Putin, the Indispensable Man?
Human history is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about the right men or women at the right place and time. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Washington for instance are examples of what might be called American success synergy. Lincoln, Lee, and Grant were indispensable too in their own way, for victory and reconciliation after America’s most costly war. And just as surely, a successful conclusion to WWII might have been impossible without Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin.
We remember great men because, as Pericles prophesied, great men do great things and then live on in the hearts of other men. “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding go out to meet it.” Reputation is immortality indeed.
A great man, alas, is not necessarily good or popular. History is not kind to necessary villains. Stalin might be the best example from the WWII pantheon. Good and necessary are very different virtues. Josef Stalin was nonetheless one of those indispensable men who made victory and Russian national survival possible. Ruthless men make good soldiers.
Vladimir Putin may be such a man. Just as surely, Barack Obama is unlikely to be remembered for much beyond strategic inertia.
The European Union today suffers too from a deficit of great men and women. Britain, France, and Germany may someday be known to history as the dunce troika that finally surrendered Europe to Mohamed’s dream. Who knew that Europe would be overrun by rubber shoes and plastic backpacks fleeing religious and ethnic chaos?
Putin is unique among world leaders today. He alone swims against the outgoing tide of European, dare we say, Western culture. Europe and America seem to have forgotten what made them great for millennia. Putin, in contrast, plays to the best that is Russian including pride, history, nationalism, patriotism, and Christianity. If we can borrow a tag line, Putin wants to make Russia great again.
He has indeed reversed the fortunes of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, albeit at some cost to democracy as we know it. Yet, if we review the domestic and foreign policy contretemps in the West for the past 50 years, social democracy is something less than a role model for Russians or anyone else for that matter. Indeed, social, fiscal, and multicultural excesses are consuming Europe and America as we speak.
Putin came to power at the turn of the century when the old Soviet empire was in free fall. You could say he rescued fair Rodina from the clutches of a drunken Slavic stereotype, Boris Yeltsin. Call it a revolution without guns. Since then, the former KGB officer has tried to restore almost every institution in which Russians take pride; art venues, historic Czarist properties, churches, monasteries, and even the Moscow Metro.
Putin seems to be taking the best of what was Czarist and Communist and shaping a new Russian future. Call it managing the dialectics of national history. Unlike Brussels and Washington, the Russian president has, for good or ill, the leader’s “vision” of which Pericles spoke so fondly.
Recently, we see the Russian president meeting with Israeli Prime Mininster Netanyahu, raising his profile in Syria, and at the UN lecturing Obama about the abuse of American power in the third world. More than one observer has suggested that Putin is more relevant than Obama; alas, not much of a threshold to cross.
Putin is now drawing a bright red line in Syria, challenging America’s spastic and disastrous regime change policies. The Russians are creating an alternative fighting coalition in the Levant, partnering with Syria and Iran -- and putting boots on the ground too.
The Russian plan has several advantages that contrast with team Obama’s now chronic bumbling.
The Russian presence is legal. They were invited. The Putin plan has domestic support in Russia too. The federation Council has approved military operations. And most important, Putin’s army has a relationship with Assad’s Army, which should make any air support very effective.
The American “coalition” against ISIS, in contrast, is a global joke. Over ninety nations send recruits to Baghdadi while a two or three Arab “allies” provide a few airstrikes to the ISIS fight. Indeed, the richest Sunni Arabs, those with the most to lose, do not fight ISIS nor do they accept civilian refugees from the fight. Such are America’s Arab allies, a coalition of corrupt selfish cowards.
Team Obama is now isolated in the Levant for good reason too. America cannot be trusted! With Pentagon approval, Turkey now flies airstrikes against the Kurds, heretofore one of the few reliable US allies in the area. When national integrity is exchanged for base rights in places like Turkey, American foreign/military policies become lonely whores. Say what you will about Putin and the Kremlin, unlike Obama and the Pentagon, Russia has been a reliable ally for Syria.
The real terrorists in the Middle East are Turks, Saudis, and Emirate Sunnis, all of whom are playing both sides of the street; on the one hand faking a coalition and with the other hand providing refuge, arms, and finance to ISIS and other jihadists.
The military vacuity on team Obama is underlined also by the recent resignation of General John Allen, USMC. Allen was supposed to be training Arab “moderates” in Iraq, a half billion dollar tactical boondoggle. You might best remember Allen as General Petraeus’ camp follower phone tag colleague whilst both were stationed at CENTCOM in Tampa.
At Ash Carter’s Pentagon, you do not need to win wars, or even battles, to achieve flag rank. You do, however, need to be politically correct about cult religion, race quotas, feminist demands, and sex preference recruiting. Indeed, “cultural” sensitivities on the E-Ring are now expanded to protect homosexual pedophiles among Muslim “partners” in places like Afghanistan and Arabia.
Withal, it’s not difficult to understand why team Obama obsesses endlessly about Assad and ignores a host of other moral, military, and political failures like Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Yemen.
Putin, in contrast, lives in the real world. Syria without a chap like Assad is likely to become another theocracy. Baghdadi is the only alternative to Assad on the Sunni horizon. The lesser of two evils is often the best of choices in Putin’s realpolitik world.
Few polemicists in America, Left or Right, seem to get what is happening in the Ummah, America, or Russia. The great turning point of recent history was not the fall of the Soviet Union. The theocratic revolution in Persia was much more consequential, the starting gun for modern religious irredentism, the ongoing global jihad.
Islam is racing backward towards theocracy or caliphate. America is frozen by inertia and apathy. And Russia, like China, is pressing on to a future with visions of a new world order.
Since WWII, America’s foreign policy has been defined by small wars, indeed a series of calamitous proxy wars in places like Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and now Syria. Throughout, the enemy morphed from Communist ideology, to empire, to Russia, and now to personalities like Baghdadi or Putin.
Small wonder then that Russians might believe that the true objective of all those proxy shenanigans was regime change in Moscow too. Ironically, since the Soviet Union collapsed, it seems like the West can’t take yes for an answer. As for emergent personalities like Vladimir Putin, Henry Kissinger put it best, “demonization is not a policy.”
Contemporary views of Russia and the Kremlin may be driven by domestic American politics. Neither American political party knows what to do about Islamo-fascism, a true global threat. Consequently, in order to avoid tough choices, both Republican and Democrats have resurrected a Cold War with Russia. In America today, Putin is every political nitwit’s favorite straw man.
Small wonder then that Russia’s top gun just picked up the leadership mantle in the Levant. If Putin wants to ride point in the Middle East, he will. For openers, the Russian coalition, unlike Obama’s Sunni fakirs, are already in the fight.
If leadership matters, Putin is no dithering Obama. The Russian chief might just be ruthless enough to win. Vladimir’s track record with the so-called Caucuses caliphate is exemplary. While it took ten years for America to find and kill bin Laden, it took Putin a year to kill Shamil Baseyev along with any Islamist delusions in Russia. We don’t hear much about the Chechen jihad or a Caucuses caliphate these days.
If real threats are to be neutralized abroad, then cold warrior poseurs must give way to competent hot warriors. Vladimir Putin might be such a man. Barack Obama, in contrast, is timid -- a lame duck orator in search of legacy on the cheap.
America now has three choices: continue the Arabia/Turkey coalition charade, cooperate with the Russians, or withdraw and yield to a new initiative.
Those who cannot or will not lead in the Middle East need to step aside.
G. Murphy Donovan is the former director of Research and Russian (Soviet) Studies under James Clapper when the DNI was chief of USAF Intelligence.