June, with balmy nights lighted by the lovers’ moon and crickets singing love songs from the hedges, is the dreamy time of summer. August, with white-hot afternoons and everything burnt and brown, is where dreams shrivel and go to die.
President Obama, who thinks it’s the sound of his voice that tempers the rough edges of the cosmos, is suffering a harsh August moment. His dream of buying the world a Coke is blowing away.
His old pal Vladimir Putin not only took in the leaker who did it all over the Obama dream, but even sent a get-well message — described by Reuters as a “telegram” — to George W., recuperating in Dallas from installation of a stent to open an artery. He wished George W. a speedy recovery and, by implication at least, a long and happy life.
Time is supposed to stand still for messiahs, particularly for the messiah from the South Side of Chicago, and it was only last summer that Messrs. Obama and Putin were making eyes at each other. The Obama eyes were clouded with goo-goo, even if the hard, icy eyes of the Russian were not. It was Mr. Obama, after all, who sought the thrill of a romance. He sent a message, via Dmitry Medvedev, who was keeping the presidential seat warm, to the absent Vlad: “This is my last election,” Mr. Obama said. “After my election, I have more flexibility.” Replied Mr. Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit the message to Vladimir.”
American presidents often handicap themselves with a late education. FDR thought Stalin was a good guy, if handled carefully, and he was just the right handler. Harry Truman met Stalin at Yalta and came home with the confidence that “I can do business with him.” They both learned better at considerable expense.
George W. imagined he had found a friend in good ol’ Vlad. All was bonhomie and good feeling when the two of them met for the first time, and George W. later told of looking deep into the hard and unforgiving eyes of the old KGB pain merchant and getting “a sense of his soul.” He later learned that what he thought was a kind and sympathetic heart looked more like a piece of blue ice as warm as museum marble.
Barack Obama may be learning something, late though it is. He told Jay Leno — late-night television comedians have become the purveyors of statecraft — there’s still “lots of business we can do with them,” but “there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.”
Mr. Obama is getting good press for what he imagines is “standing up” to Mr. Putin, avoiding a confrontation when he goes to Russia next month. Some people in Washington think he ought to get even tougher, maybe by sending Joe Biden to St. Petersburg in his place. (Or he could cut out the middle man and send Jay Leno.)
If he wants to be effective and risk getting criticized for it by the nancy boys lurking in Congress and in the media, he could look for ways to inflict pain instead of continuing to take pain. This would be hard going for someone who thinks honeyed words and silken platitudes can resolve all dilemmas. “The Russians,” says John R. Bolton, who learned a few things about hostility to America as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, “have outmaneuvered and embarrassed Mr. Obama.” Canceling a confrontation with Mr. Putin, he told Politico, amounts to “Obama fluttering his eyelids. It’s purely symbolic.”
Despite Mr. Obama’s sudden discovery of history, we’re a long way from the Cold War, and Vladimir Putin is no Josef Stalin. (The messiah is no FDR or Harry Truman, either.) Nevertheless, the Russians should be treated as foe for as long as they act like one. Embracing Edward Snowden just to needle America is not the way a superpower, even a declining superpower, acts.
If Mr. Obama really wants to get a message to Mr. Putin and the Russians, he has to take the message himself. The Russians want most of all to be regarded as still relevant, and Mr. Obama can tell them that the way to relevance and respect is to behave themselves. Sending someone else to tell them that won’t work because second-hand words, even lathered with honey, are cheap. Mr. Obama’s words no longer count for very much. Deeds might.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.