When I came into my office, he was in my chair, feet up, shirt off, an AK-47 propped against the desk.
“President Putin,” I said, playing it cool. “Nice op-ed last week.”
He looked up from my computer. “Ah, yes. I was just checking this, how you say, ‘most e-mailed list’ that your New York Times keeps. I see I’m still No. 1.”
“Only until someone writes a piece about Ivy League admissions, Mr. President.”
His laugh sounded like ice cracking in a Siberian spring. “Call me Vlad,” he said. “And tell me: Is it always this easy to get a rise out of you Americans? I watch your TV, I follow your elections. I thought you are used to propaganda.”
“Well, if it’s our own. But it’s different being lectured on peace and human rights by a ruler who doesn’t give a fig about either.”
“Yes, but all this whining from your politicians. This Bob Menendez saying my piece made him want to vomit — like a podrostok who cannot handle vodka. And John Boehner, I know he sometimes cries like a babushka but to whine that he was insulted by my column … does he get so offended when he watches the White House’s propaganda network, this MSNBC?”
“Actually, the White House doesn’t run …”
“And this anger about the paragraph where I questioned American exceptionalism? After reading the online comments, I concede that American people are exceptional: exceptionally easy to bait.”
“Well, you can’t blame us for being annoyed with the situation. President Obama traps himself by threatening a war that Congress wouldn’t support, you sweep in with a bogus solution he has to accept because the alternative is impotence …”
“How is the solution we have offered not a good one?”
“Will it lead to Assad giving up his chemical weapons?”
“I have no idea. But the diplomatic to-and-fro makes him unlikely to use them, which is what you wanted, no?”
“Well, the ultimate goal is to remove him from power …”
He banged his hand on my desk. “This is how it always is! You cannot stop with reasonable goal. You must have unreasonable one. Toppling the Taliban was not enough — you had to repeat our mistake and occupy Afghanistan. Saddam contained was not enough — you wanted regime change, democracy. Killing terrorists is not enough — you want the Muslim world to love you.
“Well, there’s that exceptionalism thing.”
“Yes, yes, I admit, America really is different. Sometimes, deep in my cold, black heart, I even feel flicker of admiration for that difference …”
“Well, thanks …”
“But mostly it makes me insane. I have been dealing with American government for 13 years, and my needs have always been simple, straightforward. I just want what Russian leaders will always want: a sphere of influence, a partner to fight terrorism, stability at home, respect abroad. But your presidents, Bush and Obama — who can tell what they want? One minute they ask me for help in Afghanistan or offer some sort of ‘reset’ button; the next they push NATO to my borders and try to topple my only Middle Eastern client …”
“Well, maybe they both started out hoping that you were something other than a thug and ended up disappointed.”
He stroked the AK-47. “Maybe. But you are lucky to have me. After the 1990s, you could have had a crazy revanchist who tried to conquer his neighbors instead of just bullying them like me. Or another clown like Yeltsin, who let everything fall apart. Instead, I’ve delivered growth, stability, continuity — even our birthrate is now higher than yours!”
“OK,” I returned, “but your continuity is just corrupt one-party rule, and your hold on power is actually weakening. You’re relying more on demagoguery, cracking down on civil society …”
“Your Obama would still give his eyeteeth for my approval ratings.”
“Touché. But in the long run, you’re a prisoner of your corrupt system. You’ll either hang on while it crumbles, or step down and end up jailed by your successor.”
“I cannot let you change the subject, American columnist. Here is a message to transmit to your readers: As much fun as I had baiting them, part of my op-ed was sincere. I am not America’s enemy. I do not wish a new Cold War. I do not wish to dominate the Middle East, whatever that means.
“No,” he went on, “all I want is an American foreign policy that sees the world as it actually is, and an American leader who can arm-wrestle at my level. Which is what you Americans should want as well, no? Maybe someday you should consider electing one.”
He rose, pecs flexing, and looked around my office. “Oh — and if I should need post-presidential career outside of Mother Russia, I think my op-ed sets me up nicely to become a columnist for your New York Times, no?”
Then he grinned — a wolf’s grin — and showed himself out.