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Huntsman faces ‘impossible’ task as U.S. ambassador to Russia

First Published      Last Updated Mar 13 2017 09:01 am


Man in the middle » With U.S.-Russia relations in tatters, ambassador’s job will be tougher with potential investigations into election meddling.

Washington • Tensions are high between Washington and Moscow — with possible congressional investigations pending on the latter's meddling in the U.S. election and alleged ties among President Donald Trump, his team and Russian officials — and the man soon expected to be in the middle faces one of the more challenging tasks in his career.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Trump's pick as U.S. ambassador to Russia, is expected to be the go-between in the high-stakes game that not only involves Russia's attempted hacking of the election but also a fractured foreign policy approach and age-old issues of nuclear proliferation, energy production and military one-upmanship.




"It's an impossible job," says Max Bergmann, a senior fellow on U.S.-Russian policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress who served as an adviser to former Secretary of State John Kerry.

Huntsman expertly maneuvered his way between President Barack Obama's administration and communist China's leaders as U.S. ambassador to that country, Bergmann adds, but it's a much different and more crucial post if Huntsman is confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

"In the case of Russia, there is no unified direction in terms of policy where we have the State Department, the Defense Department in one place, you can count Nikki Haley as U.N. ambassador in there," says Bergmann. "Then we have the president who is clearly in a different space of where the relationship in Russia should be."

Huntsman hasn't faced a single objection in the Senate in the three times it has confirmed him as ambassador to China, Singapore and as deputy U.S. trade representative.

But once installed, Huntsman enters a position fraught with potential crisis at every turn, not only in handling the diplomatic challenge between the two world superpowers but also with Trump's approach to foreign policy that has been erratic at times, according to foreign policy experts.

"It's not a job that — while I commend him for stepping up to the challenge — it's not a job that I think he's probably going to be able to exercise effectively," Bergmann says.

That's not a criticism of Huntsman's skills, but of the new administration.

Huntsman was viewed by the Obama White House and U.S.-China observers as an effective ambassador, even if he left after only 18 months to run for president against a field of Republicans to challenge Obama in 2012.

At the time, Huntsman was thrust into a critical role in bridging the rift between America and China over alleged currency manipulation, as well as the typical spats over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and human rights.

"Ambassador Huntsman was an effective advocate for U.S. policy in China, on trade and investment concerns as well as on broader political issues such as internet freedom and human rights," Elizabeth Economy, the director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in 2011. "I only wish he would have stayed for three or four years rather than 18 months, so that he could have fulfilled what I think was his potential to be one of the truly great U.S. ambassadors to China."

Accomplishing the same with Russia would be a big lift.

Middleman • There's no shortage of tough issues awaiting Huntsman.

Despite Trump's assertion otherwise, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia was attempting to sway the election in his favor and against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump's first pick as national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after admitting he misled the White House about conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a U.S. senator and frequent Trump surrogate during the campaign, recused himself from the election-meddling investigation after acknowledging two meetings with Kislyak despite saying during his confirmation hearings that he had no contact with Russian officials.

Huntsman wasn't involved in the Trump campaign — he had supported Trump at one point but was critical later on — so he can enter the position unmarred by the political fallout. But he will have to confront Russia on missile tests, the country's usurpation of Crimea from Ukraine, Russia's fight against the Islamic State (that runs counter to the previous administration's approach), as well as Russia's relationship with Europe and NATO.

"It's pretty rare for an ambassador to have the country he's assigned to right at the center of bitter political controversy back home," says Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked on Russian policy in the Reagan and Clinton administrations. "And don't forget the fact that the U.S. is pretty controversial in Russia now, too."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN last week that Moscow had no intention nor any program of interfering with the U.S. elections and that further discussion of that is harming U.S.-Russian standing.

"The only thing I can tell you is that all this hysteria and public opinion, hysteria in official Washington and hysteria in American media, this is doing lots of harm to the future of our bilateral relations," Peskov told CNN.

Still, the Putin spokesman told CNN that Russia looks forward to a U.S. ambassador who is open to conversation.

"We would welcome any head of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow who will be strongly committed to idea of a dialogue with Moscow," he said.

Huntsman, in his own words, was "taken to the woodshed" by Chinese officials several times during his ambassadorship there, and at one point, rode a bicycle to meet those officials to show his humbleness in the midst of a U.S.-China disagreement. That may not work in Moscow.

"China was a much sleepier and slower-moving account than Russia," says Sestanovich, who was the ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001. "The level of animosity in Russian-American relations is far higher, and the political fortunes of the president are part of the story, too. Beijing and Singapore cannot have prepared Huntsman for this."

Asked for advice he would give Huntsman, Sestanovich said that the new envoy must remember that he isn't just serving Trump but America, and that he has to "retain the confidence" of Congress and his State Department colleagues.

In the end, Huntsman may find his new role daunting, but doesn't have to worry much about repairing the U.S.-Russian relationship.

"Because the relationship is in the toilet now, nobody is likely to blame him if things don't get better," Sestonovich says.

tburr@sltrib.com

Editor's note: The Salt Lake Tribune is owned and published by Paul Huntsman, the brother of former Gov. Jon Huntsman.

 

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