How critical should we be of Vladimir Putin?


Both Republicans and Democrats are mired in contradictions.  Let’s say you argue Putin really did “hack the election” in a meaningful way.  You probably then ought to conclude that Obama was truly a deeply negligent president, in a manner unprecedented in recent times.  (And since HRC was his Secretary of State, and more or less ran on a continuation of his regime, this oddly gives you the best case for voting for Trump!  Can you see Trump letting Putin deny Ivanka the presidency in this way?)  In this view, not only has Obama had only a lukewarm response to the hack, but he emboldened Putin over the last eight years, given his relative non-responses in Ukraine, Syria, the “red line,” and so on.  Romney and Kasparov then have to be seen as right in their view of both Putin and Obama.  Democrats of course are mostly unwilling to accept these conclusions, but the more seriously they talk of a decisive hack the closer they come to them.

Now those aren’t my views, but they should be the views of many of the Democrats I am reading.  To avoid those conclusions, the Democrats would have to play down the import of the hack.

Republicans try to minimize the hack, noting correctly that a) it released only true information, and b) bad email practices by John Podesta did not in fact swing the election.  The Republicans don’t quite put it this way, but the main problem was with the American media and its ongoing insinuations of more sinister goings-on than turned up in the evidence.  If you run a media without an obsession on the substance of policy, that can happen and in essence we manipulated ourselves.  What’s the ratio of MR posts on economic and foreign policy and Star Wars to MR posts on Hillary’s email?  The NYT and WaPo media could do the same but of course they don’t, neither does Breitbart, and that choice of emphasis is a much bigger problem than “fake news.”  In that regard you can exonerate Putin.

Yet in other contexts, the Republicans insist, rightly, as seeing Putin’s behavior as establishing a broader pattern of norm violations and moving from one transgression to the next.  If we insist on sticking with that bigger picture framing, the Russian hack then becomes more serious again, even though we can talk down its impact as a one-off event.  What indeed will be next?

The “intelligent hawk” position takes a whacking too.  How can we get tough with Russia when we will have had at least twelve years of American presidents (Obama plus Trump) who seem totally unwilling to do so?  And ultimately that unwillingness is backed up by voter apathy.  I see some anti-Trump marches, but there aren’t many “get tough with Vlad” demonstrations.

If American voters see their presidents won’t get tough with Putin, shouldn’t they indeed start liking Putin more?  To be sure, some of this boost in Putin’s popularity comes from the partisan perception that he is pro-Trump and anti-Hillary.  But consider the more intellectually honest slice of voter opinion.  Shouldn’t they also think that, if we are unwilling to be tough with Putin, we might as well try to get along with him and tolerate him?  That means trying to like him more too, just as you might try to like your unruly next door neighbors, once you decided it is not worth the trouble to move away from them.

The hawkish position, precisely by requiring sufficiently high levels of hawkish credibility, can collapse into a kind of cowardice quite readily.

So who then isn’t embarrassed?  How about “the hack was semi-serious, Obama is semi-deeply negligent, the apathetic, complacent public is the biggest problem, hawkish credibility cannot be earned back easily, and the election was nonetheless legitimate” as a reasonable default stance?

Oddly enough, I don’t think Trump and Putin will get along very well.  Putin still needs an external enemy, young Russians do not love the United States, and in foreign policy Trump is likely to want the impossible.  How will a Sylvester Stallone fan be global policeman with few trusting allies and little credibility?  It seems we are going to find out.


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