No Good Pundit Will Let the Complexity of Russian Foreign Policy Interrupt His Punditry

The increased tensions with Russia is objectively bad and undeniably complex. Unless you spent years being paid to rail against the Soviet threat, in which case it's just like slipping on an old shoe.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The increased tensions with Russia, including heightened rhetoric from the vice president on Wednesday, is objectively bad and undeniably complex. Unless you spent years of your professional life being paid to rail against the Soviet threat, in which case conflict with Russia is just like slipping on an old shoe.

Let me add a disclaimer that is warranted: I am not an expert on the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. Like many of the people weighing in on this issue, my formative years were spent with the spectre of a Soviet nuclear attack on the horizon (though more distantly than some of my elders). There was a paradigm that emerged, a good-bad dichotomy that was rarely inflected with nuance and that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, seems to have become only more black-and-white.

I am, however, well-versed in the pundit ecosphere. (It is polluted.) And it has been remarkable to watch America's foremost experts seize upon Putin's aggression as a life preserver. Ah, back to the old days. There was a study conducted in 2011 by Hamilton College that found most pundits to be less reliable in their predictions than a coin toss, largely because, unlike coins, they approached issues with preconceived notions. The shadow of a militarily robust Russia is one of the biggest preconceived frames in American politics.

Like so.

Erickson: Blame the blame-America-first Americans for Putin.

The foremost response to Putin's moves has been to resurrect the longstanding critique of Democrats as weak on foreign policy. The examples are at this point so numerous that they don't really bear articulation; Isaac Chotiner at The New Republic has documented a number of them. Obama's political opponents have seized on the argument (see: Mitt Romney; Republicans at large). It's so tired at this point that even Politico's Roger Simon is calling it out as cheap and easy. Which doesn't mean it's not politically potent. Hillary Clinton has taken steps to bolster a defense of her toughness.

But there's a new version of the argument that's so ridiculous that it can't go unmentioned. At Red State, Erick Erickson indulges in the eternally popular conservative fantasy of comparing everyone and -thing to Ronald Reagan. He thinks Obama comes up short.

Erickson praises the "timeless truths" of Reagan's "Bear in the Woods" campaign ad (at right) and remembers Jeane Kirkpatrick's 1984 Republican Convention speech. In that speech, Kirkpatrick harshly criticized "San Francisco Democrats" who "always blame America first." It's those "San Francisco Democrats" that have taken over American foreign policy, Erickson says with a big wink, and this is why Putin is stomping all over Crimea.

So, in other words: Putin's aggression is America's fault. I, for one, am sick of these pundits who, somehow, always blame America first.

Kristol: We should embrace war.

Bill Kristol, on the other hand, is at least intellectually consistent. In 2003, Kristol helped make the neo-conservative case for war with Iraq in the book The War Over Iraq: America's Mission and Saddam's Tyranny. Kristol is widely credited with helping convince the Bush Administration (however much it needed convincing) to launch its preemptive invasion of Iraq.

At the Weekly Standard, 11 years after that war began, Kristol suggests that "war-weariness" is no excuse for not threatening Putin with war. Kristol is presumably less war-weary than other Americans, in the same way that if you chose to play Nelly's "Hot in Here" on the bar jukebox six times in a row, you'd be less annoyed by it than others.

"A war-weary public can be awakened and rallied," Kristol writes. "Indeed, events are right now doing the awakening. All that’s needed is the rallying. And the turnaround can be fast." He cites examples of when America, frustrated with military conflict, have been roused to support military conflict again. He mentions Reagan, naturally, since the Gipper's assertiveness is central to his argument / worldview.

Left unanswered is the question of what the war fervor would be applied to. And while Kristol uses the moment as his rationale for the argument, it's actually not clear that he advocates threatening Russia with military action. It seems instead that he just wants the American public constantly ready and resolved to take military action when and wherever. Then, as needed, he'll help the president decide where to bomb.

Friedman: Tension with Russia may open the door to a "grand bargain."

Tom Friedman, the center star in the centrist universe, thinks maybe this new tension with Russia has a silver lining? His Times column is explicit in that argument, dubbing the prospect of a renewed Cold War "a blessing in disguise."

"[A]s opposed to the stimulus/deficit debate," Friedman writes, "in the energy case, there really is now the raw material for a 'Grand Bargain' between Democrats and Republicans — if President Obama wants to try to forge it." Here is a Google search for "Friedman 'grand bargain'." Restricting that search to only the Times website, you find 2,800 results, from year after year. Friedman always wants a grand bargain, always sees a grand bargain on something just out of reach, a shiny apple growing on a just-too-tall tree that's somehow thriving near this unexpected oasis in the desert. It's his old shoe.

A more subtle and less-predictable analysis of the situation in Russia can be found a few pages before Friedman's column in Wednesday's Times. Peter Baker speaks with experts and professionals to evaluate the actual geopolitical risk at hand. The current situation is fundamentally different than twenty years ago, Baker writes, because the Cold War was "a global contest of ideology, pitting capitalism versus communism. Mr. Putin positions himself as leader of anti-American sentiment, but it is rooted in Russian nationalism rather than Marxist philosophy, and his main focus is on his own neighborhood."

Which is fine, or whatever, but we all have columns to write.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.