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.
Obama has lots of power, and he uses it effectively to divide his already fractured and feckless opposition and to expand the soft tyranny that he desires. He knows what he wants in America: a country crisscrossed with paralyzing rules and regulations in which he can impose his will through big institutions (both private and governmental) and charisma. He also seems to know what he wants from America-in-the-world: weakness and withdrawal.
In other words, he acts as if he shares Putin and the Iranian regime’s view of America as a source of wickedness in international affairs.
Obama evidently believes that the best way to improve the state of the world is to keep America weak and to contain American dynamism within our own borders, where he can dictate terms. It would seem he’d be a natural interlocutor for both Putin and the Iranian tyrants.
Paradoxically, the more he caters to their desires, the more he slashes and burns the armed forces, the more he talks about accelerating American retreat from the terror network, the harder it has become to make the deals he promised his followers.
That should not surprise serious people. “If you want peace, prepare for war,” the ancient Romans tried to teach us. “Weakness is provocative,” Rumsfeld once paraphrased. Weakening and containing America is little more than preemptive appeasement, and it breeds contempt, the most dangerous of all things to any leader. Obama senses at least a part of this. He doesn’t like being spat upon by Putin (whether about Snowden or Assad), which accounts for the hissy fit. However, there is nothing strategic in the cancellation of the Putin summit; it’s a personal matter, it’s of a piece with the error of trying to explain the world by resort to psychobabble about celebrities. And so he spat back.
The Iranians, more guileful than Putin, do not openly spit upon Obama. They pretend to be the essence of sweet reasonableness, even as they support a global terror network that kills Americans and exposes the failure of Obama’s “lead with the behind” approach to the world. But he can barely contain his eagerness to strike a grand bargain with our killers.
He cannot bring himself to speak of the regime’s repression of the Iranian people, seems not to notice the extraordinary increase in executions in that unhappy land ever since the “moderate” Rouhani was elected, and did not even raise the possibility of the liberation of an American hostage before decreeing the release of five Taliban killers from Guantanamo.
Is there no national leader who sees the advance of our enemies, aided and abetted by the misguided policies of our leaders? Is there no one who will stand up every day in our legislature to appeal for the release of political prisoners in Russia and Iran and support opposition demands for greater liberty?
The hell of it is that our enemies are facing mounting crises of their own, undermining their authority and stimulating their own internal opposition. The war of all against all in Iran is intensifying, catalyzed by the supreme leader’s indecisiveness and enormous unpopularity. Recent demonstrations against Putin in Russia bespeak his failure to convince the people he has put the country on the right path,even if he, like the mullahs, can still impose a brutal order. Russia and Iran are failed states — just look at the lethal demographic data. Their people know there is a better way, a way that was traditionally embodied in “American exceptionalism.” Or, more simply, the way of a free society.
If only Obama believed in it, we could win this thing.
As it stands, our would-be assassins are on the march. Having failed to prepare for war, we will not have peace.