Peter van Buren’s commentary in Reuters, The real reason Washington calls Putin a thug, purports to explain why the current term of demonization is “thug.” The word “thug” has historical significance, referring to an Indian criminal gang, experts at strangling travelers, extant till about 1830 when they were extirpated by the British. Since then, the word, like words such as “hero”, has become devalued. It apparently reached rock-bottom by inclusion in the political lexicon.
I agree with one of Van Buren’s points. Putin is not a thug. One of the purposes of this blog is a war on sloppy thinking. Today, classifying Putin as a common criminal may be of no consequence. Tomorrow, it may lead to an importantly wrong decision of foreign policy.
It might seem a strange mission to defend a head of state whose administration has seen numerous assassinations, both domestic and foreign, is implicated in hacking the DNC, and is associated with very careless bombings in Syria which some have called war crimes. So this is no defense. The problem with the label “thug” is that it imputes to the person motives of a very simple character, related to personal greed and profit. In the domain of foreign policy, decisions lethal to the innocent are frequently made from a personally selfless perspective. The best example available to us is LBJ, who, despite all his detractors, expanded the Vietnam War not for personal gain, but for apparently selfless reasons. We might extend compassion to LBJ, who followed the proverbial “road to hell paved with good intentions.”
LBJ’s error occurred in the midst of the Cold War, a competition between the Free World, and a complex of Marxist states. “The end justifies the means” became associated with Marxism with the endorsement of violent revolution. In competition with this ruthless ethic, our own ethics became subverted. This is past. We recovered and emerged morally strengthened. Our adversaries did not.
So Vladimir Putin could conceivably be a personally selfless individual who nevertheless, acting out of patriotism for things Russian, is complicit in Syria atrocities. Vladimir Putin’s ethics could be ours, 54 years in the past. The principle difference with LBJ’s error is that Vladimir Putin is not on our side, because he willingly takes actions that hurt us. And yet two distinction must be made. He is not on our side, but there is a significant commonality of interest. Second, our wounds are not serious. Simplicity overlooks this.
Van Buren writes with the rage of the apostate. He was part of the failed attempt to reconstruct Iraq according to the vision of the neoconservatives. Regardless of whatever else he is, the honesty of his accounting ranks him in the top one percent of humanity. But this kind of self-implication carries with it the chance of unbearable guilt. The sufferer continues to rail against the System long after his personal expiation should be complete. And the System is an easy target, because it’s always going awry, like an airplane with a bad rudder, constantly requiring minor heroes of the moment to bring it back on course.
Van Buren writes, “While throwing the term at Putin is tied to the weak public evidence supposedly linking Russian government hacker(s) to the Democratic National Committee computer breach, there may be larger issues in the background.” Perhaps as a result of his past experience working for the Bush Administration, Van Buren questions the evidence based upon what is publicly known. Implicit in the wording is the desirability of release of the non-public evidence accumulated by U.S. intelligence services, which has now reached a strong consensus (NY Times) that it was a Russian hack.
We could go back to the Pentagon Papers as an example of deliberate withholding that was more damaging to democracy than release. More recently, the fabrications of the Bush Administration that justified the invasion of Iraq afflicted Peter Van Buren with a stain of complicity that he just can’t wash away. Heightened suspicion, which is a form of prejudice, is a natural, though not logical, consequence of his experience.
We have a phrase for the antidote, “case-by-case.” It implies thinking about the current problem, with reference to what precedes, but with full consideration of the particulars:
- The stakes are too small. The hack does not compare to the revelations of Edward Snowden. It illuminates the influence of money in politics, but we weren’t so naive beforehand. Our system will survive it. My political opinions are implied by a previous post, Why Russia Hacked the DNC; In Defense of Liberty.
- The small stakes, without the requirement of “retaliation”, lower the bar for evidence. Nuclear retaliation requires a very high standard of evidence. Where to set the bar to call Putin a bad name is entertaining, preferably with a cold beer.
- The Russian origin of the hack is supported by non-public evidence. The mathematics of NSA technology is too secret to divulge. It was very costly to develop, and would become useless if made public, required by any explanation. NSA technology is guarded like the A-bomb, and with good reasaon.
Secrecy can be supported by the history of a current weapon system. The F-35 fighter has an approximate fly-away cost of $85 million. For years, the F-35 design team grit their teeth and bit their tongues at the onslaught of Dr. Karlo Kopp, an independent defense analyst whose website is Air Power Australia. I’m a good guesser at technical issues, so I shared in the tooth grinding. Dr. Kopp is the principle source of technical information on stealth for critics of the F-35. Apparently working from photographs, Kopp managed to construct a 3-D model of the airplane that enabled him to derive an estimate of radar reflectivity, described as equivalent target size, from any aspect. His analysis concluded that the airplane was less stealthy at most aspects than the F-22 which preceded it.
In a 2014 Aviation Week interview, Air Force general Mike Hostage clarified: The F-35′s cross section is much smaller than the F-22′s. “The F-35 doesn’t have the altitude, doesn’t have the speed [of the F-22], but it can beat the F-22 in stealth.”
This was received doubtfully by the aviation press, not because they knew better, but because they didn’t know enough. Thankfully, they still don’t. To at least some extent, the revelation devalued taxpayer dollars. If the F-35 program were not so controversial, Hostage probably would not have divulged the information.
These arguments are sufficient to defuse the idea of an ulterior motive for blaming the Russians for the DNC hack. The issue is too small. For a larger issue, think again. Case-by-case.
Most saddening is Van Buren’s dire suspicion. Quoting,
It is natural that Van Buren would suspect this, since he was employed in the aftermath of a war based on manufactured circumstances. He continues to write,
“Ahead of the next administration, Washington really needs an arch enemy, a poster-child kind of guy who looks like a James Bond villain. And preferably one with nuclear weapons he’ll brandish but never use.”
So we call Putin a bad name? The population of Earth is currently about 7.5 billion, of whom 3.25 billion are already bastards. What’s one more?
The reason is quite the opposite. Flinging epithets is the all-purpose political tool:
- It we happen to be doing nothing in response to provocation, it defuses the accusation of being too easy on those thuggy Russians.
- If we happen to be doing something, such as cooperating on the Syria problem, it indicates we are on our guard with those thuggy Russians.
Someone should send Putin a nice washcloth and a bar of scented soap. Mr. Putin, get that mud off your face!