ASG Senior Director Andrew Weiss discusses Russia, President Putin, and the Sochi Olympics in POLITICO
President Obama’s Sochi snub a winner at home
Hey Vlad, Guess who’s coming to Sochi — and who isn’t?
There are a lot of ways to look at an American delegation to next year’s Winter Olympics that is light on dignitaries and heavy on symbolism. President Barack Obama’s decision to skip the five-ring circus of opening and closing ceremonies is an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin. So is sending Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, who are openly gay, to a country that discriminates against its gay citizens. And it’s all a way of showing displeasure that doesn’t hurt the American athletes who have been waiting their entire lives to compete on the highest of world stages — in other words, more of a sit-in than a boycott.
The best explanation of the snub: All of the above — and more.
While it would be easy to make too much of the moment, it seems to be a slam dunk of a public-relations win for Obama at a time when his approval ratings are in the tank. The left likes his stand in favor of gay rights, and no U.S. president will ever go wrong with the right by thumbing his nose at the “Evil Empire” — particularly with Putin in power.
“There aren’t any costs at home,” said James Goldgeier, a former director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. “There’s no love for Vladimir Putin in the West right now.”
In its official statement, the White House tread lightly but distinctly in creating a clear path to the conclusion that Obama intended the slight to Putin and the support for gay and lesbian athletes.
“The U.S. delegation to the Olympic Games represents the diversity that is the United States,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “All our delegation members are distinguished by their accomplishments in government service, civic activism, and sports. We are proud of each and every one of them and think they will serve as great ambassadors of the United States to the Olympic Games.”
She framed Obama’s absence as a matter of scheduling and didn’t at all address the reason that the highest-ranking member of the Obama administration to attend won’t be Obama, Vice President Joe Biden or Dr. Jill Biden or even a current Cabinet member. Instead, it’s the No. 2 man at the State Department, Deputy Secretary Bill Burns.
Aides to the president say they don’t expect to provide much more insight into the decision than they have already.
“It’s the kind of thing that speaks for itself,” one White House official said.
But former administration officials were more forthcoming.
“I suppose if the US is not going to boycott Sochi, trolling Sochi also works,” former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett wrote on Twitter.
“There is zero downside to insulting Putin. Putin has done everything in his power to humiliate President Obama. Failing to respond in kind would do nothing but imply weakness in the eyes of Putin and his circle,” said a former senior State Department official from Hillary Clinton’s years in Foggy Bottom. “It is to President Obama’s credit that he is including gay athletes to represent the United States and excluding the highest level government representation.”
This isn’t the only recent Obama snub of Putin. Earlier this year, Obama declined to travel to Moscow for a meeting with Putin ahead of the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, choosing instead to visit Stockholm, Sweden. And the two got into a war of words in September of the issue of American exceptionalism.
American experts on Russia say that the relationship between the two presidents is so toxic that there’s nothing to be lost from Obama skipping the Olympics. And, they say, Obama’s not the only president who sees victory in a fight over gay rights.
Putin’s defense of culturally conservative Russians’ values, including those influenced by the Orthodox Church, have helped him, according to Andrew Weiss, a former Russia expert on the National Security Council and a senior director at the Albright Stonebridge Group.
“It’s such a politically profitable issue for Putin himself,” Weiss said.
Obama, who endorsed gay marriage in 2012, has tried to elevate the issue of gay rights on the international stage during his five years in office, particularly as it pertains to Russia.
“The level of attention the president has personally devoted to this issue through his public comments far exceeds any other human rights issue that has come up in the U.S.-Russia relationship,” Weiss said.
The question of how best to punish another country through the Olympics — a showcase of peaceful, sportsmanlike international competition — has long bedeviled international leaders. A boycott can look churlish, and it’s the athletes who suffer most.
The delegation itself amounts to the United States “making a statement without hurting your athletes,” said Goldgeier, who is now the dean of American University’s School of International Studies. “It’s not just the negative statement … It’s the positive statement that we are going to send openly gay athletes to represent us.”
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