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The Judo Player and the Hall Monitor

Why Putin has stymied Obama.

5:29 PM, Mar 26, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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Yesterday, President Obama explained that while “Russia’s actions are a problem,” it’s not really that big a concern. “They don’t pose the No. 1 national security threat to the United States,” said Obama. Russia, the president continued, is a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness.”

Obama Putin

That’s Obama—the evolved one, the world’s hall monitor. From his perspective, Russia acts out because it’s insecure, like all bullies. Maybe that’s always true of power politics, but American allies want a strategy and leadership, not descriptions of the world drawn from child psychology. Whether Obama wants to see it or not, Vladimir Putin, as Michael Doran writes in his recent column in Mosaic, has made himself “the permanent adversary of the United States.” 

Doran considers Putin’s actions not just in Ukraine but also in the Middle East where, writes Doran, “Machiavelli’s logic is inescapable, and Putin grasps it intuitively. Not so Obama, who has convinced himself that he can hover above the gritty game on the ground yet somehow still remain an influential player.” Doran argues that Obama is simply overmatched. “Perhaps the single most revealing fact about [Putin],” writes Doran:

is his interest in Sambo, a Russian form of judo whose techniques have been deliberately tailored to the requirements of each state security service. “Judo teaches self-control, the ability to feel the moment, to see the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses,” Putin writes in his official biography on the Kremlin website. “I am sure you will agree that these are essential abilities and skills for any politician.” As a former KGB agent and judo black belt, Putin is undoubtedly adept at the deceptive move that turns an ordinary handshake into a crippling wristlock, instantly driving the adversary’s head to the ground…

The Sambo approach to diplomacy is particularly suited to the Middle East, where international relations, more often than not, is a zero-sum game dominated by brutal men with guns. This is Putin’s natural habitat; as prime minister in 1999, he supported the Russian military’s use of ballistic missiles against civilians in Grozny. It is a simple truism that a leader habitually photographed shirtless while performing feats of derring-do will understand the politics of the Middle East better than sophisticated Westerners who believe that the world has evolved beyond crude displays of machismo.

Consequently, Doran concludes in his must-read essay, the Obama administration:

is left with the worst of both worlds, treated by its adversaries with contempt, charged by its friends with abandonment and betrayal. President Obama was correct to say at the UN that the U.S. and Russia are no longer locked in a cold war. But it was a strategic delusion to assume that Putin’s handshake was an offer of partnership. It was instead the opening gambit in a new style of global competition—one that, in the Middle East, Russia and its clients are winning and the United States, despite huge natural advantages, is losing. 

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