March 18th, 2014 // 10:04 am @ Oliver DeMille
When Mitt Romney said during the 2012 presidential campaign that Russia is America’s biggest international foe, President Obama and the entire national security establishment laughed and poked fun at him.
They collectively called his views outdated. Quaint. Out of touch.
Nobody’s laughing today. The experts were wrong. Romney was right. Moreover, he did something that may be the most important trait for a U.S. president to display: he read foreign leaders correctly. Despite the experts, even in the face of widespread ridicule, he understood Putin.
In contrast, President Obama has proven that this is a major weakness of his leadership. Reading Putin wrong is a serious problem. Obama read Putin wrong during the Syria crisis, when deciding whether or not to remove strategic missiles from Eastern Europe, regarding Iran, on harboring Snowden, and most recently during the Crimean emergency.
President Obama warned Putin that there would “be consequences” for Russia if it pursued these power grabs. But so far this has been mostly bluster, hardly any meaningful consequences.
Clearly Putin has read Obama right: a politician, someone who thinks words matter more than might, a head of state who shies away from real conflict, a president who will back down in the face of actual force.
Putin’s policy has been to nod, agree, and make nice when words are at play, then to stay silent and let the politicians debate and posture while the troops march in. He has does this in each of the cases mentioned above.
Putin isn’t a politician, not in the Western sense. He is an old KGB operative, trained and conditioned that physical actions speak louder than words. He is convinced that the Obama Administration will rise to mere words when a debate is needed, but back down from physical force.
Putin is also following the old KGP agenda of reestablishing the Russian empire—one piece at a time. For Putin, it’s two steps forward, one step forward.
Looking the Wrong Way
Meanwhile, the NSA and other agencies under Obama’s watch use massive resources spying on Americans, resources that could be utilized spying on Russia and other true security threats.
The clip of President Obama telling Putin that he’d have more flexibility to work with Russia once he won the 2012 election has been played repeatedly. Since it was captured on an open mike blunder when Obama didn’t realize he was on the air, it has fueled numerous conspiracy theories.
But few have pointed out perhaps the most interesting part of this clip: the look on Putin’s face.
The operative, the bully, the bad cop, realizing that his biggest foe, the American president, is a talker above all, that he wants to be liked, that his words don’t directly correlate with his action.
That he can be swayed, even shocked, by violence.
That raw physical force is outside his comfort zone.
That he probably won’t pull the trigger unless he can be almost entirely sure that the other guy can’t fight back.
Is this what Putin was thinking?
Whether or not this is actually President Obama’s character, it is clearly how Putin has sized him up.
They’re Not Playing Games
The Administration makes war on Fox News, Edward Snowden, Ted Cruz, Bill O’Reilly, anti-Obama Care Republicans, or conservative groups seeking IRS approvals, but Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Putin get to do whatever they want.
Putin has apparently decided that he can operate without any real opposition from the White House. No discussion, no diplomacy, no talk needed, until the power has been wielded.
Afterword, once the troops have done their work, Obama will be only too happy to talk with Putin, to smooth things over, to declare “peace in our time” based on nice words and promises.
For Putin, Obama is Neville Chamberlain, so interested in peaceful words that they can be used after aggression to cover any sin. No need for permission when apologies will suffice.
While the phrase “Putin is playing chess while Obama is playing checkers” makes its rounds inside the Beltway, the truth is a bigger concern:
Putin is playing Stalin and Obama is playing Carter.
What we need from our president in national security is a Truman, a Churchill, a Thatcher, a Reagan—someone that a Khrushchev, Brezhnev, or Putin has no choice but to respect.
Because even though Putin doesn’t bother anymore to care what Obama is doing or thinking, now that he has pegged him as an easy mark, China and Iran are watching. Closely.
How did we get to this point?
High School Politics in Washington
Americans elect the “cool” candidate as president in the Entertainment Age. Carter was cooler than Ford, Reagan was cooler than Carter and Mondale, Bush I was cooler than Dukakis but not as cool as Clinton, Clinton was cooler than Dole, Bush II was cooler than Gore and Kerry, and Obama was cooler than McCain and Romney.
A simple “cool” test (who is more likely to sing, dance, play the saxophone, fuel high school ambitions in the youth, etc.) would have accurately predicted every one of these elections.
It’s High School Musical at the White House.
As for the 2016 presidential election, no potential candidate so far is nearly as “cool” to a majority of the national electorate as Hillary Clinton. Nobody is even close.
The problem is that when it comes to the main Constitutional role of the Chief Executive (keeping the nation safe from foreign aggression), teenage-style “cool” is arguably irrelevant.
The most important trait may well be the ability to effectively size up foreign leaders and project real strength to them. Rahm Emanuel, Mitt Romney, Bill Clinton—Putin would tread more lightly.
But since we are caught in this Entertainment Society where the political parties pick their presidential candidate based on ideology mixed with electability, and then the American voters reject both of these and simply elect the “cool” candidate, maybe the best we can hope for is a president who demands respect—not from the Nobel Prize committee of idealists but from dangerous world leaders like Putin.
Ironically, this is becoming increasingly important as the current Administration drastically cuts the military (and ramps up debt, inflation, and spending on everything else), and as a number of nations become closer in the balance of power to the United States.
More military conflict will certainly happen in the coming two decades. Russia, China and many nations in the Middle East are actively and specifically preparing for this.
The U.S. is doing the opposite—cutting the military and looking for the next Zac Efron as president—hoping that no conflicts come.
But they will.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.