Sunday, March 23, 2014

Putin Picks The Next President

Putin Picks The Next President

No, as of this writing, the Russians have not yet invaded the 48 contiguous states (he wouldn’t dare touch Alaska, with Mama Grizzly there.)  Nor has the missing Flight 370 actually been hijacked to a secret Soviet submarine base and retrofitted for mayhem.

But, the Russians are on the march, and we don’t really have a clue how to stop them.  Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, wrote an extremely fine piece this Sunday “Russia Without Illusions.”  Douthat does something rare; he carefully examines the options without indulging himself in pettiness. Russia, he writes, can’t be what we want: a “normal country” that responds to rational stimuli, sees a value in international norms, internal economic growth, and acceptance of an American-led world order.  Nor can we expect that the putative attraction of the West will take the old Eastern European Warsaw pact countries away from Russia, and, in doing so, isolate it. 

So, we can’t really draw Russia in, and we can’t really keep Russia out.  Russia is going to chart its own course, and that is likely to be expansionist, either through pressure/outright annexation (like the Crimea) or the economic influence that comes from their vast energy supplies. The Russians just aren’t like us, and despite the best hopes of Bush (who looked deeply into Putin’s eyes) or Obama (who thought he could “reset” the relationship) they aren’t going play by the rules we make. 

Douthat goes further.  In effect, he says that there are no good responses available—not just for Obama, but for America.  The limits of our influence are obvious.  For sanctions to work, the Europeans have to be willing to play, and they aren’t the most reliable partners.  With the exception of the wildest cowboys (I’ll get to that in a moment) even the neo-cons aren’t really willing to risk American boots on the ground.  That doesn’t leave us entirely powerless. Douthat points out that there are economic and diplomatic strategies we can use, and should use, but let’s not expect to them to make things the way they were, or the way we would like them to be.  “What we need instead is realism: to use the power we have without pretending to powers we lack.”

So, why does Vlady get to pick our next President?  Crimea/Ukraine is the perfect political football. If there is one thing that is absolutely certain, it’s that every Republican, from the right wing talk show hosts, to the kookie Congressmen, to the uber-ambitious Presidential aspirants (except for Rand Paul, of course) know how to do it better. 

Last week we had the spectacle of both John McCain and Mitt Romney ripping into Mr. Obama, demanding more aggressive action and reminding people just how much better things would be if they were in charge.  They have different verbal approaches, with McCain snarling insults while Romney simply quietly despairs at the loss America suffered when it didn’t pick him, but both seem to be vying for the syndication rights to the new reality program, “Sorest Loser.”

They were joined by Marco Rubio, who tried to regain credibility after his immigration policy failures by floating an “important” speech about foreign policy (strength good, Obama bad) that had some anointing him as picking up the mantle of Ronald Reagan.  And Ted Cruz, who wants man up with missile batteries brought to Eastern Europe (looking at you, Vladimir.)

Is there anything wrong with the opposition party opposing?  Not necessarily.  The gold standard in cooperation was set by Senator Arthur Vandenberg (Michigan), who, along with Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, led the GOP’s isolationist wing before and during World War II.  Vandenberg rather famously converted to a more international approach in 1945.  In what was called “the speech heard round the world” he said we must “stop partisan politics at the water's edge."  He backed that up by cooperating with the Truman administration in forging bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO.

But both parties have often ignored the gold standard.  When there are matters of true principle, or reasoned differences of opinion, that is the way it should be.  We should look for the right approach, not necessarily the President’s approach.

What make this time different is that, with the exception of Ted Cruz looking to channel Dr. Strangelove, there really aren’t policy disputes.  No one has advanced ideas that are materially different than those proposed by Mr. Obama.  Wiser heads in the GOP know what Mr. Douthat knows, that there’s no easy way out of the soup. They are just repackaging in a more “respected” tureen. 

Why do it? Why send a message to Putin that Obama will get no support no matter what he proposes?  Doesn’t that heighten the risks that Putin will grab for even more?  Well, we have a midterm election in seven months, and between Mr. Obama’s personal unpopularity, a favorable geographic tilt, and several vulnerable Senators who were aided by Mr. Obama’s decisive 2008 victory, the GOP is likely to expand it’s majority in the House, and take the Senate. 

So, when the GOP looks out at the landscape in 2015, they see a playing field where they have all the high cards. No legislation without their consent.  No nominations confirmed that they wouldn’t have picked themselves.  Now is the time to press their advantage.

And Putin is counting on that, and more.  He knows that not only is there no real support for serious economic sanctions in Europe, those sanctions aren’t really supported by business and banking interests here in the United States.  Particularly those with interests in Russia and its aligned countries.  And he knows that, after two unresolved conflicts and countless treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people will not support committing military assets in Crimea.  So he’s safe in pushing his advantage.

This is great for the GOP, right?  Putin grabs for more, big win in the midterms, followed by a complete stomping of the Democrats in 2016? Conservative paradise in 2017?  Moderates and liberals get ready to hide the children and the womenfolk?

Perhaps. But it’s also possible we will see something different; a cranky electorate that is more than ready to punish Mr. Obama for his flaws, but is tired of the endless and infantile carping.  If that’s the case, then the door is open for any candidate who appears to be a rational, experienced adult.  There are those people out there, in both parties, they just don’t shout as loudly.

With any luck, that could be Putin’s President.  I love irony.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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