Who runs U.S. foreign policy? In a week of historic court cases, international summits and the imperial spectacle of an American viceroy handing over sovereignty, it seems an easy question. Foreign policy, as we all know, is controlled by what the British call the Great and the Good: senior judges and top ambassadors, senators and presidents, and famous names and famous faces.
Yet if you dig beneath the front-page stories, the answer is different. Look at the puzzling question of who controls U.S. policy toward Chechnya, an admittedly lesser but not entirely insignificant place. After all, the Chechen war is among the bloodiest ethnic conflicts in Europe: Civilian deaths are approaching the level of Cambodian deaths under the Khmer Rouge. Chechnya is also a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists and has contributed to the weakening of democracy in Russia. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, came to power on a wave of anti-Chechen Russian nationalism.
Theoretically, U.S. policy toward Chechnya is clear enough. Although we consider Chechnya to be “an internal Russian matter,” we do say that we want the war to end by negotiation, and we do believe that there is someone for the Russians to negotiate with. Indeed, when the Great and the Good speak about Chechnya, which isn’t often, they usually sound like Steven Pifer, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. In 2003, for example, Pifer told the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that “we do not share the Russian assessment that the Chechen conflict is simply and solely a counterterrorism effort. . . . While there are terrorist elements fighting in Chechnya, we do not agree that all separatists can be equated as terrorists…”