Russian President Vladimir Putin has held up his hand, clenched his fist and given “half a peace sign” to the Ukraine, Europe and especially to President Barack Obama. And so the debate has begun:
Is the invasion of Crimea a shocking turning point for modern Russia? Is it proof Obama has turned the U.S. into a paper tiger? Is it a crucial moment for the world in the 21st century? The beginning of Russian domination of the old Soviet Union and perhaps intimidation of Europe?
Some points to consider as this breaking story continues to quickly unfold:
The Iraq War Left Much Collateral Damage: The Iraq war launched by President George W. Bush was launched under what is now proven to be false pretenses. American weren’t greeted by garlands and flowers but seemingly caught in quicksand which required an extrication costly in time, treasure and lives. Many Americans became angry at Canada when it was unwilling to join the “coalition of the willing.” Many in the United Kingdom seethed over their country’s involvement -- anger recently fueled by revelations that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair knew Iraq had few weapons of mass destruction when he argued Washington’s case to his nation.
The Iraq war debacle made other countries think even harder about military intervention, and the United States’ reputation took a hit. Writes The Week’s Marc Ambinder: “One undeniable truth: Iraq weakened the U.S. more than anything done since. Maybe Obama over learned its lessons...But nothing empowered Vladimir Putin more than America’s squandering of moral standing in the early part of this century.”
Putin Has Never Shed His KGB Roots or Persona: Forbes’ blogger David Adesnik writes that Putin “will talk sweetness and light and always insist he is the defender of shared values...Putin lies just as brazenly to his own people and about his neighbors. But Americans and Europeans may need to learn this lesson.”
Indeed, it’s easy in the context of a new century to think that some things have changed for the better, but an authoritarian’s instinct will long endure. And Putin seems to be laying the groundwork for more, not fewer, military interventions.
Putin and Obama Really Dislike Each Other: Putin published an unprecedented op-ed in The New York Times that was patronizing to Obama. Obama has taken a few snark swipes at Putin. JFK and Nikita Khrushchev were best buds by comparison. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a good relationship with Russia’s de facto dictator, recently talked to Putin about his action in the Crimea and wondered if he was in touch with reality, saying: “In another world.”
To Seriously Follow the Controversy, Ignore Partisans: GOPers are now going after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who held a famous “reset” button for U.S. Russian relations, because Putin hit a time machine button taking the world back to the Cold War. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- always less “think tank” than thinking that long-ago tanked -- is doing an I-told-you-so on Putin, Obama and the Ukraine, and recently offered this thoughtful analysis: Obama wears “mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”
Obama Remains a Work In Progress But What Happens Here Will Define Him: Don’t expect Republican politicians or talk radio to give you a serious analysis of Obama. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recently noted the virtual Republican Tower of Babel on Obama: “President Obama is such a weak strongman. What’s more, he is a feeble dictator and a timid tyrant,” Milbank wrote. “That, at any rate, is Republicans’ critique of him.”
The late Rep. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s axiom that politics “ends at the water’s edge” has now been replaced with “let’s see if we can create a tsunami to rally our base, get this guy’s poll numbers down and our side’s up.”
But here’s one certainty: Putin is the same Putin he was years ago -- and he cannot and never will be confused with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joegandelman