In 2001, President George W. Bush famously looked Russian President Vladimir Putin in the eye and peered into his soul. Now, it seems, President Obama is trying to get inside Putin’s head.
Neither Bush nor Obama has figured out the Russian leader.
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” Bush said in remarks he later regretted. “. . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Obama isn’t the least bit worried about Putin’s soul, but like the more religious Bush he may be projecting onto Putin a set of attributes he aspires to himself. The current American president is nothing if not rational, constantly weighing interests and calculating odds, deeply mindful of past experience. Often, he expects others to behave in a similar fashion.
But when a foreign policy based on such expectations runs up against leaders driven by tribal feuds, Cold War fears, age-old strategic loyalties and ambitions for greater influence, the result is trouble.
So far, it looks as though the strategy based on logic and rational calculation might fail once again.
Obama is still trying to appeal to Putin on that basis, methodically touching every base. First, he cites recent history. “I think Mr. Putin understands that, with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict [in Syria] is not the outcome that he’s looking for,” Obama said at a Paris news conference Tuesday capping two days of climate negotiations.
He also appeals to Russia’s self-interest by citing potential terrorism. “I do think that as a consequence of ISIL claiming responsibility for bringing down their plane, there is an increasing awareness on the part of President Putin that ISIL poses a greater threat to them than anything else in the region,” Obama said last month. “The question at this point is whether they can make the strategic adjustment that allows them to be effective partners with us and the other 65 countries” in the campaign against the Islamic State, also called ISIL.
And then Obama summons clear-eyed pragmatism, saying that calling for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a practical, not an idealistic, posture. “Regardless of how you feel about Mr. Assad — and I consider somebody who kills hundreds of thousands of his own people illegitimate — but regardless of the moral equation, as a practical matter, it is impossible for Mr. Assad to bring that country together and to bring all the parties into an inclusive government,” Obama said Tuesday.
Obama used, in vain, a similar tack in trying to persuade Putin to pull back from eastern Ukraine. Why disrupt Ukraine when doing so would mean Western sanctions? Why be alarmed by Ukrainian association with the European Union when, after the Cold War, the E.U. was eager to draw closer to Russia, too?
Obama’s sense of U.S. self-interest is shaped in large part by Bush’s misadventures in Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. Obama campaigned in 2008 promising to end both wars, and the difficulty of pulling out has reinforced his extreme caution about getting sucked into a new potential quagmire, especially in Syria, where there are no appealing allies. Putin doesn’t seem to feel that way, and that frustrates Obama.
“I don’t expect that you’re going to see a 180-turn on their strategy over the next several weeks,” Obama said Tuesday, referring to the Russians. “They have invested for years now in keeping Assad in power. Their presence there is predicated on propping him up. And so that’s going to take some time for them to change how they think about the issue.”
Is Putin being irrational? The Middle East has long been a graveyard of foreign policy and peace plans based on rational interests and calculation, much less ideals.
And maybe Putin is making his own rational calculations — just not ones that match Obama’s. He has invested relatively little in supporting Assad and immediately regained a place at the table of Obama and other world leaders who had spurned him over Ukraine. Perhaps he will try to leverage cooperation on Syria to ease sanctions imposed over Ukraine, even as he hangs onto Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the E.U., which Ukraine so fervently wanted to affiliate with, has been tarnished, riven by refugees and rattled by terrorism.
And what of Obama? When elected, he was seen as a person of high ideals and soaring rhetoric, appealing to our better selves. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, he said: “Within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists — a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world. I reject these choices.”
But his foreign policy has been more rooted in U.S. interests, narrowly defined.
Many critics of Obama say he has fumbled relations with Putin; some call him arrogant in their dealings, while others say he’s naive. One diplomat said that when Obama declared he would not fight a proxy war against Putin, he gave the Russian leader a “blank check” to strike at U.S.-backed allies in Syria.
But maybe it’s neither arrogance nor naivete. Maybe it’s a cultural difference and a personal one. The two presidents exude dislike for each other. They have little in common. Putin does judo, Obama plays golf. But they are both shooting into the same sand trap.