The Distorting Effects of the Hawkish Obsession With “Resolve”
Victor Davis Hanson seems to think he is a mind-reader:
True, Putin hated us for going into Iraq, but not just for going into Iraq. Rather, he despised us for not quickly dealing with the insurgency and then for pulling out abruptly once we did. He felt double-crossed about signing on to U.N. sanctions in Libya, not just because we lied about the nature of those resolutions and then exceeded them, but because we ended up being weak and leaving Libya a mess without order. His problem with us in Syria was not just that we issued a deadline, but that we could not even enforce it.
As you can already see, this doesn’t reliably tell us anything about what Putin thought about these things. It does tell us more or less what Hanson believes was wrong with U.S. policy in each case. It doesn’t offend Putin that the U.S. withdrew from Iraq or chose not to occupy Libya, but it evidently bothers Hanson a great deal. He cites both on a regular basis in his complaints about Obama. It seems very unlikely that Putin is displeased that the U.S. didn’t enforce its “red line” in Syria. Indeed, by all accounts he was very interested in finding some way to prevent that from happening. Hanson makes the mistake of thinking that all that matters in these different episodes are shows of Western “strength.” This is is the simplistic view of the world that Hanson believes Putin to have, but this is really just Hanson’s own preoccupation.
The Libya episode was reportedly annoying to Putin, but not because NATO proved to be “weak” by not occupying the country. That is probably the last thing he and other Russians would have wanted. Libya fit into a long pattern of Western actions that confirmed for Putin that he shouldn’t trust U.S. or European governments, and gave him another pretext for assuming that Western governments were intent on regime change in Syria no matter what they might say. Having been burned in the 2000s after attempting to build a working relationship with the U.S., Putin came to assume the worst about Western intentions. He perceived a series of U.S. and allied actions to be directed against Russia. These included the expansion of NATO at the start of that decade, the “color” revolutions in former Soviet states, and a disastrous push for further NATO expansion in the second part of the decade. We don’t need to to guess about Putin’s emotional states. His reactions to these things were consistent with post-Cold War Russian foreign policy: viewing NATO and its expansion as threats, fearing that the West supported overthrowing governments friendly to Moscow, and rejecting Western military interventions wherever they are happening.
Hanson thinks Putin wants Westerners to be more “resolute,” but from the Russian perspective the U.S. and its allies have long been far too aggressive and determined in pursuing its goals. Hawks don’t like acknowledging the latter, because that would imply that U.S. policies could be responsible for some of the deterioration in relations. He misunderstands Putin because he consistently misunderstands Russia, and absolutely refuses to acknowledge the serious flaws of Bush-era Russia policy that contributed significantly to the terrible state of U.S.-Russian relations before 2009. It’s no wonder that his analysis of Russia and U.S.-Russian relations has been reliably wrong for years.