Some leaders make history, others are products of their times. Unfortunately, very little of the punditry with which we are afflicted tries to distinguish between the two types.
It’s only natural that “reporting” on, and discussion of, international affairs is so often reduced to psychobabble about personalities. We live in an age when attention spans are short, vocabularies brief, and knowledge of the past is miniscule and subject to constant change. And it’s a lot easier to ponder the psychology of a celebrity than to do the hard work of understanding the world.
But political leaders have to be analyzed in context, not just as case histories drawn from their free associations and recurring dreams. Leaders operate within certain parameters — they have greater or lesser possibilities to reshape their world depending on the content and strength of those parameters, which include the presence and power of countervailing forces. They are not free to do everything they may desire, and in some (rare) cases they may not be able to do any of the things they wish.
Not that personalities don’t count, especially in international affairs. The Reagan-Thatcher friendship was a major part of the West’s victory over the Soviet Empire; the Bush-Blair friendship was similarly important in the years after 9/11; the Obama-Erdogan friendship has been a key ingredient to American behavior in the Middle East since 2009; the interplay among FDR, Churchill, and Stalin reshaped the world in the last century; and Reagan and Thatcher, along with John Paul II and several others (King Juan Carlos of Spain, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, and Deng Xiaoping), shaped their world. So it is neither surprising nor improper for us to try to understand the personalities of the day.
Of which three, at least, are currently treated as crucially important: Putin, Rouhani, and Obama.
Of the three, Rouhani has the least ability to act freely. He is a cog in a machine, not a free agent. He is not the leader of his country. Even if he were everything his apologists claim — a moderate reformer who wants to have good relations with us and wants a more tolerant Iranian society — he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own. Any fundamental change in Iran requires the say-so of the supreme leader, who doesn’t want good relations with us and doesn’t care about the misery his regime has visited upon the people.
As for the nature of the man himself, there is considerable evidence Rouhani’s credentials are phony. His doctorate seems to rest on a dissertation that appears to have been plagiarized. His nominee for justice minister, Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi, has been credibly accused of crimes against humanity. There is little evidence he has any interest in good relations with America; indeed, as Sohrab Ahmari wrote in the Wall Street Journal, earlier this year he proclaimed:
We need to express “Death to America” with action. Saying it is easy.
And, as Reza Kahlili shows us, Rouhani has bragged about tricking the West into believing Iran was stopping uranium enrichment, when in reality the project was surging.
In short: Rouhani is not in charge, he is a cog in a machine, and he doesn’t seem to be at odds with the hateful doctrines that have defined the Islamic Republic since 1979. It’s hard to make a convincing case that the United States, or the West in general, should make a major strategic investment in friendship with the new Iranian president.
Putin is the opposite. He has much more freedom to act and he has imposed his will on Russia. Leon Aron has laid out the nature of “Putinism” with admirable brevity and elegance: Putin knows what he wants, both at home and abroad, and he pursues his goals ruthlessly and relentlessly. He truly rules his nation, and there is very little guile in his strategies. With Putin, you get what you see.
The similarities between Putin and Rouhani are doctrinal. Both are contemptuous of democracy, both are resolved to crush opponents of their regime and to eliminate pockets of liberty. Both are therefore profoundly anti-American, recognizing that the very existence of a strong and successful United States is a threat to their own legitimacy.
As with Rouhani, there isn’t likely to be a warm American relationship with Putin. But, it is worthwhile to deal seriously with Putin, precisely because he can deliver if he chooses to.
Putin and the Islamic Republic are enemies, but you can make deals with enemies-who-can-deliver. Which is why it is so strange that Obama strains to make a deal with Iran, but throws a hissy fit with Russia. Logic, as the White Rabbit once said, grabs you by the throat and makes you see what’s what. Except if you’re Obama.