Flying across the vast Russian plain in 1944, the future French president Charles DeGaulle cursed the destiny that made him a Frenchman; if only he could rule a country the size of Russia, he mused, think of what he might accomplish! A similar thought must have occurred to Vladimir Putin, the most talented political leader of our time: what might he have done at the helm of the world’s only superpower, instead of salvaging the hulk of the defeated Soviet Empire? Why not give him the chance? Watching the last round of American political debates, it occurred to me that it’s time to think out of the box.
Putin will finish his second term of office as Russian president early in 2008, just when the next American president takes office. There is plenty of time to naturalize him as an American citizen and amend the constitution to permit a foreign-born president. The alternative is to elect another incarnation of the political type that got America into trouble in the first place.
“God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America,” German statesman Otto von Bismarck is famously alleged to have said. I have only one New Year’s forecast, namely that God will take a holiday, at least as far as America is concerned. The year just passed would be viewed as America’s annus horribilis by any normal standard, that is, any standard except that of 2008, which will be the worst year for the US since 1980, when Jimmy Carter left office. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong in American policy, but not as wrong as it will go now. As in 1980, a lame-duck administration will confront economic and strategic reverses. But it is worse than 1980, for no Ronald Reagan is waiting in the wings to set things right.
America needs leadership, and none of available candidates can provide it. Politicians prevailed during the past generation by flattering American complacency. Precisely the opposite is needed. Putin has the requisite tough-mindedness, with only one important deficiency: he is a nasty piece of work. His youth movement, Nashi (Ours) should frighten anyone who knows the political history of the 20th century.
Then again, nobody’s perfect. Russia is no country for nice men. But Putin’s personal nastiness is beside the point. Washington has willfully misunderstood Russia’s most basic requirements (What they didn’t say at Kennebunkport, July 3, 2007). No Russian leader could survive without doing more or less what Putin has done.
While his predecessor Boris Yeltsin led Russia into bankruptcy and chaos, Putin restored Russia’s economy and global stature on the strength of one insight: the Russian people were the problem. After centuries of Tsarist brutality and three generations of communist terror, the Russian people had become a passive rabble incapable of defending their interests. Yeltsin allowed a locust-swarm to steal what remained of the Russian economy.
By harsh and extra-legal means, Putin reclaimed Russia’s economy for the state, creating a huge corpus of wealthy enemies ready to subsidize any Western politician who wants to attack him. As I wrote a year ago (Russia’s Hudna with the Muslim world , February 21, 2007), “The only leadership left in Russia by the terrible adverse selection process of the communist system was the former secret guardians of the state, men whose unique position required them to live by their wits.”
The Americans, meanwhile, have met the enemy, and it is them. America has coasted on a quarter-century wave of power and prosperity since president Reagan won the Cold War and restarted the economy. America in the 1980s was the only model to be emulated, and a magnet for global capital flows. So compelling were American capital markets that by the late 1990s, almost all the free savings of the world sought an American home. In 2007 a trillion dollars of overseas capital poured into American markets.
Americans no longer had to save; the rest of the world saved for them and lent them money at the lowest interest rates in half a century. Americans no longer had to study; engineers from India to Argentina programmed their computers. And Americans no longer had to face a strategic challenge; after the death of the Soviet Union, so Washington believed, America need only export its self-image. Of all the great illusions of the post-Cold War era, this has turned out to be the most pernicious.
Like emerging Asia in the mid-1990s, Americans used cheap foreign capital to make real-estate speculation into a national pastime. And like Asia in 1997, there is no remedy but to let the sickening slide of asset prices take its course, until the grasshoppers learn to work and save like ants.(Western grasshoppers and Chinese ants , Sept 7, 2007). The Americans are poorer at the end of 2007 than they were a year ago, and at the end of 2008 they will be much poorer still. They will be beholden to the Gulf States, Singapore, China, Russia or whomever can recapitalize a banking system that already may be technically insolvent. They will import less and the Asian economies will suffer.
Scores of millions who were wealthy on paper a year ago will be penniless by the end of 2008. In the American states where home prices rose the fastest – California, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada – prices fell by almost a third during the year to September 30. American equity prices already have fallen by 10% since last October. Both residential and equity values are likely to fall much further before the bloodletting is over.
The American economy emulated Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, in which nothing happens, twice. The first occasion in which nothing happened was the tech-stock bubble of 1997-2000. Americans engaged in a collective delusion according to which infinite wealth would be created on the Internet through shopping and salacious entertainment. Perhaps if someone had perfected virtual-reality sex, the stock price bubble might have continued, but the disappointment attendant on the end of the illusion cut the value of American equities by half.
The second occasion on which nothing happened was, of course, the present subprime disaster. The world learned that it was dangerous to buy risky American assets and chose instead to buy safe ones. The trouble was that as a whole, the American public was engaged in extremely risky behavior, that is, bidding up home prices with cheap credit. The banks and credit rating agencies declared that a basket of very risky assets could be turned into a very safe asset, by selling off the part of the risk to speculators. This exercise turned out to fall somewhere between the delusional and the fraudulent, as subprime securities rated AA, the next-to-highest credit grade, now trade at only 40 cents on the dollar.
One can excoriate the regulators who let this happen, or the banks who skimmed fat commissions from the market, but the driver of both the Internet bubble and the subprime bubble was the same: the desire of the Americans to get something for nothing. Americans mistook the one-time windfall ensuing from the Reagan revolution for a Tischlein-Deck-Dich, the magic table of the Grimm fairy tale that on command lays out a marvellous meal.
The same mood of national narcissism brought about America’s strategic reverses. The rest of the world, Washington reasons, need only be like us to live happily. Until the ghost of James Baker III possessed Washington a year ago, through the installation of Robert Gates as defense secretary, American policy was in the hands of the Sorcerer’s Apprentices of the Reagan years. America had the magic formula of the 1980s, they reckoned, and all they only needed to sprinkle the Fairy Dust of democracy upon recalcitrant countries in order to make them fly.
To prop up its failed Iraqi project until the November elections, Washington has made material concessions to Iran and Syria, its worst enemies. In return for restricting support for the Iraqi insurgencies they incubated from the beginning, Iran has a free pass to continue enriching uranium, and Syria has a free hand in Lebanon. America swore that it would never permit Iranian nuclear development, and that it would suppress the Iranian-Syrian puppet militia of Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has done neither.
By endorsing the Islamists in Turkey as a force for democracy, Washington has earned the contempt of the Islamists, as well as the enmity of the secularists who feel betrayed (Why does Turkey hate America? , Oct 23, 2007). But nothing compares to America’s humiliation in Pakistan. After sending the unfortunate Benazir Bhutto to her death as the instrument of American democracy, Washington has no choice but to cling all the harder to President Pervez Musharraf, who everyone from Hillary Clinton to the taxi driver who took me to the airport believes to be complicit in Bhutto’s assassination.
The global “war on terror” has given birth to Islamist monsters in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq. The so-called color revolutions are stillborn. Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution has none but homonymic virtues, as the US State Department will “cede her” to Syria. But the single most stupid and destructive act of American diplomacy in the past seven years has been the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, for it persuaded Putin never to trust the West under any circumstances, ever again.
Putin understands how to exercise power. Unlike Iraq, the restive Muslim province of Chechnya now nestles comfortably in Putin’s palm, albeit with about half the people it had a decade ago. Russian troops killed between 35,000 and 100,000 civilians in the first Chechen war of 1994-96, and half a million were driven from their homes, totaling about half the population. But that is not what pacified Chechnya. Putin bribed and bullied Chechnyan clans to do Russia’s dirty work for it, showing himself a master at the game of divide-and-conquer. Working from a position of weakness, Russia’s president is the closest the modern world comes to the insidious strategic genius of a Cardinal Richelieu.
That is the sort of strategic thinking America needs. So my endorsement for the next president of the United States goes to Vladimir Putin.
One final note – Putin doesn’t speak much English. But that shouldn’t disqualify him. Neither does George W Bush.