“Useful idiots.” According to Wikipedia, it’s political jargon for someone who unwittingly serves as “a propagandist for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of and who are used cynically by the leaders of that cause.” During the Cold War, conservatives frequently used the term – often (though perhaps apocryphally) attributed to Lenin – as a dig at leftists and liberals deemed too trusting of the Soviet Union’s motives and too dismissive of its excesses.
I have to believe that the phrase has crossed Vladimir Putin’s mind (or maybe even passed his lips, albeit in private) a few times in the past couple of weeks. The onetime KGB lieutenant colonel turned FSB director turned Russian Federation president can’t help but be pleased, or at least amused, by the spectacle of so many folks on the American left, right and center heralding him as a peacemaker and statesman and someone who outwitted that hawkish rube Barack Obama on Syria.
Let’s review, shall we? Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad murdered more than 1,400 civilians, including hundreds of children, in a single sarin attack in late August. Obama, who had previously called the use of chemical weapons by Assad in Syria’s civil war a “red line,” responded with the threat of military action. This prompted a backlash among both anti-war liberals (many of whom seem determined to finally hold Obama accountable for Bush’s misadventure in Iraq) and formerly pro-war conservatives who have suddenly found their inner pacifists. The British Parliament passed on military action, leaving France as America’s only likely “coalition” partner in a strike against Assad. (Okay, stop your snickering. French forces helped dislodge Al Qaeda-connected militants in Northern Mali earlier this year in a brief and successful intervention. French air power also helped topple Gadhafi in 2011.)
Rather than go it alone, Obama asked Congress to authorize a strike against the Assad regime. Yes, we’re talking about the same Congress that is threatening to destroy the American economy with a debt default in a fit of pique over Americans’ reelection of Obama last November. It’s doubtful that Obama really expected much from Capitol Hill. Who does these days? But the gesture bought him some time (and may establish a precedent for future presidents contemplating military interventions). It also unexpectedly (at least the pundits didn’t expect it) opened a window for a diplomatic solution.
On Sept. 9, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was asked during a press conference in London whether there was anything Assad could do to avoid a military strike and he replied: “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov jumped at Kerry’s seemingly off-the-cuff remarks, urging (as in ordering) longtime Russian ally Assad to comply with Kerry’s demand. When an interviewer asked Obama if he would put airstrikes on hold if Assad gave up control of his chemical weapons, he replied, “absolutely.” Strange that a “gaffe,” which is what many pundits contend Kerry’s remarks were, would generate such a seemingly well choreographed response. In fact, Obama and Putin had apparently been talking off and on about such a plan for months.
On Sept. 10, Syria promised to join the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the use or production of chemical weapons. Syria had previously been one of only five United Nations member states not to sign the convention. Less than a week later, the U.S. and Russia reached an agreement to bring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under international control and destroy the weapons by the middle of next year.
Much could still go wrong with the Kerry-Lavrov plan. Syria could renege. Russia could use its veto power on the U.N. Security Council to shield Assad from international military action or other sanctions in response to his noncompliance. But Russia now publicly owns a piece, maybe the biggest piece, of the Syrian mess. It has effectively put itself in the position of Syria’s co-signer and guarantor on this arms deal. If Syria reneges, Putin’s credibility will tank.
Barely a week ago Assad was still denying that he possessed chemical weapons. Three weeks ago he was using them to murder children. Now he has promised to provide a detailed inventory and turn them over for destruction. He is also promising a more complete disarmament than ever could have been achieved through airstrikes, and all without the U.S. firing a shot. Few would have predicted such an outcome was possible just two weeks ago.
So here’s the chronology: Obama draws a “red line.” Assad crosses it, murdering hundreds of civilians in a gas attack. Obama threatens to retaliate. Congress hems and haws, the left revolts, the Tea Party sides with the dictator because the enemy of their enemy (Obama) is their friend, Kerry provides an opening, Lavrov responds, a deal is struck to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons (Obama’s goal all along) and … (wait for it) PUTIN WINS! See how that works?
I imagine you might think this is a loss for Obama if you believed his goal all along was war for war’s sake. But to believe that you would either have to buy the far left’s (and libertarians’) caricature of Obama as a war monger or the right’s paranoid fantasy about him secretly rooting for the Al Qaeda-linked faction in Syria’s opposition. Neither view has any connection to reality. You would also have to ignore the fact that Obama resisted calls for U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict for two years. The facts suggest this has always been about chemical weapons. If the deal reached between Kerry and Lavrov works, Obama gets everything he wanted. If it doesn’t, Putin will shoulder much of the blame. How is that a loss?
To listen to Obama’s critics, Putin threw Obama a bone, giving him a way out of the bind he had put himself in by threatening military action and then seeming to cede the decision to Congress. Putin reinforced this narrative when he penned an op-ed in the New York Times on Sept. 11, pleading for “caution” on Syria, shedding crocodile tears over the civilians who might perish in a U.S. strike and pushing the lie that the Syrian opposition, and not Assad, was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21.
Russian taxpayers might want to ask themselves why the Kremlin spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on state-sponsored media outlets such as the television network RT (formerly Russia Today) and radio broadcaster Voice of Russia when the Times’ editorial pages will provide Putin with the same reach and a patina of respectability for free.
One could – if charitably disposed toward the president or even just possessed of a modicum of fairness – give Obama some credit for bringing this situation to a head. He pursued what he knew would be a politically unpopular course to make a principled stand. He knew that history would judge America and his presidency harshly if he let the world just walk away from a nearly century-old norm against the use of chemical weapons (and no, the fact that Reagan turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons outrages in the 1980s would not have softened that judgment). It seems safe to say that without Obama’s threat nothing would have happened, except maybe more chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians.
A suitably skeptical observer might also question Putin’s sincerity. After all, the Syrian Civil War has raged for more than two years, during which Russia has supplied most of Assad’s weapons and ammunition and vetoed (along with China) three separate U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s violence or promoting a political solution to the conflict. It’s curious then that the Russian president should claim in his op-ed that “We need to use the United Nations.” One might even call it disingenuous.
On the other hand, one could – if so inclined – indulge in some gratuitous Obama bashing while planting a big wet one on Putin’s posterior.
Witness this bit of drivel from The Nation’s Bob Dreyfuss: “It’s tempting to enjoy the moment, that is, the humiliation of President Obama and the short-circuiting of his war push by a brilliant coup conducted by Vladimir Putin, that sly old dog and ju-jitsu expert, along with Russia’s ally, Syria.” Dreyfuss goes on to lament that “the signal failure of the Obama administration in the past five years has been its utter inability to achieve a decent working relationship with Moscow.”
Yep, it’s all Obama’s fault that the U.S. and Russia haven’t been getting along. There’s no way it has anything to do with Putin enabling nuclear proliferation in Iran or genocide in Syria, not to mention facilitating the defection of NSA contractor Edward Snowden. If Obama were a real leader he would have regarded Putin’s grant of asylum to Snowden as an example of our Russian friends helping out a wayward American traveler. Where’s the gratitude, Barack?
Granted, as a longtime Putin apologist, Dreyfuss is kind of a poster child for useful idiocy. But he is hardly alone on the left in rooting for the Russian strongman over the American president. Robert Scheer over at Truthdig commented that Obama’s acknowledgment of the Russian proposal was “quintessentially an un-Bush moment when suddenly this presidential ‘decider’ seemed possessed of a brain capable of reversing his disastrous course.” Scheer gushed that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had came up with a “bold” plan to “give peace a chance.” It seems Scheer has trouble telling his Lennon from his Lenin.
Keep in mind these tributes are about a man who made his bones as a Russian politician by overseeing the wholesale slaughter that was the Second Chechen War, a Russian military intervention that he sought to justify in another New York Times op-ed almost 14 years ago (Dasihell Bennett and Eric Levenson at the Atlantic have done a great line-by-line comparison of Putin’s views then and now on the wisdom of military intervention). Nor has Putin lost touch with his KGB roots when it comes to domestic matters. Human Rights Watch earlier this year accused him of unleashing a crackdown on civil society “that is unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history.” Lest we forget, this is a guy whose regime sends punk rockers to prison and threatens gays with arrest for being too gay. He’s a real small “d” democrat.
Over at Time magazine, Joe Klein (who in May prematurely and stupidly lumped Obama in with Nixon for what turned out to be a GOP-manufactured IRS “scandal”) excoriated the president in a recent column for his handling of Syria, accusing Obama of “damaging his presidency” and “weakening the nation’s standing in the world” through “one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed” (unlike, say, Bush’s brilliant invasion of Iraq, which Klein supported before he claimed to have opposed it).
Then there’s Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith, who can’t seem to decide whether Obama’s worst mistake involved doing too little or too much about Syria and its civil war, but he is absolutely certain that Putin has come out the winner.
Of course, the hypocrites and armchair diplomats on the left and in the center have nothing on the clown show on the right, where once ardent anti-Communists are fawning over the unrepentant former Soviet apparatchik. Granted, some of them were already in the tank for Putin simply because he shares their hatred of gay people. But his supposed “humiliation” of Obama on Syria has them creepily fondling framed copies of those photos of the Russian leader shirtless and on horseback in the Russian countryside.
Displaying her usual penchant for subtlety and racial sensitivity, Ann Coulter called Obama Putin’s “monkey.” Even before talk of the deal on Syria, Matt Drudge tweeted that Putin was “the leader of the free world,” and Fox News “analyst” Ralph Peters declared that “the world is on Vladimir Putin’s side about Syria.” Tucker Carlson claimed that Putin is “riding to President Obama’s rescue” and Charles Krauthammer opined that “the Russians were playing chess here with a set of rank amateurs.” Rush Limbaugh, who once promoted Bush’s lies about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction as a reason for war with Iraq, suggested that Americans should believe Putin over Obama when it comes to WMDs and Syria.
Whether he coined the phrase “useful idiots” or not, Lenin (who knew a thing or two about propaganda) probably never foresaw the advent of mega public relations firms such as New York-based Ketchum, Inc. The firm has reportedly earned more than $25 million shilling for Moscow. According to Reuters, Ketchum successfully lobbied Time magazine to name Putin its “Person of the Year” in 2007. The firm also reportedly placed Putin’s recent op-ed in the New York Times.
Putin’s payments to Ketchum were money well spent. He may not have won a diplomatic or policy victory in Syria. But he has certainly won the PR war. For some of America’s most prominent idiots, useful or otherwise, that’s all that really matters.
Originally published in thebigslice.org.