Putin, power worship, and the right

Evil is not more powerful than good. To defeat Putin, we needn’t become like Putin.

Foreign policy “realists” and neocons share an important characteristic: they both subscribe to what C.S. Lewis called the great contemporary heresy: that evil is more powerful than good, and that good cannot survive without an admixture of evil to give it strength. Orwell identified the same basic psychological kink as “power worship,” and thought it was linked to cowardice.

So when Vladimir Putin shows that a willingness to use violence and break civilized norms sometimes succeeds, people on the right who hate and fear him as much as I do jump to the conclusion that what America needs is leaders like Vladimir Putin, willing to “take risks” with other people’s lives.


Pardon me of you’ve heard this one before, but it’s my favorite parable from John F. Kennedy about why it’s a bad idea to sacrifice central values for apparent advantages:

Father Odin, knowing that the secret which the Aesir needed to defeat the Frost Giants at the Gotterd√ɬ§mmerung was held by a certain witch, went to her and asked the price of her secret. The witch replied, “Your right eye.” Odin, knowing better than to bargain, plucked out his eye, laid it on the table, and demanded the secret. The witch said, “Watch with both eyes.”

As David said to Saul when Saul (a near-giant himself) offered David the use of his sword and spear and armor to fight the giant Goliath, it’s better to fight with your own weapons, even if they look as unimpressive as a sling and five smooth stones from the brook.

We don’t need to adopt the morals of the KGB to fight the KGB colonel now ruling Russia, or the morals of the terrorists to fight terrorism. John McCain doesn’t understand that, and neither do his Tom Clancy-reading, 24-watching fans. Barack Obama does.

Footnote Note also that there were two leaders involved in this transaction who “knew what they wanted and were prepared to take risks to get it” (i.e., were willing to sacrifice lots of other people’s lives for their own pride and power-lust) and had lots of “Will to Prevail” and not much use for “Rules.” Putin was one of them. Saakashvili was the other. (Attacking Russian and rebel forces in South Ossetia was justified, if daft. Shelling the South Ossetian capital was borderline criminal.)

If you were a Georgian right now, you might wish you’d had a more rule-governed and less risk-taking leader. “Sometimes you gits the b’ar, and sometimes the b’ar gits you.” That’s what “risk” means. When the Delphic Oracle told Croesus of Lydia that if he attacked Persia he would destroy a mighty empire, Croesus never considered the possibility that it was the Lydian empire he might destroy.

The world isn’t an action-adventure flick where the hero never gets killed, or an RPG where after your character dies you laugh and walk out of the room. Too many of our armchair military and foreign policy pundits haven’t absorbed that basic moral lesson.

Update Greg Djerijian is a realist in a completely different sense: he believes in acknowledging reality, and proportioning actions to means and not to fantasies. Knowing more than I do about the situation, he is less sanguine than I would like to be about what can actually be accomplished in Georgia. (I recall when German unification and true independence for the Baltics and Ukraine were regarded as wildlly impractical, and before that when the liberation of Eastern Europe was considered a wingnut pipe-dream by all smart and serious people, but even if the experts have been wrong before they’re still the experts, and non-experts should generally defer to them.)

But if Greg is right that we can’t do much, then surely he’s right to say we shouldn’t flail around and make things worse just to to avoid admitting to ourselves that we can’t do much.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com