George Kennan, Michael McFaul, and Their Paranoid Hosts

The Perils of Serving as Ambassador to Russia

5:08 PM: Welceom [sic] to my life. Press has right to film me anywhere. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?

5:14 PM: When I asked these "reporters" how they knew my schedule, I got no answer. Heard the same silence when they met me after meeting w/[Anatoly] Chubais.

1:15 AM: Just watched NTV. I mispoke [sic] in bad Russian. Did not mean to say "wild country." Meant to say NTV actions "wild." I greatly respect Russia.

-- U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, on Twitter, March 29–30, 2012

It has never been easy to represent the United States in Moscow, but the job is especially difficult if you happen to be a public intellectual who speaks Russian well. Sixty years ago, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan requested -- and received -- suicide pills from the CIA out of fear that he might be arrested and tortured by Joseph Stalin’s agents. There is no reason to be as concerned for Ambassador Michael McFaul’s safety in Vladimir Putin’s Russia today. Yet McFaul’s lashing out last month, after the state-controlled television channel NTV started sending cameramen to dog his every move, suggests a few troubling similarities with Kennan’s experiences in 1952 and may also signal a new worsening of Washington’s relations with the Kremlin.

President Harry Truman, like President Barack Obama, dispatched the well-known architect of his Russia policy to Moscow as ambassador and hoped for the best. Kennan, who predicted that the Soviet system would eventually collapse, recommended a policy of containing the Kremlin’s power until that collapse occurred. Writing pseudonymously as “X,” Kennan outlined his thinking in Foreign Affairs in July 1947; by 1952, he had publicly acknowledged writing the article. Not one to cherish the give and take of intellectual discourse, Stalin probably did not consider the appointment of a public critic as a friendly act.

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