The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The End of the Reset

Are we witnessing the death of Obama’s “reset” policy? On Thursday the Senate passed the Magnitsky Act by an overwhelming majority. If Obama signs the bill, as most believe he will, sanctions will be placed on all Russian officials believed to be involved with the torture of Sergei Magnitsky. Naturally, this is unlikely to go over well in Russia, and as the Washington Post reports, Russia has wasted no time in responding:

Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded to the U.S. Senate vote late Thursday by calling it a “show in the theater of the absurd.” It warned that Russia will respond to the new legislation in kind, adding that the U.S. will have to take the blame for the worsening of U.S.-Russian ties.

“Probably people in Washington forgot what year it is and are thinking that the Cold War isn’t over yet,” the ministry said in a statement adding that “it’s weird and strange to hear human rights-related complaints against us from the politicians of a country where torture and abductions of people all over the world were legitimized in the 21st century.”

There are two important points to note here. One is the popularity of the Magnitsky Act in Congress. The bill passed 92-4 in the Senate, and 365-43 in the House. President Obama will sign it, but even if he has a change of heart Congress has enough votes to pass the bill over a presidential veto. There is a lot of momentum behind this bill.

The limits of “realist” policy toward Russia have never been clearer. Realists would rather repeal of the 38-year old trade sanction without all the hullabaloo about human rights abuses. Clearly, Congress has other ideas, and foreign policy realists don’t command many votes.

The timing also matters. Right now, America’s life would be easier if Russia were more helpful over both Syria and Iran on the Security Council. The Senate’s passage of this bill in the teeth of the Syrian and Iranian crises suggests that Washington isn’t holding out hope of getting much cooperation from Moscow on either subject.

In 2009 when Obama took office, the US was in a Jeffersonian mood: scaling back commitments, licking its wounds. Four years later, ideologically and in terms of power projection, Obama’s America is once again pushing forward. From reset to reassertion: the pendulum of American foreign policy continues to swing.

Published on December 8, 2012 12:00 pm