I’m troubled lately by a crazy notion, conjured by the befuddling disarray of world affairs.
At times, more than I care to admit, Vladimir Putin’s responses to the world’s current troubles make more sense to me than President Obama’s — or, for that matter, those of Obama’s critics.
Putin is a brute and a villain, of course, and the ancient ambitions of Russia he incarnates have brought misery to her neighbors for centuries. And yet, just now, if one doesn’t reflexively assume — if one doesn’t just know — that the Russian president has to be speaking complete untruths in pursuit of utterly unjust ends, it’s possible to mistake Putin’s words and deeds, at least in connection with his intervention in the Middle East, for efforts to defend understandable national interests with admirably direct and determined action.
What’s certain is that Obama’s Mideast policy continues to look like a confused and contradictory improvisation. His recent decision to reverse course and keep meaningful numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after all is consistent with the inconsistent pattern.
The unifying theme seems to be that Obama longs to control events in the Middle East, rather as Putin does — but Obama wants to do it without direct and determined action, by proxy or even mere words, while steadily reducing America’s real involvement in the region, above all its military involvement.
Obama precipitously pulled out of Iraq — a mess of his predecessor’s making, to be sure, but one that promptly got worse. He led the mess-making in Libya (though “from behind,” in signature style), then did nothing to prevent the bloody chaos that followed. These miscalculations seem to have helped dissuade the president from a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, but with no sign of a plan for actually improving the situation there.
On the slaughterhouse that is Syria, meanwhile, Obama continues to pronounce, as he has for years, that vicious dictator Bashar Assad must surrender office.
“There cannot be, after … so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo,” Obama told the United Nations at the end of September. But he continues to do nothing of substance to back up these ever more hollow words.
Obama also keeps calling for a “broad coalition” of regional nations to come together and mount a decisive military campaign against the monstrous Islamic State, whose barbarian rampage across the region continues despite more than a year of U.S. bombing and bombast.
Well, here’s the thing: A real, live regional coalition has come together, one that shows signs of being willing and able to take down the Islamic State.
Trouble is, Vladimir Putin is leading this flesh-and-blood coalition, with troops and air power and seriousness of purpose. And the coalition includes the Assad regime, Russia’s ally of many decades. It also includes Iran, the Shiite regime in Iraq and the Kurds.
Most discomforting of all, Putin seems more than content to see a “return to the prewar status quo,” because keeping his ally in power serves his national interest well.
This state of affairs bothers and bewilders America. Obama’s critics denounce both a resurgent Russia and the Islamic State, but they aren’t clear — or anyhow, they aren’t agreed — on what they propose to do about these threats that are at each other’s throats (luckily for us, actually). Some Obama detractors seem ready for multiple wars, but most make the same kinds of uncertain sounds as the president — vowing to drive America’s enemies from the field, but somehow without putting “troops on the ground” (or at least not many).
It’s hard not to unfavorably contrast the muddled American debate with Putin’s blunt and bracing interpretation of the Mideast situation, as he described it at the U.N. the same day Obama spoke.
Putin began with his take on how the region got into its current mess, saying, “We all know that after the end of the Cold War … a single center of domination emerged in the world.” He means, of course, America and its allies, and he charged that Western leaders, filled with “belief in [their nations’] exceptionality and impunity” failed to understand “what our past has taught us.”
Peoples, as well as persons, he declared, “are all different, and we should respect that. No one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one.”
Admitting that the Soviet Union produced “tragedy” and “degradation” by pushing “social experiments for export,” he complained that in recent years it is at the hands of West that “the export of revolutions, this time of so-called democratic ones, continues.”
It’s not certain whether Putin understands how gut-deep a challenge he’s offering here. The idea that America ultimately possesses “the only right” model for society in its basic commitments to democracy, pluralism and individualism comes close to being the very enlightenment idea that makes America a nation.
The older model of the good society resting on authority rooted in religion, ethnicity and tradition could ultimately be a more-alien alternative vision than socialism ever was.
Putin, anyway, is not alone in lamenting how the attempted export of enlightenment has “actually turn[ed] out” in the Middle East. “Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress,” he said, “we got violence, poverty and social disaster” and a “power vacuum … which immediately started to be filled with extremists and terrorists.”
Putin now proposes to clean up Dodge. That he proposes to do it alongside Assad serves his ruthless and selfish national purposes. But he has a pragmatic point when he notes that today “[w]e should … acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s armed forces and Kurd militias are truly fighting the Islamic State …”
It’s possible, of course, that what’s really happened in all this is that Obama has slyly and subtly lured Putin into fighting America’s war for us.
Whether he did or not, letting the Russian ruffian run the show for now could be the most realistic move America has made in some time.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.