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Obama’s Enlightened Foolery

He views Putin, the 21st century, and himself as in a fun-house mirror.

by Victor Davis Hanson // National Review Online 

President Obama talks about Vladimir Putin as if he were a Pennsylvania “clinger” who operates on outdated principles, who is driven by fear, and whom unfortunately the post-Enlightenment mind of even Barack Obama

Mykl Roventine  via Flickr

Mykl Roventine via Flickr

cannot always reach. Deconstruct a recent CBS News interview with President Obama, and the limitations of his now-routine psychoanalyses are all too clear. Consider the following presidential assertions:

Obama said in the CBS interview that Vladimir Putin was “willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union.”

Is that any surprise? Why would Putin not “show a deeply held grievance” — given that Russians enjoyed far more pride and influence when they had far more territory and power than they do now? Just because elites in the West might consider Denmark and Luxembourg model societies, given their per capita incomes, ample social services, high-speed mass transit, and climate-change sensitivities, does not necessarily mean that the grandchildren of Stalingrad and Leningrad would agree.  

What exactly does Obama mean when he says, of Putin, “what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union”?

“Considers”? Did we miss something here?

Did not the Soviet Union disappear from the map? Did not it leave in its ruin a much smaller Russian Federation — one perhaps far less dangerous and with more potential to get along with the West, but with far less likelihood of regaining the glory and influence that many Russians had come to appreciate?

Obama went on: “You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that, you know, were so prevalent during the Cold War but, in fact, to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”

Who “would have thought” that?

Only a naïf.

Does Obama believe in a linear trajectory of history, in which man’s nature is constantly improved with greater material bounty and ever more education, until we reach the apparent present utopian state, where “integration with the world economy” and being “a responsible international citizen” must logically preclude most aggression?

That foreign-policy scenario, given the nature of man, is about as believable as an assertion that we 21st-century Americans long ago transcended 19th-century rough-and-tumble politics and government corruption, where once upon a time presidents lied brazenly to the people, government bureaus went after an administration’s political enemies, and California state legislators were facing charges of gun running, bribery, and fraud. Given Benghazi, the AP monitoring, the NSA and IRS scandals, and the serial non-enforcement of settled law, I’d say the present administration is closer to Boss Tweed than to a promised 21st-century “transparent” politics.

As far as Putin’s pre-Enlightenment, pre-Harvard brain goes, I think he would prefer to humiliate the U.S. over Syria, block our initiatives in the U.N., empower Iran to cause nuclear mischief in the Middle East, and take two steps forward absorbing former Soviet republics while taking one step backward as he assures Obama on each occasion that he has no more territorial aspirations in Europe.

Obama is perplexed by Putin’s Neanderthal club-waving. But Putin believes that he does not need aircraft carriers and Marines to exercise national clout — only his own indomitable will and adversaries who “would have thought” he was better than that.

Obama also said that Putin sees the breakup of the Soviet Union as “tragic.” I suppose Obama means “tragic” in the Sophoclean sense of great ambitions gone terribly wrong through hubris, with disastrous consequences all around. But I doubt that Putin believes much in the ironies and paradoxes of tragedy. He embraces no such complex anguish about the end of the Soviet Union; he merely knows that Russians once were powerful and now they are not. And that is not so much tragic as a very bad thing — though a bad thing that still can be rectified in the time remaining until 2017.

Apparently, enlightened minds assume that no sane person could imagine that the collapse of a criminal regime that butchered 10 to 20 million of its own people, and caused misery for a half-century around the globe, could be seen as anything but wonderful. Thus the unenlightened and anguished Putin surely must wrongly interpret the collapse of the USSR as “tragic,” rather than in such primitive fashion lament it as something disastrous for the Russian sense of self.

Obama went on: “There’s a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past and that he wants to, in some fashion, reverse that or make up for that.”

Most countries other than the United States and Sweden entertain “a strong sense of . . . nationalism” in that they view themselves as exceptional people with interests to be protected and promoted. Russians don’t just sense that “the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past,” but know that we have: They lost the Cold War and we won it. That fact has meant that from 1989 onward, the U.S. has had strategic options that were simply unavailable between 1946 and 1989. A sole superpower can do things that one superpower cannot in a bipolar world where power is balanced and thus often neutralized.

Why is Obama somewhat perplexed that Putin and Russians in general would like “to reverse that or make up for that”? For our part, we should ensure, as much as we feasibly can in a nuclear world, that Russian values — tsarist, Communist, or Putinist — are kept within the borders of the Russian Federation lest they destroy, as they so often have in the last three centuries, those countries without Russian majorities — the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, among others — that are unfortunate enough to be both small and proximate to Russia.

Obama added: “What I have repeatedly said is that he may be entirely misreading the West. He’s certainly misreading American foreign policy. We have no interest in encircling Russia and we have no interest in Ukraine beyond letting the Ukrainian people make their own decisions about their own lives.”

This appeal to enlightened reason is rather pathetic. I doubt very seriously that Putin believes that reset policies have led to an encirclement of Russia. I doubt also that he is “misreading” the West.

Is not the very opposite true?

More likely Putin is reading us all too well, and therefore believes that the West is so distracted, weak, or self-absorbed that it most surely has no interest in Ukraine at all. Obama misses the point that it is precisely because we have no demonstrable interest in Ukraine — even in the marginal sense of trying to help it retain its autonomy — and because Putin has read that attitude very well, that he has decided to carve it up.

Obama continued. “And it is true that we reject the notion that there is a sphere of influence along the Russian border that then justifies Russia invading other countries. Certainly they’re going to have influence because of trade and tradition and language and heritage with Ukraine. Everybody acknowledges that. But there’s a difference between that and sending in troops, and because you’re bigger and stronger taking a piece of the country — that is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.”

Why necessarily is the 21st century any different from, say, the 19th? Are politicians now smarter, more ethical, and less inclined to bully, to cheat, and to lie? We should not confuse material and technological progress with moral progress. Google or Apple is as likely to offshore money and outsource jobs as any 1950s smokestack corporation. Obama (“punish our enemies”) waged a campaign and raised money in a fashion not much different from that of any late-19th-century bare-knuckle brawler. When Obama boasted that he had a  “pen and a phone” and would bypass Congress, he was assuming that he was stronger than Congress, and therefore had the 19th-century power to do what he wished with executive orders, in a way entirely antithetical to both constitutional governance and his own prior 21st-century vows of ending “red” and “blue” political divisions.

If I were Obama, I would not boast about the moral superiority of the modern world — as if we don’t any more allow hundreds of thousands, or rather millions in aggregate, to die in places like Rwanda, Serbia, or the Congo. If anything, when we compare a 19th-century pogrom to a 20th-century Auschwitz, or what the Athenians did to the Melians with what Mao did to his own people, or what the 9/11 hijackers did with what a 19th-century anarchist did with a bomb, or what racist Belgians did to 19th-century Congolese with what Congolese did to Congolese in the 21st century, the modern world does not come off too well. Europe between 1815 and 1914 was a far less bloody and less dangerous place than Europe between 1914 and 1989.

Obama also pointed to the U.N. vote and noted with satisfaction that 100 countries voted in favor of a resolution that condemned the invasion of Crimea, and only eleven voted against it.

To paraphrase Aristotle, it is easy to be moral in our sleep. Obama apparently cannot distinguish between what nations profess in the abstract and what such professions cost them in the concrete, when there are consequences beyond rhetorical gymnastics. The vast majority of members of the League of Nations condemned Italy for annexing Abyssinia, Japan for doing the same to Manchuria, and Germany for absorbing Austria. In rare cases, there were even various embargoes, sanctions, and ultimata that were for a time loudly voiced. But nothing much else happened.

We are pleased that the majority of U.N. members do not approve of Vladimir Putin. But unless the United States shows extraordinary leadership, most nations in Putin’s path are likely to make the necessary arrangements for their survival and assure him that their prior votes of outrage were mostly for show.

What is tragic in this crisis is Obama’s bewilderment that Putins still exist in his 21st century. They do, and will in the 22nd century as well.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.

 

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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