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On how not to press the re-set button



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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March 10, 2009

LONDON - Precise quid pro quos are not good in marital or romantic relationships. Neither are they good in big time politics. If made too precisely they suggest that the other side is not to be trusted unless there is a "deal".

When there is conflict, either at home, with friends or indeed with enemies, the need is to change the atmosphere, to restore a sense of trust so that opinions and arrangements can be freely traded. One good step by one side encourages, but not demands, a good step by the other side.

At the end of the Cold War we saw such magnanimity and we the peoples, American, Russian, European and the rest of the world, benefited immensely from it.

Two great presidents were responsible for this - George Bush senior in the U.S. and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. In 1991 Bush decided unilaterally to de-alert all bombers, 450 of the deadly accurate city-destroying Minuteman missiles and the missiles in 10 Poseidon submarines (enough with one launch to destroy Moscow, Leningrad and every city in between). Gorbachev, taking the cue, deactivated 500 land-based nuclear-tipped missiles and six submarines (enough in total to reduce the most populated parts of the U.S. to ashes and dust). Moreover, this wasn't the cosmetic de-alerting talked about today. Silo and submarine crews actually had their launch keys taken away from them.

This is why President Barack Obama (if the New York Times has got the story right) has made a big mistake in his opening move following the pressing of the famous "reset button". His letter to President Dimitri Medvedev, suggesting that the U.S. was open to discussion on the dismantling of the anti-missile site now being constructed on Polish soil if Russia would lean harder on Iran to halt any programs that would lead to nuclear weapons, was misconceived.

What it should have said is simply, "President George W. Bush made a policy that the U.S. no longer stands by. We want to reopen discussions with you that will lead to our abandonment of the project". Full stop. Period.

Then once the reset button starts the music, the notes will start to write themselves, as long as the mood remains good. Moscow knows that the U.S. wants to toughen up Russian policy towards Iran. It has already taken important steps towards that end with the responsible way it has handled the building and fuelling of the new Bushehr reactor in Iran. It has voted in the UN Security Council for sanctions. Toughening the Russian attitude would become no big deal for Moscow, especially if it sees Washington extending its hand rather than its clenched fist towards Tehran, a long overdue necessity if negotiations are to prove positive.

It is important too for the West to put itself in Russian shoes. The regime of George Bush senior did nothing to threaten the Soviet Union. Indeed Bush preferred it to remain whole rather than split up into Russia and unstable independent former republics.

It wasn't until Bill Clinton was president that the U.S. became more aggressive, deciding to expand NATO across the former Warsaw Pact nations right up to the Russian border. This broke the agreement Mikhail Gorbachev made in a private meeting with then-Secretary of State James Baker that if he agreed to the reuniting of East and West Germany "there would no extension of NATO's current jurisdiction eastward".

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George Kennan, the author of the original containment policy towards Stalin's Soviet Union, said that Clinton's policy "was the most fateful error of the entire post Cold War era." And Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, wrote in Foreign Affairs, "Washington's crucial error lay in its propensity to treat post-Soviet Russia as a defeated enemy."

The U.S. has a model for how to conduct relations with Russia. It is Bush senior's. The years between 1990 and 1993 were the longest period without use of the veto in the history of the UN. In quick succession the Security Council in July 1987 demanded a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war - the first time ever that the five permanent members of the Security Council had jointly drafted a mandatory resolution. A cease-fire was secured the following year. In November 1990 the Security Council authorized the use of force to reverse Iraq's invasion of Iraq. The following year it unanimously set the terms of the Gulf War cease-fire. It continued like this up to the time of Bill Clinton's presidency.

So America knows the way to go. Obama, do it!

Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

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The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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