Speed Reads

Foreign affairs

Surprise: None of the American presidents who have dealt with Putin liked the guy

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There's a vigorous debate going on about whether President Obama badly misjudged his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, which then encouraged Moscow's newfound expansionist aggression. Critics have in particular seized on the awkward "reset" moment as proof of the administration's allegedly misguided attempts to rein in Russia by drawing it closer. But Peter Baker, in a refreshing analysis over at The New York Times, writes that Obama's predecessors also struggled to understand and work with the former KGB agent, and that all three men mistakenly "assumed they could manage a man who refuses to be managed."

Eric S. Edelman, who was undersecretary of defense under Mr. Bush, said American leaders overestimated their ability to assuage Mr. Putin's anger about the West. "There has been a persistent tendency on the part of U.S. presidents and Western leaders more broadly to see the sense of grievance as a background condition that could be modulated by consideration of Russian national interests," he said. "In fact, those efforts have been invariably taken as weakness." [New York Times]

There are a number of other revealing passages from Baker's conversations with former White House advisers and foreign policy experts. And there are a few other interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits, such as:

* President George W. Bush privately called Putin "one cold dude," and complained that dealing with him was like "arguing with an eighth grader with his facts wrong."

* Dick Cheney's inner monologue when he thought of Putin went, "KGB, KGB, KGB."

* Hillary Clinton liked to mimic Putin's macho "man's-man, legs-spread-wide posture."

Give the whole thing a read here.