I never fear for my country's future more than when I'm reading commentary on an international crisis.
Politicians project their castration anxieties onto the world stage, blustering and sputtering about "strength" and "weakness." Editorials pretend that the president can control events many thousands of miles away from our borders, and then denounce him for failing to do so. Columnists warn ominously and ahistorically about a "new Cold War" and the return of the "Russian Bear." It's a depressing spectacle.
In comparison to so much of this commentary, David Brooks' Tuesday column in The New York Times seems at first like a much-needed dose of sobriety. Instead of acting like Barack Obama provoked Russia's incursion into Ukraine with his fecklessness or expressing a barely concealed admiration for Putin's tyrannical swagger, Brooks introduces readers to three philosophical books that Vladimir Putin has apparently assigned as reading for regional governors throughout Russia.
What follows is a breezy, selective summary of Nikolai Berdyaev's The Philosophy of Inequality, Vladimir Solovyov's The Justification of the Good, and Ivan Ilyin's Our Tasks. So far, so good. But then Brooks makes an astonishing series of insinuations about what these books "may" tell us about Putin's motives and the Russian soul.
These insinuations are based on nothing beyond Brooks' imaginings. They also display a stunning lack of historical self-awareness, a lamentable willingness to engage in precisely the kind of mystagogic "analysis" of international affairs that led so many otherwise intelligent people (including Brooks himself) to advocate a preemptive war with Iraq back in 2003.
Put it all together and it's impossible not to conclude that Brooks has managed to write the most singularly irresponsible column since the Ukraine crisis began.
Here, to begin with, is Brooks' summary of "three great ideas" that run through Ilyin's Our Tasks (the book to which he devotes the most attention):
The first is Russian exceptionalism: the idea that Russia has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to the Orthodox faith. The third is belief in autocracy. Mashed together, these philosophers point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.
Unless, that is, we change a few key words. Imagine a Russian reading a handful of texts from American history — John Winthrop's A Model of Christian Charity, the newspaper columns of John L. O'Sullivan, and George W. Bush's second inaugural address — and then penning the following paragraph about the three great ideas that run through the writings of these men:
The first is American exceptionalism: the idea that the United States has its own unique spiritual status and purpose. The second is devotion to Protestant Christianity. The third is belief in democracy. Mashed together, these authors point to an America that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist democracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.
My point? That reading Brooks' paragraph with even a modicum of reflection undercuts nearly all of its portentousness. Russians dare to think they're special. Just like Americans.
But even that's too sweeping of a conclusion. I mean, an observer of American domestic politics and international behavior in 2014 would be foolish to rest an analysis entirely on reading three texts, right?
Yet Brooks does precisely this, discerning evidence of a "highly charged and assertive messianic ideology" in Ilyin's writings and then warning of "the danger" that the dispute in Ukraine will activate "the very core of this touchy messianism" in the Russian people. If that happens, "the tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control."
That's pretty terrifying. If only we had some public opinion data to test Brooks' hypothesis. But since we don't, I suppose we'll have to rely on literary criticism.
Oh, wait! It looks like we have some data after all: On Monday the Kremlin's own pollster released a survey showing that 73 percent of Russians disapprove of Putin's handling of the Ukraine crisis, with only 15 percent of the nation supporting a response to the overthrow of the government in Kiev.
So much for riding the tiger of quasi-messianic nationalism. Sounds more like Putin's at risk of being swallowed by the whale of Russian public opinion.
Which makes Brooks' hysterical conclusion all the more galling. Building on an earlier suggestion that Putin might be "a Russian ayatollah," Brooks wonders if the Russian president, inspired by "a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries," will soon find it impossible to "stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop." If that happened, the "implication for Western policymakers" would be that we're not "dealing with a 'normal' regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks."
This is where David Brooks, a smart, decent man who has courageously resisted many of the Republican Party's worst ideological excesses in recent years, nonetheless shows that he has learned exactly nothing from his experience of providing justification for the disastrous Iraq War.
If there is one thing that marked neoconservative advocacy of that war, it was a deliberate effort to portray Saddam Hussein as a madman who could not be deterred from building weapons of mass destruction and using them or transferring them to terrorists. Hence the need to take him out preemptively.
To this day, neocons say precisely the same thing about the Iranian "ayatollahs" and the Palestinians. Neither can be negotiated or reasoned with; neither is motivated by rational calculations of self-interest. Both are eager for collective martyrdom, longing to die in a national act of suicide terrorism directed against the Zionist Entity and/or the Great Satan.
It's an incredibly potent claim, because it grows out of and plays on our greatest and gravest fears — that certain nations are not just rivals or opponents, or even enemies, but murderously psychotic. It's also effective because it cannot be proven or disproven empirically. After all, it's always possible that the fatal act of violence — the one we must act now to preempt — may be lurking just around the corner.
And now Brooks want us to think that Putin's Russia "may" need to be placed into the same category.
Sure, why not. What could possibly go wrong?