Explaining The Conservative Love Affair With Vladimir Putin: It’s All About Opposing Obama
While the American public as a whole has a largely negative view of both Vladmir Putin and Russia as a whole, there is a segment of the American public that has, over the past several years developed an oddly positive opinion of a nation that Mitt Romney, to the cheers of many on the right, called our biggest geopolitical rival, and a man who was once a top agent in the KGB. What’s odd is that these cheers are not coming from the left side of the political aisle as they might have in the 1930s, but from the right. Back in August, I observed that people such as Pat Buchanan and Rod Dreher have been heaping praise on Putin for things such as the anti-gay “propaganda” laws that he push through the Russian legislature and compared him positively to President Obama and what seems to be the new version of Buchanan’s “culture war” argument from the 1992 Presidential campaign. In December, Buchanan and Dreher were back with more praise for the Russian President and his authoritarian, anti-equality, and allegedly “pro-Christian” policies.
Now, one could easily dismiss Buchanan and Dreher as minority voices in the conservative movement. Indeed, that’s largely true when it comes to Buchanan who has been pushed to the sidelines since the 1990s, if not earlier, when his bizarre apologias for Nazi Germany first started making their way into print. Dreher isn’t like that, of course, but he is quite obviously far more of a cultural conservative than many in the conservative intelligentsia today, and the fact that he is an adherent to the Eastern Orthodox faith arguably makes him more sympathetic to a Russian world view on certain issues. However, it turns out that Buchanan and Dreher aren’t alone in their praise for Vladimir Putin. For example, Ben Carson, a Johns Hopkins Cardiologist who has become something of a sensation on the right for his rhetoric, said recently that Putin was correct to call the United States a “godless” country:
Last year Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized Euro-Atlantic countries, including the United States, of becoming godless and moving away from Christian values. Some may bristle at such an accusation, but when you consider that many Americans are hesitant even to mention God or Jesus in public, there may be some validity to his claim. We also casually have tossed out many of the principles espoused in the Bible and have concluded that there’s no authority greater than man himself.
The separation clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is inappropriately applied to a host of situations that involve religion. By reinterpreting the law to mean separation of God and state, as opposed to the original intent of keeping the church from having undue influence over state affairs and keeping government from ruling the church, secular progressives have succeeded de facto in redefining part of the Constitution. Such success, however, can only be lasting if “we the people” continue to yield our values and beliefs in order to get along.
While we Americans are giving a cold shoulder to our religious heritage, the Russians are warming to religion. The Russians seem to be gaining prestige and influence throughout the world as we are losing ours. I wonder whether there is a correlation.
Carson’s argument, to the extent that there is one, is similar to the one that Buchanan and Dreher have made in that he seems to accept the illusion that Putin has created of himself as some great protector of Christianity. It’s certainly true that Putin seems to have mastered the rhetoric of religiosity over the past several years, both for the purposes of internal Russian politics and on the international level. Internally, he has strengthened the relationship between the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church and brought the Church into his sphere in much the same way that the Czars, and even the Soviets, did during their time in power. He has cast the conflict with rebels in Chechnya and Dageistan as a battle against Islam itself, for example, and portrayed his support of the Assad regime in Syria as part of an effort to protect the Syrian Christian community. The fact that this is all smoke and mirrors, as it would appear many Russians recognize, seems to have utterly escaped the notice of American conservatives like Carson. In no small part, of course, this is because accepting Putin’s criticism and his claimed support for Christians in Russia and elsewhere at face value gives them support for the otherwise absurd argument that America under President Obama is becoming “hostile” to Christians and that the President himself is not a genuine Christian, something that has been part of the standard conservative attack against him since he was first running for President. If they need to praise a dictator who quite obviously is only using religion to enhance his own power at home and abroad, then that’s what they’ll do.
This idea of utilizing Putin to attack President Obama isn’t limited to people like Buchanan, Dreher, or Carson. Consider, for example, this from Victor Davis Hanson:
[T]here is a value for us in Putin. I don’t mean the strange Pat Buchanan-style admiration for Putin’s creepy reactionary social agenda and his tirades about Western social decadence. Rather, I refer to Putin’s confidence in his unabashedly thuggish means, the brutal fashion in which a modern state so unapologetically embraces the premodern mind to go after its critics, be they journalists or academics, or stifles free debate without worry over Western censure. Putin is a mirror showing more than just what we should not be.
We in the West get into fiery debates over civil union versus gay marriage as the appropriate legal means of recognizing homosexual unions, with all the accompanying charges of insensitivity — without much notice of how the vast majority of gays are treated elsewhere in the world. In contrast, Putin, mostly to global silence, does nothing as his thugs with impunity terrorize gay activists (who mostly demonstrate for basic freedom of speech, not marriage). Miley Cyrus insults our sensibilities and becomes fabulously rich; the Pussy Rioters go to jail.
Again, what is Putin? He is a constant reminder to the postmodern Western mind that the human condition has not yet evolved beyond the fist. He is a bumper-sticker example of Aristotle’s dictum that it is easy to be moral in your sleep, given that verbiage without power is hardly moral or difficult. He is also a reminder about what is important in the most elemental sense. As we debate former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s remonstrances on oversized Cokes or Michelle Obama’s advocacy of celery sticks, Putin has dogs shot down to spruce up the Olympic grounds. We calibrate to the point of paralysis just how large a carbon footprint the Keystone Pipeline may or may not have; Putin ignores the Arctic tundra to enrich kleptomaniac Russian oligarchs and prop up his dysfunctional state.
Bare-chested Putin gallops his horses, poses with his tigers, and shoots his guns — what Obama dismisses as “tough-guy schtick.” Perhaps. But Putin is almost saying, “You have ten times the wealth and military power that I have, but I can neutralize you by my demonic personality alone.” Barack Obama, in his increasingly metrosexual golf get-ups and his prissy poses on the nation’s tony golf courses, wants to stay cool while playing a leisure sport. It reminds us of Stafford Cripps being played by Stalin during World War II. “Make no mistake about it” and “Let me be perfectly clear” lose every time. Obama’s subordinates violate the law by going after the communications of a Fox reporter’s parents; Putin himself threatens to cut off the testicles of a rude journalist.
For Hanson, then, Putin is to be , well I guess you’d say admired, because he confirms the ongoing conservative meme of Barack Obama as a weak and ineffectual leader when it comes to foreign policy and world affairs. Not only that, but Putin, with his obviously staged photo ops involving shirtless horseback riding and hunting, is supposedly some paragon of manliness compared to Barack Obama who — horror of horrors! — plays golf and has been seen in the past riding around the First Family’s Hawaiian vacation spot on a bicycle with his kids. Putin, then, is to be admired according to Hanson precisely because he plays into the conservative memes about Barack Obama that have been circulating for the past six years or more. The fact that Putin is an autocrat who has jailed his opponents, used massive force to utterly destroy the city of Grozny during the war in Chechnya, and continues to employ policies that clearly violate human rights is to be ignored, or at least admired because he “gets things done.” If it weren’t such a ridiculous parody of the way that the far left viewed Stalin in the 30s, it would almost be worth the time it would take to seriously fisk Hanson’s argument here. As it stands, it’s quite obvious that Hanson is among those on the right who views Putin positively because he helps to confirm their absurd alternative biography, if not outright insulting stereotypes, about the President of the United States.
Closing out the latest examples of the bizarre conservative love affair with the leader of Russia, William Lind is out with a piece at The American Conservative praising the role Russia is playing in world affairs:
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia is emerging once more as the leading conservative power. As we witnessed in Russia’s rescue of President Obama from the corner into which he had painted himself on Syria, the Kremlin is today, as theNew York Times reports, “Establishing Russia’s role in world affairs not based on the dated Cold War paradigm but rather on its different outlook, which favors state sovereignty and status quo stability over the spread of Western-style democracy.”
In his own Times op-ed on Syria, Putin wrote, “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it.” Sen. Robert A. Taft and Russell Kirk also doubted it.
Moscow appears to understand better than Washington that the driving foreign-policy requirement of the 21st century is the preservation of the state in the face of Fourth Generation war waged by non-state entities, such as those fighting on the rebels’ side in Syria. Russia has rightly upbraided Washington for destroying states, including Iraq and Libya.
The world has turned upside down. America, condemning and even attacking other countries to push “democracy” and Jacobinical definitions of human rights, is becoming the leader of the international Left. Russia is reasserting her historic role as leader of the international Right. This is a reversal of historic importance. American foreign policy should be based on America’s interests, not on affinity for any foreign power. But putting America first does not require being hostile to Russia or anyone else. On the contrary: American conservatives should welcome the resurgence of a conservative Russia.
I’ve been critical of many of President Obama’s foreign policy choices myself over the past five years, including things like the intervention in Libya, the seemingly indiscriminate expansion of the Drone War, and the President’s aborted efforts last summer to take military action against Syria over the apparent use of chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war. In some of these situations, such as Libya and Syria, Russia has indeed played a role in blocking the U.S. from creating an international coalition in factor of intervention in the conflicts at issue. However, it’s important to recognize that, in doing so, Putin was not acting as some kind of conservative force in world politics, he was acting to tweak the nose of the United States, because he could, and to advance the interests of the Russian state. In Syria in particular, Russia sees Syria as the last real link to its old sphere of influence under the Soviet Union, and the port that the Syrians have provided for Russian use on the Mediterranean stands as the last real international outpost of that era left on the planet. Putin’s foreign policy, then, has nothing to do with some “conservative” value about preserving stability. Instead it has everything to do with advancing Russia’s interests as he sees them while simultaneously doing everything possible to undermine American efforts around the globe. The fact that conservatives like Lind don’t see that seems to be just another example of the extent to which their disdain for President Obama blinds their judgment in so many other areas.
There’s one theme, then, that resonates through all the positive pieces we’ve seen from the right about Vladimir Putin. In the end, it all comes down to undermining and criticizing the current occupant of the White House. The fact that it also means heaping praise upon a former Communist and KGB agent is apparently something that many on the right are quite comfortable with.