Obama’s Enlightened Foolery
He views Putin, the 21st century, and himself as in a fun-house mirror.


Victor Davis Hanson

President Obama talks about Vladimir Putin as if he were a Pennsylvania “clinger” who operates on outdated principles, who is driven by fear, and whom unfortunately the post-Enlightenment mind of even Barack Obama cannot always reach. Deconstruct a recent CBS News interview with President Obama, and the limitations of his now-routine psychoanalyses are all too clear. Consider the following presidential assertions:

Obama said in the CBS interview that Vladimir Putin was “willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union.”

Is that any surprise? Why would Putin not “show a deeply held grievance” — given that Russians enjoyed far more pride and influence when they had far more territory and power than they do now? Just because elites in the West might consider Denmark and Luxembourg model societies, given their per capita incomes, ample social services, high-speed mass transit, and climate-change sensitivities, does not necessarily mean that the grandchildren of Stalingrad and Leningrad would agree.  

What exactly does Obama mean when he says, of Putin, “what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union”?

“Considers”? Did we miss something here?

Did not the Soviet Union disappear from the map? Did not it leave in its ruin a much smaller Russian Federation — one perhaps far less dangerous and with more potential to get along with the West, but with far less likelihood of regaining the glory and influence that many Russians had come to appreciate?

Obama went on: “You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that, you know, were so prevalent during the Cold War but, in fact, to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”

Who “would have thought” that?

Only a naïf.

Does Obama believe in a linear trajectory of history, in which man’s nature is constantly improved with greater material bounty and ever more education, until we reach the apparent present utopian state, where “integration with the world economy” and being “a responsible international citizen” must logically preclude most aggression? 

That foreign-policy scenario, given the nature of man, is about as believable as an assertion that we 21st-century Americans long ago transcended 19th-century rough-and-tumble politics and government corruption, where once upon a time presidents lied brazenly to the people, government bureaus went after an administration’s political enemies, and California state legislators were facing charges of gun running, bribery, and fraud. Given Benghazi, the AP monitoring, the NSA and IRS scandals, and the serial non-enforcement of settled law, I’d say the present administration is closer to Boss Tweed than to a promised 21st-century “transparent” politics.   

As far as Putin’s pre-Enlightenment, pre-Harvard brain goes, I think he would prefer to humiliate the U.S. over Syria, block our initiatives in the U.N., empower Iran to cause nuclear mischief in the Middle East, and take two steps forward absorbing former Soviet republics while taking one step backward as he assures Obama on each occasion that he has no more territorial aspirations in Europe.

Obama is perplexed by Putin’s Neanderthal club-waving. But Putin believes that he does not need aircraft carriers and Marines to exercise national clout — only his own indomitable will and adversaries who “would have thought” he was better than that.

Obama also said that Putin sees the breakup of the Soviet Union as “tragic.” I suppose Obama means “tragic” in the Sophoclean sense of great ambitions gone terribly wrong through hubris, with disastrous consequences all around. But I doubt that Putin believes much in the ironies and paradoxes of tragedy. He embraces no such complex anguish about the end of the Soviet Union; he merely knows that Russians once were powerful and now they are not. And that is not so much tragic as a very bad thing — though a bad thing that still can be rectified in the time remaining until 2017.

Apparently, enlightened minds assume that no sane person could imagine that the collapse of a criminal regime that butchered 10 to 20 million of its own people, and caused misery for a half-century around the globe, could be seen as anything but wonderful. Thus the unenlightened and anguished Putin surely must wrongly interpret the collapse of the USSR as “tragic,” rather than in such primitive fashion lament it as something disastrous for the Russian sense of self.

Obama went on: “There’s a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past and that he wants to, in some fashion, reverse that or make up for that.”