Vladimir Putin has the world’s attention this week. The circumstances will remind everyone that reset with Russia is dead. Its working hypothesis — that it was the George W. Bush administration, not the Putin regime, that had either inadvertently or provocatively offended the other’s sensibilities — was invented before the 2008 election on Obama’s partisan and political considerations, not empirical observation.
Under reset, the incoming Obama administration, more nuanced than the outgoing Bush administration and drawing on more enlightened thinking, would appeal to the better angels of Putin’s Russia. The more complex Obamaites would help enlighten the Putin autocracy to the fact that the U.S. and Russia had common interests in improving free trade. We really both wanted to calm world tensions while discouraging proliferation, combating terrorism, working with the United Nations, quelling international crises, and promoting human rights. Once Russians had been tutored about America’s good intentions, we could undo (“reset”) the damage done by the swaggering braggadocio of the interventionist prior administration. Misunderstanding and ill feelings, not ill intentions and malfeasance, were Russia’s sins.
And what is the result of reset? It is open Russian promotion of the Syria/Hezbollah/Iran axis that was active in Iraq and is now more so in Syria. It is Russian obstruction at the U.N. of most American initiatives. It is another round of strangulation of the former Soviet republics. It is satisfaction that a frustrated United States has been reduced to appeasement instead of taking serious steps to thwart Iranian nuclearization, as Putin eggs Iran on. It is more pressure on Eastern Europeans to look to the East, not to the West. It is humiliation of the European Union over Ukraine. It is more internal oppression of a brutal sort. And it is a gratuitous delight in exposing the Obama administration as sanctimonious and weak, while the U.S. lectures Russia on human rights, as if its tepid moral remonstrations de facto translate into shamed abidance. In sum, what the Obama administration is for, Putin is mostly against.
All that said, there is a value for us in Putin. I don’t mean the strange Pat Buchanan–style admiration for Putin’s creepy reactionary social agenda and his tirades about Western social decadence. Rather, I refer to Putin’s confidence in his unabashedly thuggish means, the brutal fashion in which a modern state so unapologetically embraces the premodern mind to go after its critics, be they journalists or academics, or stifles free debate without worry over Western censure. Putin is a mirror showing more than just what we should not be.
We in the West get into fiery debates over civil union versus gay marriage as the appropriate legal means of recognizing homosexual unions, with all the accompanying charges of insensitivity — without much notice of how the vast majority of gays are treated elsewhere in the world. In contrast, Putin, mostly to global silence, does nothing as his thugs with impunity terrorize gay activists (who mostly demonstrate for basic freedom of speech, not marriage). Miley Cyrus insults our sensibilities and becomes fabulously rich; the Pussy Rioters go to jail.
We in California divert life-saving water to save a baitfish; Putin’s $50 billion Olympics may prove to be an ecological disaster. We worry about global warming; Putin takes a subtropical resort and with enough crooked cash and smoky carbon fuel fabricates sufficient unnatural snow for the Olympics — without calling up Al Gore to see how many Amazon trees he needs to buy to win a carbon-offset exemption. We worry about the victims of WMDs in Syria; Putin worries whether the mass murderer Assad has enough sarin gas to do what he thinks necessary to preserve power. Putin breaks missile agreements; we consult legal dictionaries to ascertain whether he has. We try to convince Putin that our anti-ballistic-missile plan for Eastern Europe is to protect only against Iran. He knows it is. He also knows that we worry whether he knows it is intended only for the Iranian threat. And so he says it isn’t. And, presto, it isn’t.
Americans often talk grandly in melodramatic fashion of “speaking truth to power” — mostly on silly issues about which liberals talk tough to moderates, usually in the faculty lounge or at a Senate hearing, often before sharing cocktails afterward. Putin speaks power to truth — an unpredictable, unapologetic brute force of nature.
Again, what is Putin? He is a constant reminder to the postmodern Western mind that the human condition has not yet evolved beyond the fist. He is a bumper-sticker example of Aristotle’s dictum that it is easy to be moral in your sleep, given that verbiage without power is hardly moral or difficult. He is also a reminder about what is important in the most elemental sense. As we debate former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s remonstrances on oversized Cokes or Michelle Obama’s advocacy of celery sticks, Putin has dogs shot down to spruce up the Olympic grounds. We calibrate to the point of paralysis just how large a carbon footprint the Keystone Pipeline may or may not have; Putin ignores the Arctic tundra to enrich kleptomaniac Russian oligarchs and prop up his dysfunctional state.
Bare-chested Putin gallops his horses, poses with his tigers, and shoots his guns — what Obama dismisses as “tough-guy schtick.” Perhaps. But Putin is almost saying, “You have ten times the wealth and military power that I have, but I can neutralize you by my demonic personality alone.” Barack Obama, in his increasingly metrosexual golf get-ups and his prissy poses on the nation’s tony golf courses, wants to stay cool while playing a leisure sport. It reminds us of Stafford Cripps being played by Stalin during World War II. “Make no mistake about it” and “Let me be perfectly clear” lose every time. Obama’s subordinates violate the law by going after the communications of a Fox reporter’s parents; Putin himself threatens to cut off the testicles of a rude journalist.
Putin is a reminder not just of our dark past, where raw force, not morality, adjudicated behavior, but, more worrisome, perhaps of a dark future as well, in which we in the West will continually overthink, hyperagonize, and nuance to death every idea, every issue, and every thought in terror that it might not be 100 percent fair, completely unbiased, absolutely justified. We will do anything to have the good life above all else; Putin prefers the bad life on his own terms.
Putin dares us to enforce an old treaty, to stop his clients using poison gas, or to prevent a lunatic regime from getting nukes. In our fearful hearts, we almost sense that Putin might like us better, or at least show a greater measure of respect, if we were to cut out the sermons and back up what we preach. Putin is the evil hired gun, Jack Wilson (“Prove it!”), in the movie Shane, whose only law is what he believes he can get away with. We are the Hamlet-like sodbusters who one day are ready to pack up and leave, the next terrified lest we really have to. We dream of having Shane stand up to the gunslinger Wilson, but then again, we suspect that so does the psychopathic Wilson himself.
True, Putin hated us for going into Iraq, but not just for going into Iraq. Rather, he despised us for not quickly dealing with the insurgency and then for pulling out abruptly once we did. He felt double-crossed about signing on to U.N. sanctions in Libya, not just because we lied about the nature of those resolutions and then exceeded them, but because we ended up being weak and leaving Libya a mess without order. His problem with us in Syria was not just that we issued a deadline, but that we could not even enforce it. For Putin, being weak is worse than being wrong. Putin’s problem with the Tsarnaev bombing was not that in furor we might send a Hellfire into his Caucasus, but that a Caucasian terrorist would make a mockery of our jurisprudence.
With such a coiled cobra it is always wiser to stay quiet and keep strong than to speak loudly while appearing weak. One does not lecture a Stalin but rather reminds him that you, unlike the pope, do have plenty of divisions.
You see, Putin is the dark side come alive without apology in a self-congratulatory age when he supposedly should not exist. That his economy is unsustainable, that his corruption ruined the promise of a new Russia, that his oppression is nihilistic, that we are mostly right, he usually wrong, bothers him not at all.
If Putin has any utility at all, it is the faint suggestion that even he would prefer — even believe that he himself might be better off — if we were more resolute. Putin is almost Milton’s Satan — as if, in his seductive evil, he yearns for clarity, perhaps even a smackdown, if not just for himself, for us as well. He is not the better man than Obama but, again like Milton’s Satan, the more interesting, if only because he reminds of us of our own limitations.
He ends up existing to warn us in the West of what we are not, and to demonstrate that in a strange sort of way our loud principles without toughness are not much better than his toughness without principles. In that regard, he gives us a valuable look into ourselves — we the hollow men, the stuffed men of dry voices and whispers.
After all, were not the Lotus-eaters nearly as dangerous as the Cyclopes, the nonviolent Eloi almost as pitiful as the savage Morlocks? And is not the triple-talking postmodern man often as empty as the premodern brute?