In the roughly 7 years of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 presidency, the most frequent and passionate criticism was directed towards the action taken in the Middle East.
Basing their impassioned repudiation’s of Bush’s so-called “nation building” on the sovereignty of countries and cultures, liberals campaigned during subsequent elections on noninterventionism, not only ending military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan but ceasing to exercise influence in domestic affairs.
Barack Obama’s campaign rhetoric to this end even lead to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
But there was little follow through. In fact, the Obama administration has been conspicuously vocal about condemning the practices of other nations which do not align with its philosophy. Most notable were threats to boycott the Sochi Olympics over Russia’s policy towards homosexuals.
Now, though the Obama foreign policy is largely impotent, it is certainly not non-interventionist.
In an odd, Twilight Zone-esque twist of facts, it is Vladimir Putin, who has been the subject of international outcry following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, who is the leading advocate for respecting national sovereignty.
In a recent interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes, Putin articulated two arguments which were formerly championed by Democrats in their opposition to Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan strategy.
First he admonished those who would criticized his support of Syrian President Bashir Assad, reminding them that only the Syrian people have the right to judge the merit of the government’s actions.
Then, when challenged on the legitimacy of Syrian opposition, Putin brought up a point which was ignored when Western powers took out Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi- that there must be a plan beyond removing a leader, otherwise worse factions, such as ISIS and al-Nusra who are the leading resistance fighters, will take over.
Now, to accept Putin at face value, as a conscientious altruist with no other concerns than seeing right done on an international scale, is obviously foolish. Russia has a vested economic interest not only in continuing conflict in the Middle East but in undermining America and their power to levy sanctions.
However, his ability to so convincingly draw on the defense of moral action does point out how easily such rhetorical strategies can be used by powerful politicians.
There is no doubt Putin does believe what he says. After all, Russian political power is rooted in the Orthodox Church’s epistemology of leaders in the role of a shepherd- that those who rule have an obligation to guide the people towards the right and just. And, under Article 80, the president is the guarantor of the Russian Constitution, and by extension of civil liberties.
But this is a sanction on other motivations, a means to a greater end- political influence in Syria and the Middle East.
Given how much Putin is vilified in the West, by conservatives who are outraged by Russia’s unilateral federalism and its violation of principles of self-sovereignty and liberals who are vehemently opposed to particular social policies, it is interesting to note how close his rhetoric is to various moral justifications used by Bush and Obama.
The existence of absolute right and wrong cannot be disputed, since to argue the opposite is in itself an absolute, but the degree and sincerity with which it is adopted to facilitate public policy is relative, even for the most well-intentioned of politicians.