Why Neocons Love the Strongman
Say this for Rudy Giuliani: He gave away the game with his now-infamous admiring comments on Fox News two days ago about Vladimir Putin. “He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly,” the former mayor said. “Then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader. President Obama, he’s got to think about it. He’s got to go over it again. He’s got to talk to more people about it.”
Giuliani, once a genuinely moderate Republican (go look up his mayoral immigration record) and a man whom aides used to describe a long time ago as the one figure capable of pulling the national GOP back toward the center (I swear, I had those conversations), has served for some time now as little more than a right-wing standup comic—and a staggeringly hypocritical one at that. I’ll never forget his St. Paul convention speech, when he defended Sarah Palin by mocking Barack Obama and the Democrats for not thinking her hometown was “cosmopolitan enough.” This from a man who, while ostensibly campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 1999 and 2000 to represent all of New York state in the U.S. Senate, I think literally never spent a single night upstate. Zoom—as soon as the event in Albany or Schenectady was over, it was on the plane and right back to the emotional safety of the Upper East Side.
A standup comic often serves as his audience’s id, and so it is in this case. The neocons, on some emotional level, prefer Putin to Obama. He’s rugged. He goes shirtless. He knows his way around a Kalashnikov. He “wrestles bears and drills for oil,” as Palin put it Monday night, also on Fox. Palin, of course, is a pretty id-dy figure in her own right. She and Giuliani can say what some others who live and operate in Washington may feel constrained from saying. But every time John Bolton and Charles Krauthammer and Lindsey Graham and others carry on about Obama’s weakness, they’re also implying that he’s not half the man Putin is. And in neocon world, it always comes down to who’s the manlier man (although this makes Osama bin Laden a manlier man than Bush or Cheney, and Obama a manlier man than all of them, but never mind).
Now of course these people can’t openly cheer for Putin, because that would constitute outright treason, but they can test treason’s perimeter fence and probe it for weaknesses. I don’t quite think they want war with Russia; Russia ain’t Iraq. And obviously I don’t believe that if it came to that they’d be against their own country.
But that said, they are certainly undermining the commander in chief at a pivotal moment—not merely protesting his policies, but denouncing his character.
And don’t we suspect that they’re doing this because there’s a little part of them that wants a full-blown crisis? Of course there is. A crisis would vindicate them. A crisis would make the neocons—at risk of being flushed down history’s toilet by Rand Paul, who’s suddenly being called “front runner” by more and more people—relevant inside the Republican Party again.
What good would a settlement do them? Putin keeping the Crimea and stopping there, and that being the end of it? Why, they’d be reduced to carrying on about the Crimea as if it mattered to the United States one way or the other who ran it. Settlements are so kiss-your-sister. Settlements are for… community organizers.
No, they thirst for crisis. They can attribute it to Obama’s “weakness.” They can work in some shots at Hillary Clinton and try to hang it around her neck, since the Benghazi noose has shown an infuriating habit of slipping loose. And they can say to America, “See? You need us.”
The reality is that America needs their advice like it needs John Travolta’s pronunciation guide. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that if President Romney were in the Oval Office and John Bolton at Foggy Bottom and all the Doug Feiths and Randy Scheunemanns and ex-deputies to Rumsfeld and Wolfie filling all the key positions, the situation would be far worse than it is. Romney would have spent the last year goading Putin. We’d already have been at a boiling point over Syria—whereas under Obama, at least Russia agreed on paper that Bashar al-Assad should turn over his stock of chemical weapons. A NATO membership card for Georgia would have been in the works, if not already chiseled, and an expanded and souped-up missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe would have been announced. Basically, everything the United States could do to play right into every one of Putin’s lurid, paranoid fantasies about America’s true aims in the world (i.e., crush Russia), the Romney administration would have done, almost undoubtedly leading him to have behaved more obstreperously than he already has, and at an earlier point.
I’m not doing any dances over how the Obama administration has handled this situation (and why just $1 billion in aid? We should be matching Putin’s $15 billion). The European Union’s posture, it’s worth noting, has been far more abysmal than the administration’s, and it’s mattered far more too, since the Europe vs. Asia tension is at the heart of Putin’s concerns about Ukraine (read this excellent and concise rundown of the EU’s five huge errors in its recent dealings with the country). There’s blame to go around.
But most of the blame rests on the manly shoulders of the megalomaniac who is most responsible for creating this situation (and let’s remember to save some for Viktor Yanukovych, and even a little for Ukraine’s current government). For the neocons to blame Obama for the actions of a madman, incessantly using adjectives that are meant to communicate to the world that the president of the United States can be steamrolled, and possibly should be for his own good, is close to anti-American. But they can’t blame Putin. He’s their doppelganger, psychologically. He is them, and they are him. Woe betide the world if they ever do face each other.