Democrats, viewing President Obama’s failure to halt Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, have been forced to acknowledge that Putin doesn’t share our worldview, or even our century. Former secretary of state Madeline Albright admitted on Sunday on CNN, “He personally thinks he can restore the greatness of Russia, and he also — what I’m troubled by about him is he thinks he needs an enemy, and so it is not a way to kind of move the process forward. The Russian people themselves, I do understand, they used to be a superpower and is not anymore, but Putin is glorifying, I think in the sense, thinking that he is old Russia and restoring it. He is living in the past, and ultimately he’s going the wrong direction.”
Likewise, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) conceded on Sunday: “Here is Vladimir Putin with a failing Soviet franchise. And when he can’t win the hearts and minds of his neighboring nations, he uses energy extortion, masked gunmen and barbed wire. Now, he is a bully, and we’ve got to call him for what he is . . . . Vladimir Putin is conscious and aware of his standing in the world economy, he has to understand that this aggression in Crimea is not helping the reputation of Russia as a modern nation where you can do business. He’s back to the old Soviet ways. . . .”
This raises several related issues that go to the heart of the foreign policy debate.
First, Democrats derided Mitt Romney for correctly analyzing Putin and, more important, cheered reset, welcomed Russia’s participation in the Syria WMD deal and argued that Russia was a responsible partner in arms-reduction deals. They were, apparently, just as naïve as was Hillary Clinton and just as foolhardy in supporting moves like withdrawal of anti-missile sites from Eastern Europe. This was a major failure of vision and judgment, to which not only they but also the president should own up. They like to point back to the invasion of Georgia as evidence of President George W. Bush’s failure to restrain Putin, but it was the Democrats who pushed for reset even after Putin invaded his neighbor.
Second, in recognizing that Putin defies international norms, has interests other than ours and is a determined foe pretty much discredits the entire non-interventionism advocated by libertarians such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) Their thinking is that the United States can withdraw from the world militarily, manage relations through trade, avoid aiding vulnerable countries and let the rest of the world in essence work things out. (Unlike the left, they don’t even trust multilateral institutions to referee disputes.) This is, of course, nonsense if you look at the behavior and motivations of countries such as Russia, China, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba. Rogue states don’t want trade; they want territory, power and “respect.” It is only through using the full array of U.S. powers — including the willingness to support allies with economic and military aid — that we can restrain them.
And finally, if we can all now agree Russia marches to its own drummer, can we also agree that Iran is not motivated by rational calculations either? For the mullahs, the 19th-century outlook would be a vast improvement. Instead, their motivations should — just as we have learned from Putin — be taken at face value. They tell us clearly in words and deeds what they want: Israel’s eradication, preservation of their nuclear program, support for terror groups and collapse of the Sunni monarchs. They don’t want to be included in the “international community” if the ground rules deny them these objectives. They cannot be lured out of their ambitions by relaxed sanctions. In short, the effort to paint the negotiations with Iran as simply an effort to dispel mistrust and find common ground is rooted in the same naiveté that afflicted the Democrats’ outlook toward Russia.
The Obama administration has not been practicing “realism”; the president and his advisers have been living in a fantasy world in which our foes are eagerly awaiting our hand in friendship and in which if we work hard enough we can align their interests and ours. Once we realize the flawed assumptions on which such a worldview rests, nearly every policy choice (e.g. not forcing out Bashar al-Assad, reducing our military, relaxing sanctions on Iran, prematurely exiting Afghanistan) can be seen as wrongheaded. Realism now requires we reject the president’s worldview and get about the business of defending American interests against real and formidable foes. It should also suggest the unrepentant architects of the mistaken worldview shouldn’t be entrusted with responsibility for our national security.