CHILLY RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA COULD USE A WARMUP

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- Strangely enough, at the end of this season that will be long remembered as the dark summer that followed hard upon the Arab Spring, a totally different idea is beginning to emerge in the think-tank whispers of Washington.

The word is that America is on the brink of a new "Cold War" with Russia!

The term was actually invented by English writer George Orwell after World War II, when the joyful cries of victory and war's end gave way to a longer war in which spying, conspiracy and jousting for power in the Third World were the heralds. It lasted from 1947 to Christmas Day of 1991, after Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the papers dissolving the Soviet Union.

This moment in history marked an enormous victory for America. The country halfway around the world that had, since 1917, declared its communist ideology to be "the" faith for every man and woman was just suddenly gone. Disappeared, without a shot being fired.

-- Except that President Obama appeared with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" earlier this month and said of Russia, "There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality."

-- Except that The Boston Globe wrote in an editorial recently that despite needing Russia to achieve foreign policy objectives, that "doesn't mean Obama must remain silent about Russia's Cold War revival. Obama has countless tools at his disposal to quietly make Putin's life more difficult."

-- Except that Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-sponsored news network that opens its American base this week, asked in a recent editorial: "So, just why are relations between Russia and the U.S. deteriorating? And where might this lead? Could the world be heading toward a 21st-century Cold War?"

Perhaps that question is hypothetical as America is momentarily obsessed with the burgeoning Egyptian civil war and probably soon will move on to a Japan-China naval confrontation over the poor nameless isles they both claim in the lonely China Sea. But, then again, maybe the question is all too relevant.

It is dangerous, indeed, for people to reach back in history and embrace a conceptual name of a different age -- particularly when it was a negative age -- and try to apply it to contemporary events. The two ages can never be the same -- never! -- and they are not the same here.

History will forever need be grateful to President George H.W. Bush and to Secretary of State James Baker III for their artful and brilliant handling of the Cold War's ending. The last act of a conspiratorial 44-year conflict that was quiet yet devilishly dangerous, occurred without blemish because these two leaders refused to humiliate the Soviets and just let what happened, happen.

Unfortunately, the next president, Bill Clinton, seemed hardly to realize what had happened. He dwelled on minor points of policy and barely mentioned the Cold War that had ended in his lap. We are still paying for his self-indulgent presidency.

Now we must go back for a moment and remember President Barack Obama's promise -- yes, promise! -- during his first presidency to be willing to go anywhere in the world to talk to leaders, even unsavory ones (may I respectfully prepare him a list?). It caused quite a ruckus with the Republicans, but they might as well have rested their jaws, for Obama will not speak now to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

True, there have been a number of serious points of conflict. Putin's intentions toward the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) treaty that Obama signed in 2010, reducing the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers by half, is uncertain. Putin's ban against American families adopting Russian orphans seems more hurtful to his own homeless children than to policy. Russia supports Syria, period.

But the final blow came when one Edward Snowden, armed with his secrets stolen from the National Security Agency, appeared at the Moscow Airport in July. When Putin finally granted him asylum on Aug. 1, Obama canceled his meeting with Putin in Moscow before the G20 summit in St. Petersburg this the fall. Yet Putin had muddled around for weeks, not the moves of a czar.

As an Obama supporter, I have to say nevertheless that our Russia policy seems to be Obama at his worst: trying to look tough for the Republicans, when there's no need to. Vladimir Putin of the KGB is often "thuggish," sure. That was his job. But the next generation will be different.

With the Russians, the key is to never humiliate them in public, but to keep your knife bared until you're behind closed doors, and you'll get an amazing amount of what you want. Instead, perhaps as an unwitting response to his other frustrations this year, Obama is challenging the "old KGB colonel" in public and not getting what he wants in private.

Putin wants to restore Russia to superpower status, the whisperers are saying in Washington. Fine. Let him try. The Soviets left half the world more impoverished the first time around, and they destroyed Russia as a coherent country. The Russians' great fear now is not America but the spread of Muslims in Russia, and an overpopulated China on its border while their own population is falling away.

If they can make a superpower out of that mishmash of problems, I would bet that we could all learn a lot from them. Meanwhile, how about a warm and wary peace?

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)