About two months ago, I fought off the urge to write a column criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin. A prolonged period of relative calm had dominated the diplomatic airwaves between Russia and America. A tacit compromise seemed intact that stipulated that we wouldn’t piss in their pool (Chechnya) as long as they withheld their own piddle from our domain. And yet, Putin seems to have violated that agreement, firing a volley over our bow with a stunningly hypocritical critique of overaggressive U.S. foreign policy.
Not that Putin’s characterization of U.S. policy is inaccurate. Indeed, only those with delusions of an American empire would contend that our bellicosity in foreign affairs is beneficial rather than utterly reckless. But whereas such an indictment from the leader of a country like Canada or Spain might possess resounding moral clarity, that grievance from someone as ethically challenged as Putin somewhat confounds my American sensibility. It leaves me to respond: “Tu quoque, Vlad.”
For those unfamiliar with Latin, that’s a fancy way of saying “Hey, screw you, too” or in legalspeak, “You are similarly guilty.” That Putin’s actions might be tantamount in recklessness to those of President Bush’s might come as some surprise to certain readers. After all, what has Russia done to disturb the diplomatic stasis?
A number of things, actually. While Russian involvement is perhaps downplayed by diplomacy or impeccable planning by the Russian government (Putin is, after all, a former KGB expert), few political observers can deny Russian heavy-handed involvement in the nuclear assassination of a Russian dissident in London, the litany of murders of journalists (13 in all since Putin took office in 1999 – all critical of the Kremlin) and certainly not the political corruption behind the crowning and uncrowning of Russia’s oligarchs.
How ironic that Putin should lambaste American disregard for international law (assassination is after all a gross violation) or criticize “uncontained use of military force” (the slew of murders and oligarchical bestowments illustrate Putin’s rule as wantonly arbitrary and yet shielded by an unassailable impunity). It seems fitting that Bush’s cowboy foreign policy has found its match in Putin’s Cossack domestic policy.
What both of these unsavory characters share is a penchant for force as political currency – the former on the international level, the latter to solidify domestic power. Another common ingredient to their rule is undoubtedly fear – both of external threats of terrorism and perhaps even a growing dismay at the power of state. One might think such a fearful symmetry represents a return to the days of realpolitik were it not for the patina of misconceived idealism that guides the Bush agenda.
Still, the shrugging off of any diplomacy – or tact, for that matter – is cause for concern. Bush and Putin have fumbled their way around diplomacy with mixed results. To invoke the literary, Putin calls to mind one of George Orwell’s greatest villains, none other than U Po Kyin, the sly and enterprising subdivisional magistrate in “Burmese Days.” And yet, for all Bush’s iniquity, I don’t get the same vibe. Sure, he’s aggressive and manipulating. His actions might even be considered devious. Still, they don’t fit the mold of a U Po Kyin, but rather of a character created by one of Orwell’s compatriots. It was Graham Greene who first conceived of the Bush archetype in the form of Alden Pyle, the na’ve but brazen American operative in “The Quiet American” whose destructive idealism causes his own demise.
It’s a difference of intention, albeit without much distinction in the harm each brings others. The cavalier cowboy and the cruel Cossack. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in “The Ballad of East and West,” “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.”
And that shall be our own demise.
Rafi Martina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.