Vlad the Terrible

Published in The Express Tribunecover art by Lindsey Lively

Back when the world was a better place, before Fallujah and Georgia and Libya, George W. Bush once claimed to have gazed into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, and looked into his soul. But where W. saw Mr. Putin’s soul, according to Bill Maher, others could only see pools of K.G.B. deadness. It served a purpose: busy as he was bombing Moslems, George was at pains to persuade Moscow he’d be fighting no new Cold Wars.

But in eight long years, the privileged Mr. Bush, brother of Governor Bush, son of President Bush, grandson of Senator Bush, never quite understood the hunger that drove the Man From Nowhere. Nor could Bush’s America, a last hurrah before Iraq bled it and Lehman Brothers broke it, connect with a Russia clawing its way back to centre-stage.

This past week, yet another president found himself eyeball-to-eyeball with Vladimir – this time over Syria – and as with Bush, Barack Obama blinked. Assad’s use of nerve gas was supposed to be the final straw: a direct call for Western strikes. John Kerry scuttled across the world to make the case for war, his monotone breaking with rare emotion. Mr. Obama, too, waxed eloquent over how tyrants ‘depend upon the world to look the other way,’ (before, well, looking the other way).

With the strikes seeming imminent, Mr. Putin swore he would ply Assad with more guns than he could handle. Russian heavies it seems, from Stalin in Moscow to Khrushchev in Cuba, fight their best on the brink, and Mr. Putin proved no exception. Mr. Obama was dared to either step over the edge or beat a retreat. The Leader of the Free World, abandoned by the Labour Party and shrugged off by the G20, opted for the latter.

Quoting Auden in The New York Times, ‘The ogre does what ogres can,’ Roger Cohen sighed, ‘It is safe to say that no ogre the world over, least of all in Damascus, trembles today.’ Assad’s men continue razing villages, raping women, and gassing children, while Mr. Putin’s dead-eyed support for Bashar holds firm. Ironic then that the US has had to resort to Russian mediation, deferring to the same gentleman who armed this war from the beginning and vetoed any resolution that could end it.

Most ironic though is the P.R. victory: that Mr. Putin, once the K.G.B.’s man in East Germany, was able to teach Mr. Obama, ex-president of the Harvard Law Review, a thing or two about international law is frankly embarrassing. And he didn’t stop there. Mr. Putin appealed to the American people for peace himself via a slick op-ed in The New York Times. While welcoming the U.S. about-turn on Assad, Mr. Putin couldn’t help himself from kicking American exceptionalism along the way: ‘It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation… we are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.’

Mr. Putin’s visage, all somber smiles and Windsor knots, also graced the cover of this week’s TIME, save the U.S. edition (which ran with how college athletes were underpaid instead). In Syria and abroad, Vladimir Putin has won by knockout. Barack Obama, meanwhile, is on his way to becoming the next Jimmy Carter, with none of Jimmy’s moral courage.

But Syria is a symptom of two broader trends: the first being American foreign policy in retreat, just about everywhere. As Vali Nasr put it in his latest The Dispensable Nation, ‘Gone is the exuberant American desire to lead in the world. America – dragged by Europeans into ending butchery in Libya, abandoning Afghanistan to an uncertain future, resisting a leadership role in ending the massacre of civilians in Syria, and then rolling back its commitments to the region to “pivot” to Asia – hardly looks indispensable.’ With the exception of Syria though, Mr. Nasr may want to count ‘Merica’s reduced leadership role as a blessing rather than a curse, especially after the mind-melting excesses of the Bush years.

The second trend is Russia resurging, and it’s been a long, hard climb to get there. After the U.S.S.R. fell in on itself, what was left was handed over to Boris Yeltsin, who ran New Russia into the ground throughout the ‘90s. What parts of the economy Yeltsin didn’t drink away were taken over by the oligarchs – that special breed of billionaire businessmen now buying up Central London. After ushering out five prime ministers, President Yeltsin’s sixth pick was another unknown few expected to last. But even back in 1999, Vladimir Putin was coming off as a no-nonsense nationalist fond of killing Chechens.

Yeltsin rolled away with an approval rating of 2% and immunity from his K.G.B. deputy, now President. And so began the cult of Putin, releasing pictures of himself  hunting and fishing in various states of undress, screaming at Olympic athletes for not singing the national anthem, reintroducing Soviet jingles to the national anthem itself, and selling judo home videos packed with nothing but Vladimir Vladimirovich thrashing grown men.

But while the press buys into Putin’s red-and-gold packaging, the real reasons for his death-grip over Russia are less endearing. The Chechen people are bombed, oligarchs are crushed or co-opted, ex-spies are poisoned with polonium, the press is clamped down on, and the Kremlin manufactures political parties to run against and defeat. All the while abroad, Putin’s vision of Russia as an ‘emerging power’ is fuelled by oil and gas and greed, its energy exports making it richer and crueler. If Syria was a foretaste of Putin’s long-declared Middle Eastern ambitions, the U.S. may have more to worry about than hurt feelings.

Swinging by Vladimir Putin’s dacha in 2006, George Bush was greeted by the Russian president’s pet Labrador. Aware of the size of Mr. Bush’s own dog, the tiny, immensely irritating Barney, Mr. Putin remarked his Lab was ‘bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, and meaner…than Barney.’ Even back then, Mr. Bush should have gotten the hint.