Commentary Magazine


Blame America First: Putin Edition

Some of Vladimir Putin’s defenders in the West have a strange habit: moving quickly and effortlessly from understanding Putin’s motives to defending his behavior. A good example comes today from Doug Bandow, writing at the Cato Institute’s blog. Bandow makes two logical mistakes that have become increasingly common among critics of bipartisan policy toward the post-Soviet space, both jumping off from reasonable premises.

The first argument Bandow makes stems from Mitt Romney’s comments, in the wake of the revelation that President Obama told Dmitry Medvedev that he cannot be honest with the American people about his intentions toward Russia until after his reelection campaign, that Russia is our “number one geopolitical foe.” But instead of responding with the case for why, say, Iran is really higher on the geopolitical foe list than Russia, Bandow says this:

As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.” Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

This is a serious logical blunder. It’s true that the Soviet Union is dead and buried, but it is not a “self-contradiction,” monumental or otherwise, to believe that the Soviet Union was defeated and that Russia is capable of posing a threat. You don’t even have to believe Russia currently poses a threat. The simple fact that Russia can pose a threat debunks the nonsensical idea that Romney’s statement is a “self-contradiction.” Does Bandow believe it is utterly impossible for Russia to pose a threat? I doubt it.

The contradiction, rather, is Bandow’s: he says the Soviet Union “really is gone” and then speaks as though Russia is the Soviet Union, and therefore cannot pose a threat because it’s “really” gone. And where is Bandow’s judgment? The Heilbrunn piece he approvingly links to is an absolute mess from start to finish; he should know better.

The other mistake Bandow makes begins with an uncontroversial statement: that NATO enlargement gets under Putin’s skin. It’s true: we in the West like democracies, and Putin doesn’t. If the situation were reversed, he writes, and Russia “ringed America with bases, and established military relationships with areas that had broken away from the U.S., Washington would not react well.”

We can argue about whether and how much our own geostrategic plans should mirror Vladimir Putin’s wish list, but it’s clear Putin was bothered enough by the prospect of further NATO enlargement to send some messengers on tanks to Georgia and to demand that the U.S. help Russia depose Georgia’s elected president. (Medvedev recently explained that this is precisely why Russia went to war with Georgia.)

But rather than leave it at that, Bandow then writes: “It might react, well, a lot like Moscow has been reacting.”

Really? If President Obama saw Russia establishing allies in the West, he would … enable the slaughter of thousands by shielding murderous dictators like Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council? Bandow thinks he would aid, abet, protect, and hide the illicit nuclear weapons program of the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism? He would steal elections? He would jail bloggers? Assassinate whistleblowers on foreign soil and at least tolerate the assassination of journalists at home? Cut off energy supplies in the dead of winter from those who refused to do his bidding? Which one of these things does Bandow think is the appropriate reaction to the enlargement of NATO, and which of these things does Bandow think Washington would do?

Romney’s critics believe his response to Obama’s hot-mic moment was an overreaction. But even if you believe that, it was not nearly the overreaction of those who responded by excusing Putin’s unjustifiable subjugation of his people or blaming America when authoritarian thugs behave as such.