There was Vladimir Putin the other day doing what he does best. The Kremlin strongman who has promised to put rebels in the outhouse, threatened an annoying reporter with circumcision and shot darts at rare Siberian tigers, has responded to the pre-election unrest about his planned return to the Russian presidency with his tried-and-true playbook: a noxious brew of ethnic nationalism and macho chauvinism, mixed in with nuclear posturing, America-bashing and old-fashioned scaremongering.
"We should not tempt anyone by allowing ourselves to be weak," he lectured in an op-ed last week. In fact, he wants a country with a plummeting population, aging infrastructure, corruption-plagued education system and no major enemies to speak of aside from Georgia (a tiny neighbor one-thirtieth its size) to spend billions of dollars modernizing its military, and especially its nuclear missiles, over the next few years.
To Putin, under fire in advance of Russia's Mar. 4 presidential election as never before in the dozen years he's ruled, enemies are suddenly everywhere, from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Napoleon Bonaparte to assorted lesser villains at home and abroad. On Monday, that enemies list grew even more ominous when Russian and Ukrainian state TV reported an alleged plot to kill Putin by Chechen militants, a plot that had supposedly been broken up in January but only made public now, on the eve of the election. "We will never allow anyone to interfere in our internal affairs," he shouted at a campaign rally a couple days ago. In a stadium packed for Defender of the Fatherland Day, Putin put on a full-throated pep rally, as if the country were in the midst of war: Victory, he said, was "in our genes, in our genetic code."
But Putin's rhetoric -- unquestionably over the top (I remember back in 2004, when Putin threatened a reporter using a word so vulgar the interpreters refused to translate it) -- is less of an outlier than you might think in this global campaign season. In Greece, the rioting crowds, furious over austerity, call the Germans who insist on massive budget cuts for their overstretched government latter-day Hitlers. In Venezuela, embattled, cancer-stricken autocrat Hugo Chavez has responded to a strong challenge from a united opposition by unleashing a campaign against his opponent that includes tarring him as a gay, Zionist, neo-Nazi sympathizer out to ruin the country.
And then there's the U.S. presidential election, where Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has been bashing European socialism, Chinese central bankers -- and Putin -- with as much zeal as he has jumped on Barack Obama. His fellow Republican Newt Gingrich, perhaps feeling his chances finally slipping away, just in the last few days called Obama "outrageously anti-American" in his energy policies and pronounced him "the most dangerous president in modern American history."
Republicans are sure they can attack Obama as a declinist, a wimpy European sort who'd rather go around the world apologizing for American power than using it (never mind Obama's surprisingly muscular record of supporting war in Libya, surging more troops into Afghanistan and dramatically increasing covert strikes against terrorists). So of course they were quick to seize on the president's apology last week to Afghan President Hamid Karzai for the apparently mistaken burning of the Koran at a U.S. military base outside Kabul, an incident that set off days of riots throughout Afghanistan. Romney called Obama's apology "difficult for the American people to countenance." His rival Rick Santorum said flatly it was wrong.
In a new article out today in Foreign Policy, two key architects of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns make the case for exactly this sort of Obama-bashing. The president, according to Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, should be attacked by Republicans this year as "naïve," "weak," and generally out of his league on the international stage. (Remember when Obama in 2008 argued that "Iran was a ‘tiny' country that didn't ‘pose a serious threat,'" they write. "How foolish that now seems.")
Although the conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is a strength for a president who finally managed to kill America's Enemy Number One -- Osama bin Laden -- Rove and Gillespie are sure it's a weakness, and one that should be exploited by this year's nominee, whoever he is. "The nominee should adopt a confident, nationalist tone emphasizing American exceptionalism, expressing pride in the United States as a force for good in the world, and advocating for an America that is once again respected (and, in some quarters, feared) as the preeminent global power."
Does all this chest-thumping rhetoric matter? Putting aside the political calculation behind it, it sure seems like a distraction. After an incredible 20 debates among the Republican candidates, the year's conversation about the world can pretty much be summed up like this: America is great, Obama is not, and by the way let's be worried about China and get rid of our foreign aid budget (except the part that helps Israel).
Where was the serious discussion of Europe in the midst of its most serious financial -- and political -- crisis in decades, a crisis that is arguably the most significant threat to the United States today? It's only the economic health of America's largest trading partner and closest ally that's at stake. (At least in Europe, they get the implications; wags there often refer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as Obama's running mate.) What about any debate on Obama's escalating drone wars, or his stated goal of a "strategic pivot" to Asia and away from the conflicts of the Middle East? Or a serious discussion of what to do about nuclear-armed North Korea, in a perilous state of transition now under the stewardship of its late tyrant's 27-year-old son?
And this holds for Obama, too. Long gone is the 2008 candidate of hope, the one who promised to tackle global warming and peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and even make progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons. These days, Obama positions himself as more of a tough-minded realist, and to listen to his State of the Union speech one could be forgiven for thinking that the signal accomplishment of his first three years in office was killing one man. (Gerhard Peters of the University of California at Santa Barbara calculates that Obama mentioned bin Laden just 14 times from his inauguration to last Apr. 30 -- and 103 times since May 1, when he announced bin Laden's death.)
As for Russia and Putin's aggressive campaign, neither party really has much to say about it. Obama early on proclaimed a "reset" with Russia after the frosty relations of the Bush era, and made so much of its success he's not exactly going to campaign now against it -- even with the Russians waging a crude propaganda campaign targeting Obama's new ambassador, Michael McFaul, an architect of the reset now being blasted in the Russian media as an agent sent to foment revolution.
Still, the sniping has escalated in recent days, not just because of Putin's tough talk about the supposed hidden hand of Clinton and the Americans in undermining his regime. A real flash point may emerge over Syria, where Russia pretty much alone in the world has publicly defended the interests of Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime, dismissing the deaths of more than 6,000 people as an internal affair and steadfastly using its U.N. Security Council veto along with China to block any coordinated international action. "It is just despicable," said Clinton.
So, is there a new deep freeze on the way between Putin's Russia and whoever runs America after the 2012 election? Better listen to all that overheated campaign rhetoric, whether it's Mitt Romney blasting Obama for negotiating the New START nuclear-arms reduction deal with the Kremlin or Putin's tough-guy talk about upgrading the Russian military so it's no longer a shadow of its Soviet self. They might actually mean it.