Vladimir Putin, Meet Niccolo Machiavelli


President Putin’s op-ed in the NYT today is fantastic. It’s a virtual end-zone twerk, as this botoxed former KGB hack brags about restoring a more peaceful world order, basks in the relatively new concept of Russia’s global stature, asserts obvious untruths – such as the idea that the rebels were behind the chemical attack of August 21 or that they are now targeting Israel – and generally preens.

Good. And whatever the American president can do to keep Putin in this triumphant mood the better. Roger Ailes was right. If the end-result is that Putin effectively gains responsibility and control over the civil war in Syria, then we should be willing to praise him to the skies. Praise him, just as the far right praises him, for his mastery of power politics – compared with that ninny weakling Obama. Encourage him to think this is a personal and national triumph even more than he does today. Don’t just allow him to seize the limelight – keep that light focused directly on him. If that also requires dumping all over the American president, calling him weak and useless and incapable of matching the chess master from Russia, so be it. Obama can take it. He’s gotten used to being a pinata.

All this apparent national humiliation is worth it. The price Russia will pay for this triumph is ownership of the problem. At some point, it may dawn on him that he hasn’t played Obama. Obama has played him.

Which brings me to Machiavelli, the great intellectual master of power-politics. Most pundits use the term “Machiavellian” to mean whoever in the arena seems more successful at scheming, plotting, double-crossing, intimidating, and maneuvering. But Machiavelli himself had a different idea of what a true Machiavellian looks like: a kind, simple, virtuous naif.

Here’s the master making the point in The Prince:

Pope Alexander VI had no care or thought but how to deceive, and always found material to work on. No man ever had a more effective manner of asseverating, or made promises with more solemn protestations, or observed them less. And yet, because he understood this side of human nature, his frauds always succeeded.

It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities which I have enumerated above, but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practices them all, they are hurtful, whereas the appearance of having them is useful. Thus, it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious, and upright, and also to be so; but the mind should remain so balanced that were it needful not to be so, you should be able and know how to change to the contrary.

Notice the characteristic wit in praising true deception … in a Pope! Old Nick was funny – in fact, the only consistently funny political theorist. But notice too that the individual who seems the least Machiavellian is often the most. What you need to do is get past appearances and look coldly at the result of any course of action, and whose interests it really advances.

My view is that the US’s core interest is in not owning the Syria conflict, while making sure its chemical stockpiles are secure or destroyed. I think Obama’s worst mistake was not the WMD “red lines” comment (though that was unwise). It was his original public statement that Assad must go. Given that he runs the most powerful military machine ever assembled on planet Earth, that statement gave him some responsibility for what would happen next in Syria, without any core idea of where that conflict might lead. And the goal of the US in this conflict right now is not to own it. That is more important than the question of “boots on the ground” or not.

The core question is:

Are we seeking responsibility for resolving this ghastly sectarian bloodbath? I believe we have to have the steely resolve to act on our core interests – after bankrupting ourselves fiscally and morally next door in Iraq – to say no.

And the moments when Obama has risked owning this conflict have always been his low points. From that early high-minded and unnecessary statement on Assad to his impulsive declaration of intent to use force in August, he deeply worried the American people and Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_Titothe world that the US could be getting into more responsibility for yet another Middle East sectarian bloodbath. But he has nimbly pivoted back from these positions – finding his way back to a more GHW Bush posture rather than a GW Bush one.

But the upshot right now – so far as I can see – is that Russia and not America now owns this conflict. It is Putin who is on the hook now – and the more Putin brags about his diplomatic achievement the more entrenched his responsibility for its success will become. And that is perfectly in line with Russia’s core interests: Putin is much closer to Syria than we are; he must be scared shitless of Sunni Jihadists who now loathe him and Russia more than even the Great Satan getting control of WMDs. Those chemical weapons could show up in Dagestan or Chechnya or the Moscow subway. It is Putin – and not Obama – who is therefore much more firmly stuck between the Sunnis and the Shia in Syria – not to speak of the Christians.

Of course, this argument only makes sense if you don’t believe the US is best served by being responsible for the entire Middle East, and by being the only major power seriously invested there. If your goal is US global hegemony, this was a very bad week. But if your goal is to avoid the catastrophe that occurred in Iraq, to focus on the much more important foreign policy area, Asia, and to execute vital domestic goals such as immigration reform and entrenching universal healthcare … then the result looks pretty damn good. Or at least perfectly good enough.

So when the inevitable cries of “Who lost the Middle East?” are raised by the neocon chorus, one obvious retort remains. Of all the regions in the world, wouldn’t the Middle East be a wonderful one to lose? You want it, Vladimir? Be our guest.

(Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on November 21, 2012. By Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty. Painting: Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi Ti Dito.)