I can’t name two world leaders who ring in the New Year more joyfully than President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, although they will celebrate it for opposite reasons.
Obama surely can’t wait to see the last of 2013, a year in which it seemed like everything that could go wrong did go wrong for his White House team. In fact, this year was so bad for Obama that things even went wrong when they did go right. Remember how the president and his aides ran across the country last winter, proclaiming the imminent end of all that is good in America if the federal budget hijacking went into effect on March 1? That turned out to be an early taste of much later embarrassment. The hijacking went into effect, and most Americans outside the Beltway barely took notice, except when the president and his team went out of their way to make travelers like my elderly mother uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, Putin is celebrating because he has so many legitimate victories, a sizeable chunk of which came at Obama’s expense.
First, there’s Edward Snowden, the leaker for the National Security Agency. Having fled his post in Hawaii as an NSA contractor with a wealth of data, Snowden caught the US administration by surprise when he made his case to the press in Hong Kong. He then escaped a US raid by taking a flight to Moscow, where he holed up at the airport for three weeks before Putin granted him a year of asylum. Meanwhile, Obama and his spy chiefs glared helplessly in Washington. They compounded their shame by encouraging friendly European countries to block a Bolivian president’s flight from Moscow to South America in the mistaken belief that Snowden was on board.
The Snowden case allowed Putin, a former KGB spy chief turned autocrat, to present himself as a champion of human rights and free speech. Meanwhile, the leader of the free world had to explain to the allied leaders why his spies have been bugging their meeting rooms and monitoring their phones. His less than reassuring explanation was that he didn’t know.
Then there was Syria, where President Bashar Assad egregiously crossed Obama’s red line with a gas attack on his own citizenry. Obama promised a military response, then promised that his military response would be soft enough not to threaten Assad’s position, then tried to sidestep his promise altogether after critics left and right accused him of adopting pointless positions. Who provided Obama’s escape route? Putin, of course, negotiating a deal in which Syria pledged to hand over its chemical weapons to any nation that would destroy them. That process is still pending. Meanwhile, Assad, despite Obama’s call to replace him, seems to be turning the tide in his favor, while the moderate opposition that Obama favored (without really helping much) has been overwhelmed by an insurgency. Islamist. Syria remains a victory for Putin and an abject disaster for Obama.
Putin also succeeded in forcing Ukraine to reject closer political and economic ties with the rest of Europe. This was more of a defeat for the European Union and the large part of the Ukrainian public that favors Western-style open government than it was for Obama and the United States, but no one on our side of the former Iron Curtain wants to see Putin recreate the soviet empire. On the other hand, no one on our side of the Iron Curtain seems to have any useful ideas on how to stop it either. Obama’s vaunted “reset” of relations with Russia has not had a discernible effect on Putin’s foreign policy.
Putin is organizing a Winter Olympics that will appear on the world stage in February. Obama is crafting healthcare reform and a website to implement it. Both seem to be building at full speed without much of a plan, with enormous waste and many structural flaws that will only show up in the spotlight. But Putin’s efforts are just a vanity project to be polished by the media that is paying for the privilege of publicizing his glory. Barring a catastrophe, the Sochi Olympics will be quickly forgotten after two weeks of the games. Obama’s health care bill will unfold, or fall apart, in fragments throughout 2014 and beyond, as the president and his aides try to manipulate components and timelines to minimize political damage to Democrats. .
Heads of state are empowered to grant clemency to prisoners. Putin made global headlines this month by publishing a collection of high-profile opponents who were jailed for clearly political reasons. These include former Russian oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot and more than two dozen crew members of a Greenpeace ship protesting oil drilling in the Russian Arctic Ocean. All had received international appeals for clemency.
Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders who received life or long prison terms for dealing with crack. The president has denounced unfair and often unfairly harsh penalties for crack, which is used disproportionately by black Americans, compared to powder cocaine, which is used or trafficked more often by whites. He’s not wrong, but his action on behalf of eight criminals is a mere drop in the bucket, and the people involved are of no importance to anyone other than his own friends and family.
It is not easy to match Putin on the leniency front. We don’t have many political prisoners to release in the United States. But Edward Snowden comes to mind. Having exposed US surveillance of an impressive scope, along with a pattern of misleading congressional and judicial overseers about that activity, Snowden can fairly be said to have acted in the public interest, even though he clearly and seriously violated important laws. Intelligence. Some form of leniency, or even a guarantee of fair treatment, might allow you to return home one day. Yet there is no indication, nor reason to believe, that such clemency will ever come from President Obama, the self-proclaimed advocate of open government whose hypocrisy and weak oversight Snowden exposed.
So we have two leaders, separated by 14 time zones while Obama is on vacation in Hawaii, both looking forward to 2014. Putin, of course, got there first, technically because of the international deadline, but symbolically because that’s how they’ve things happened. gone for the last year. While one leader is looking forward to the coming year, the other must be simply relieved.