags, misunderstandings and missed signals.  Already a tragedy for the Russians, it is in danger of becoming worse.