Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why Obama Doesn't Understand Putin and Why Putin Dislikes Obama

By Barry Rubin

If one looks deeper into Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s annoyance at U.S. President Barack Obama it reveals a lot more than just the differences between the leadership in Moscow and Washington.
Putin is a traditional leader, which means he believes in making his country strong, never apologizing, using power in international relations, and having ambitions to gain influence in other countries. Indeed, he’s also somewhat aggressive seeking to restore the glory of Russia past.

He is precisely the kind of person who Obama is going to dismiss as out of date. Now that we, so Obama believes, are in a post-power age of international harmony, using force, having ambitions, being tough, is just silly.

After writing that paragraph, I reread it several times. Is it too much of a generalization? Yes. But does it express the essence of the Obama—and Western European—world view? Yes, again.

Before going to Moscow, Obama said in an Associated Press interview that Putin had to "understand that the Cold War approach to U.S.-Russian relationship is outdated" and that Putin had "one foot in the old ways of doing business."

But why is it outdated? Putin views the two countries as having conflicting interests. In addition, he’s angry—as are many Russians—because, rightly or wrongly, they feel betrayed by the West. In their view lured them out of Communism, without helping them to prosperity. It brought the break-up of the USSR and left Russia weak. In Putin’s words, the latter event was, "The greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century," certainly for Russia, of course.

So of course, Putin would reason, Obama thinks it’s the end of history because the United States is atop the world.

Come to think of it, that’s what Islamists and lots of other anti-American think especially in the Middle East but also elsewhere.

Unable to understand anyone else being hardline, Obama looks for the “moderate” and tries to push what he sees as the inevitable and natural triumph of the less extreme, even when that is ridiculous in terms of the politics of the specific country.

In Iran, he insists that Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei is the good guy compared to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though the two are bonded together tightly into a single unit now.

Similarly in Russia he flattered President Vladimir Medvedev while “dissing” Putin, even though everyone knows that Medvedev is Putin’s puppet and stand-in.

Obama did find something to give to Russia: while it is not official, in practice Obama is cancelling the installation of missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland. It should be remembered that these two countries put their faith in the United States and took a big risk by agreeing to put in missiles, knowing this would anger Putin. Now Obama has pulled the rug out from under them, just as he cancelled his predecessor's deal with Israel--yes, there certainly was one--on allowing continued construction on certain settlements.

The message has now been sent to the former Soviet satellites and captive nations of Central Europe and the Caucasus: one cannot rely on the United States to stand up for them. It's the same message that's been going out to the Middle East and Latin America (where the administration's Honduras policy favors governments hostile, not the ones friendly, to Washington).

One of those "old" and "outdated" ideas of international relations is to reward your friends and punish your enemies. Obama has reversed that concept in his policy.

Seemingly despite his vaunted multicultural understanding—indeed precisely because of it-- when Obama comes up against people who think differently from him he doesn’t understand them very well. What? Someone wants to conquer or subdue neighbors, become the hegemonic state in a region, believes in an ideology, and is ready to engage in conflict? How passé! Indeed "old" and "outdated."

What a variety of dictators and extremist movements think and how they act is all too familiar. They are still practicing the “outdated” “old ways” while Obama, like much of the European Union, think we are living in the Age of Aquarius.

Putin, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Castro, Assad, Hamas, Hizballah, North Korea, the Taliban, and a bunch of others are still playing by the rules of a world where the toughest prevail.

Obama believes that proving America is sorry for having been tough in the past and promises never to act like a leader again will win favor.

But sometimes those “old,” “outdated” ideas about international relations still work. Weakness and naiveté provoke not admiration but contempt.

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