TFG should shut up, even if he's right about Putin
The problem with The Former Guy piping up and offering his “savvy” compliment, even if it’s to pat himself on the back for things he didn’t, and couldn’t, do, is that these arguments help Putin.
Former President Donald Trump opened his trap and called Vladimir Putin “a guy who’s very savvy.” In an interview with Buck Sexton (disclosure: The First, where Sexton makes his digital home, also publishes many of our posts from The Racket News), Trump said “‘This is genius’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine —of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.”
“I said ‘How smart is that?’” Trump continued, “Here’s a guy who’s very savvy…I know him very well. Very, very well.”
Oh what utter sewer water! The horrified media read those comments exactly as Trump knew they’d be read: as praise of Putin. But if you watch the whole thing, you realize that it’s the kind of praise you hear from a bragging cop about a particularly adept criminal that the cop never had to really pursue. It’s like “when I was a detective in that district, this thug never crossed me” without saying that it was because the thug was using him like a sock puppet most of the time.
The proper response from a former president when a current one is dealing with a serious crisis is to shut up. You don’t hear George W. Bush, or even Barack Obama giving public remarks about Ukraine. If there’s anything to be said by them, it’s delivered in private. Nobody in their right mind wants to hear Trump’s advice on dealing with Putin.
I think the reason Putin didn’t do anything with Ukraine during Trump’s term is twofold. One, Putin couldn’t really predict what Trump would do. He might do nothing, or he might start a big war. There was little consistency between his public statements, his private flattery, and his impulsive actions. Two, Trump was doing more damage to NATO by himself than Putin could ever do from the outside. As Napoleon probably never said, when your enemy is making a mistake, don’t interrupt him.
Putin plays a long game. His first priority when he came to power in 1994 was to remain in power. Why do big things if the next guy can undo them? Democracy was Putin’s enemy, so he used it to twist Russia to make him dictator for life. Sure, he runs campaigns, but when your political opponents all disappear, die of poison, or languish in a gulag, it’s easy to keep winning.
Second on the priority list was rebuilding and modernizing the old Soviet Union’s moribund military. Cutting unneeded projects like aircraft carriers, Putin focused on his strengths (he has a law degree specializing in international trade). He built up the gas economy, kept breakaway states like Chechnya from…breaking away, and stomped on anything that threatened him or his vision for greater Russia.
Russia tested its military in places like Syria, and overall, given the limited mission, they performed well. The weapons business has made Putin’s Russia a lot of money, though it’s still well below the capabilities of the West. For Putin’s purposes in Ukraine, however, it’s more than sufficient.
Third, is being played out now. Rebuild the Russian Empire. Read David French’s excellent explainer of Putin’s recent speech, and how he is tying Russian culture and history to Ukraine. This was done for internal consumption. The Russian people were meant to hear that Ukraine is part and parcel of their nation, just like the CCP and President Xi tell their people that Taiwan is part and parcel of China (the Chinese have a much better claim than Putin does).
There is no room for self-determination, democratic institutions, or cultural distinctions in Putin’s plan. Therefore, our arguments hold very little water to him, and he’s free to draw invalid comparisons to unilateral NATO actions (like Kosovo and Bosnia), or the U.S. coalition to overthrow Iraq. We all know that the difference here is America—right or wrong—comes in to give back to the people of a nation their right to decide, while Russia comes in to dominate.
The problem with The Former Guy piping up and offering his “savvy” compliment, even if it’s to pat himself on the back for things he didn’t, and couldn’t, do, is that these arguments help Putin. They erode the basic decency and doctrine of American foreign policy and reduce it to a cold Realpolitik, or an economic “deal” where something is in it for us.
Trump is right that Putin is savvy—more savvy than him. He should have shut up. I wish the media didn’t have to respond to him, but they will anyway.
One more thing.
I offer this one in a more spiritual vein. A missionary friend of mine, who is all too familiar with war, wrote on the challenges and changes of the Christian missionary movement today.
The Christian missionary movement today, says James Scherer, “is in a state of crisis because the larger community of faith of which it is a part is also in a prolonged state of crisis. Gone for the most part are the simple faith, confidence, and activism that once supported the missionary movement.” Many developments have contributed to this missionary crisis, but perhaps the most serious of all according to Scherer is “the crisis of faith, spirit, and theological conviction in the Western world.” This sentiment is nothing new. Fifty years ago, a famous theologian and missionary Leslie Newbigin wrote, “A profound crisis of faith within the Western Churches has led to a loss of conviction that there is anything in the Christian faith, which is so vital that without it, men will perish”. (bold mine)
That last sentence touched something in me, another memory from something Billy Graham wrote.
I was invited to have coffee one morning with Konrad Adenauer before he retired as the Chancellor of Germany. When I walked in, I expected to meet a tall, stiff, formal man who might even be embarrassed if I brought up the subject of religion. After the greeting, the Chancellor suddenly turned to me and said, “Mr. Graham, what is the most important thing in the world?” Before I could answer, he had answered his own question. He said, “The resurrection of Jesus Christ. If Jesus Christ is alive, then there is hope for the world. If Jesus Christ is in the grave, then I don’t see the slightest glimmer of hope on the horizon.” Then he amazed me by saying that he believed that the resurrection of Christ was one of the best-attested facts of history. He said, “When I leave office, I intend to spend the rest of my life gathering scientific proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It was the fact of the resurrection of Christ that called the disciples to go out as burning young revolutionaries to change the world of their day. They preached that Christ is alive. This should be our message every day of the year.
War is the inevitable outworking of a failure of faith. If there is nothing in the Christian faith so vital that without it, men will perish, then we find that war comes, and men perish.
The Greatest Generation is all but gone. Those who remember the time when the world was on the brink of perishing, when every man and woman’s faith was necessary to see the glimmer of hope on the horizon, are fading. With it, faith is wavering and the result is that we will see men perish because nobody will stand up to despots.
I thought I’d leave you with that today. There is hope, if there is faith.