An exchange on Sunday night’s 60 Minutes program between Steve Kroft and President Obama on Vladimir Putin:
Steve Kroft: Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II–
President Barack Obama: So that’s–
Steve Kroft: –bombing the people– that we are supporting.
President Barack Obama: So that’s leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine–
Steve Kroft: He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership–
President Barack Obama: Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership. My definition of leadership would be leading on climate change, an international accord that potentially we’ll get in Paris. My definition of leadership is mobilizing the entire world community to make sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon. And with respect to the Middle East, we’ve got a 60-country coalition that isn’t suddenly lining up around Russia’s strategy. To the contrary, they are arguing that, in fact, that strategy will not work.
Steve Kroft: My point is– was not that he was leading, my point is that he was challenging your leadership. And he has very much involved himself in the situation. Can you imagine anything happening in Syria of any significance at all without the Russians now being involved in it and having a part of it?
President Barack Obama: But that was true before. Keep in mind that for the last five years, the Russians have provided arms, provided financing, as have the Iranians, as has Hezbollah.
Steve Kroft: But they haven’t been bombing and they haven’t had troops on the ground–
President Barack Obama: And the fact that they had to do this is not an indication of strength, it’s an indication that their strategy did not work.
At least Putin has a strategy, which puts him one up on Obama. And Putin’s “only ally” will probably be joined by a few others as Russia is being touted as a savior — largely because they seem to have a coherent strategy.
“Russia does not play games. They are problem solvers, and they do it quietly and efficiently, not like the Americans who prefer to do everything in front of the cameras,” said Hussein Karim, a 21-year-old medical student from Baghdad.
In one cartoon widely distributed among Iraqis on Facebook and Twitter, U.S. President Barack Obama is dressed as a Sunni sheikh, while Putin as a Shiite imam, suggesting the two are taking sides.
Another cartoon shows a bare-chested Putin holding IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by the collar of his jalabaya, looking very intimidating. He says to al-Baghdadi: “Where do you think you’re going? I’ll flatten you like flour,” a popular Iraqi expression.
Al-Baghdadi, holding a cellphone, shouts: “Obama, save me!”
Most of the cartoons portray Putin as muscular — a perception that echoes the one at home in Russia, where he has cultivated an image as a man of action.
In addition to conducting his official duties, he often is shown on Russian TV doing such activities as playing ice hockey — as he did last week on his 63rd birthday — or climbing into a submersible to explore the sea.
T-shirts with his image are sold at shopping malls, souvenir stores and even from vending machines in Moscow airports. Some depict him looking tough in dark sunglasses, while others show him riding a horse to the words from a pop song: “They are not going to get us.”
The military intervention in Syria is viewed by many as a sign of shifting alliances in the region as Russia takes a greater role in the fight against IS.
Russia has had strong ties with the Mideast for years. The fascination with Putin is driven largely by a longstanding suspicion of the West and anger about decades of U.S. intervention in the region that many say has led to more wars and sectarianism. Many hope a stronger Russia would lead to a more balanced approach.
Iraq’s prime minister said last month that his government also entered a joint intelligence sharing agreement with Russia, Iran and Syria, opening an operations center in the heart of Baghdad.
In Egypt, Russian flags and posters of Putin’s face hung across Cairo during his visit in February. At the time, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper profiled him, with photos showing Putin shirtless and holding various weapons, headlined, “A hero of our times.”
President Obama is a master of wishful thinking. He’s also an expert in self delusion. The “60 country coalition” is a sham. The U.S. was flying up to 85% of the missions in Iraq and Syria a year ago. And that was before the Saudis got bogged down in Yemen. As of early this month, the U.S. had launched 2400 airstrikes in Syria with our coalition partners launching a grand total of 136.
And does the president really believe that by showing “leadership” on climate change it matters in the judgment of people regarding the relative strength and weakness of the U.S. and Russia? This break from reality by the president is astonishing considering what’s happening on the ground in Syria. Putin’s attempt to break rebel resistance to Assad is a direct challenge to the United States — a gauntlet slapped across our face — and all Obama can do is spout platitudes about leading on an issue most people don’t care about.
If Putin is showing weakness by sending planes and troops to Syria, the people of the Middle East aren’t seeing it. Rather, President Obama is substituting political spin for geopolitical reality in his description of Russian intervention. Putin is playing power politics, going for the jugular, while President Obama is playing tiddlywinks and whining about Russia not following his lead.
Is it any wonder the Middle East is going gaga for Vladimir?