I can’t name any two world leaders who will greet the New Year more joyously than President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin – though they will celebrate for opposite reasons.
Obama surely cannot wait to see the last of 2013, a year in which it seemed that anything 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 by going right. Remember how the president and his aides raced around the country last winter, proclaiming the imminent end of everything that is good in America if the federal budget sequester took effect on March 1? That proved to be an early taste of many subsequent embarrassments. The sequester took effect and most Americans outside the Beltway barely noticed, except when the president and his team went out of their way to inconvenience travelers like my elderly mother.
Meanwhile, Putin is celebrating because he has so many legitimate victories, a considerable share of which came at Obama’s expense.
First and foremost there is Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker. Having fled his Hawaii post as an NSA contractor with a huge trove of data, Snowden caught the U.S. administration by surprise when he presented his case to the press in Hong Kong. He then escaped an American dragnet by catching a flight to Moscow, where he took shelter in the airport for three weeks before Putin granted him a year’s asylum. Meanwhile, Obama and his spy chiefs fulminated helplessly in Washington. They compounded their embarrassment by encouraging friendly European countries to block a flight from Moscow to South America by Bolivia’s president in the mistaken belief that Snowden was aboard.
The Snowden affair allowed Putin, a former K.G.B. spymaster turned autocrat, to present himself as a defender of human rights and free expression. Meanwhile, the leader of the free world had to explain to allied leaders why his spooks have been bugging their meeting rooms and monitoring their phones. His less-than-reassuring explanation was that he did not know.
Then there was Syria, where President Bashar Assad notoriously 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 mild enough not to threaten Assad’s position, then sought to escape his promise entirely after critics on the left and right accused him of pointless posturing. Who provided Obama’s escape route? Putin, of course, by brokering an agreement in which Syria pledged to turn 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 -appears to be turning the tide of battle in his favor, while the moderate opposition Obama favored (without actually helping much) has been overtaken by an Islamist insurgency. Syria remains a win for Putin and an abject mess for Obama.
Putin also succeeded in muscling Ukraine into rejecting closer political and economic links with the rest of Europe. This was more of a defeat for the European Union, and the large slice of the Ukrainian public that favors western-style open government, than for Obama and the United States, but nobody on our side of the former Iron Curtain wants to see Putin recreate the Soviet empire. On the other hand, nobody on our side of the Iron Curtain seems to have any useful ideas about how to stop him either. Obama’s vaunted “reset” of relations with Russia has had no discernible effect on Putin’s foreign policy.
Putin is putting together a Winter Olympics that will appear on the world stage in February. Obama is putting together a health care reform and a website to implement it. Both of them seem to be building in a mad dash without much of a plan, with enormous waste and with many structural flaws that will only reveal themselves under the spotlight. But Putin’s efforts are just a vanity project that will be polished by media that are paying for the privilege of advertising his glory. Barring catastrophe, the Sochi Olympics will quickly be forgotten after the games’ two-week run. Obama’s health care project will unfold, or unravel, in bits and pieces through all of 2014 and beyond, as the president and his aides try to jury-rig components and deadlines to minimize political damage to Democrats.
Heads of state are empowered to grant clemency to prisoners. Putin commanded world headlines this month by releasing a collection of high-profile opponents who were incarcerated for patently 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 that protested oil drilling in the Russian Arctic Ocean. All had drawn international calls for clemency.
Obama commuted the sentences of eight drug offenders who received life or lengthy prison terms for involvement with crack cocaine. The president has decried the unfair and often unjustly harsh penalties for crack, which is disproportionately used by black Americans, compared to powdered cocaine, which is more frequently used or dealt by whites. He isn’t wrong, but his action on behalf of eight offenders is a mere drop in the ocean, and the individuals involved have no significance to anyone outside their own friends and family.
It’s not easy to match Putin on the clemency front. We don’t have a lot of political prisoners to free in America. But Edward Snowden comes to mind. Having exposed American surveillance of breathtaking scope, along with a pattern of deceiving 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 intelligence laws. Some form of clemency, or even a guarantee of fair treatment, might allow him to return home someday. Yet there is no hint, and no reason to believe, that such clemency will ever come from President Obama, the self-declared advocate of open government whose hypocrisy and weak oversight Snowden exposed.
So we have two leaders, 14 time zones apart while Obama vacations in Hawaii, who both eagerly await the arrival of 2014. Putin will, of course, get there first – technically because of the international date line, but symbolically because that is just how things have gone for the past year. While one leader looks to next year with enthusiasm, the other must feel simply relief.