One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Soviet jokes was the one in which an American man brags that he is free to stand near the White House all day and heap scorn on President Reagan. His Russian friend counters that he is free to do the same: he can stand outside the Kremlin all day and heap scorn on President Reagan as well. The 2013 version might have Barack Obama saying he can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism, as he did in 2008. Vladimir Putin would respond that he can do the same: he, too, can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism.
In today’s Times, Putin does that and more. The Russian president, an authoritarian thug with blood-stained hands, lectures President Obama on his militarist posture toward Syria. If left unchecked, Putin says, Obama risks destroying the international system and poisoning the spirit of multilateral cooperation. In a condescending rhetorical flourish, Putin notes that Obama’s plans to strike Syria are opposed by world leaders, “including the pope.” This is concern-trolling at its most contrived and grating, and it is something Putin has relished turning into an art form. It permeates Putin’s disingenuous political posturing to the extent that it’s become a strategy all its own. Call it trollpolitik. Here is some of what Putin has to say “directly to the American people”:
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.
No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
This is Putin just taunting Obama, speaking to the president as Obama used to speak to his predecessor. It’s difficult to know which part Obama will find most insulting. “The law is still the law” is a good one coming from the unreformed KGB gangster. The same goes for Putin’s plea for Obama to listen to his people. Then there is his professed concern for America’s allies, in which Putin suggests Obama is gambling with Israel’s safety.
This is a strong contender as well: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” Getting accused of uncivilized behavior by Vladimir Putin is risible.
But of course this is nothing new. The difference, now, is not that Americans think Obama is a warmongering imperialist but that they don’t know what he’s thinking–and neither, it seems, does he. Putin is taking advantage of a sense of confusion not just about what the administration’s policy is but who is making that policy.
It’s useful to point out the hypocrisy in Putin’s op-ed, if only to remind Americans who they’re reading. But for the Obama administration, the point is less that Putin lied in his op-ed but that he’s a liar–that’s who they’re dealing with. Putin’s trollpolitik is not a personality quirk or an annoying habit. Instead, it should be a reminder that the Obama administration cannot trust Putin or treat him as a good-faith actor. He is a con man, and he has decided that the president of the United States is his latest mark.