Monthly Archives: January 2009

Moscow plays coy

So, Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama talk on the phone and agree that the U.S. and Russia need to do something about “stopping the drift in U.S.-Russian relations.”  According to the White House, “”The presidents agreed that, as they were both new leaders from a post-Cold War generation they have a unique opportunity to establish a fundamentally different kind of relationship between the two countries.”   Well, that’s nice, but age isn’t everything, and the suggestion that Obama and Medvedev — Putin’s appointed successor and Mini-Me — are two of a kind is a little iffy.  Still, the rhetoric is predictable.

Now, what about the practice?  Let’s see.  First, a leading Russian news agency reports that Russia is halting deployment of the Iskander missiles that were Medvedev’s post-election-day welcoming gift to Obama, as an “olive branch” in response to the Unew administration “not pushing ahead” with missile shield installation in Poland and the Czech Republic.  Then, the Kremlin doesn’t confirm the report and one anonymous official says it’s “pure fiction.”  And all this means… what?  Diplomacy á la Russe?

Of course, Russia’s “we’ll deploy short-range missiles on the Polish border if you go ahead with your missile interceptor systems” move was a blatantly stupid one in the first place, unless Russia wants the U.S. to go ahead with the missile shield deployment.  There was a widespread perception, even before the election, that Obama would not be as gung-ho about missile defense as Bush.  (Who’s right is another matter; while the bien pensant set often dismisses the idea of interceptors to defend against possible Iranian missiles as typical Bushian lunacy, NATO foreign ministers unanimously approved it last December.)  But after Medvedev’s threat, going back on the missile defense plan will make Obama look like he’s caving in to Russian missile-rattling.  The explicit linkage of the missile defense installations (which, even if directed at Russia, could at most neutralize 0.01% of Russia’s nuclear arsenal) and the Russian Iskanders will obviously make meaningful missile defense negotiations more difficult.  Whether Russia actually wants continued antagonism is anyone’s guess.

The amusing thing about the missile-rattling is that, so far, the Russians are rattling non-existent missiles.   Most experts believe they won’t have the industrial capacity to actually build and install them for years.  On, analyst Vladimir Tyomny notes (link in Russian) that “if it weren’t for Obama giving Russia a pretext for a supposedly peaceful initiative, the Ministry of Defense would have had to rack its brains trying to figure out how to deploy in front of the enemy something that we don’t have.”  Is the peace initiative on or off?  Will they deploy the phantom missiles or not?  Stay tuned!

(Cross-posted at


Filed under Barack Obama, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia

Damon Linker blogging at TNR

Damon Linker, former editor at First Things and author of The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege, now has a blog  at  I met Damon a few years ago at a Liberty Fund conference, and we had some great conversations.  (Sadly, the only thing that sticks in my mind is that when we discussed his upcoming book about his disillusionment with religious conservatives and the fact that it was hard to find a sexy title for such a book, I jocularly suggested Spanked by the Right.)  Damon writes mostly on issues of religion and public affairs with a great deal of insight and subtlety, and his blog is highly recommended to anyone interested in these issues.


Filed under blogs, religion

… in which yours truly gets Palined

So I googled myself today (yes, I ego-surf) and came across this piece on the Slate blog, The XX Factor, eviscerating a feature in More magazine (a glossy targeting 40+ women) in which three writers, including yours truly, comment on the Sarah Palin phenomenon.  Slate ladyblogger Susannah Breslin snarks that the magazine ran the feature “in a blatant, desperate, and misguided bid for page-views and newsstand sales.”  Which is pretty … misguided, because the Palin forum is not on the cover of the magazine and, as far as I can tell, not on its website either.

Breslin then comments:

Lisa Schiffren writes: “Knowing that conservative, evangelical Christian women want their daughters to see such a role model [as Palin] tells us that feminism, in its best sense, has won its central battle.” Eh? What? I can’t even figure out what that means.

Now, I’m not a huge Lisa Schiffren fan, but is it really that hard to figure out what she means?  (You know, like … even conservative, evangelical Christians now admire women who are strong leaders and achievers in the public sphere?)

And then there’s this:

Continue reading


Filed under feminism, Sarah Palin

I’m looking at you, Vladimir Putin

My favorite part of Obama’s inaugural speech:

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

Oh, I’m sure he could have been thinking of a lot of people, but could it be, by any chance …

… someone like this?

Continue reading


Filed under Barack Obama, Russia

A secular inaugural speech?

Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, praises Barack Obama for delivering an inaugral address “notably lacking in religious rhetoric”:

Yes, he mentioned God, but as an atheist, I have no objection to a president who believes in God making such a reference. What he did not do was invoke a Higher Power as a source of and a justification for public policy.

Jacoby also expresses satisfaction that Obama specifically mentioned “nonbelievers” along with various religions as a part of America’s diversity.  On that, I completely agree.  But on religious rhetoric and religion as a “justification for public policy,” was Obama’s inaugural address that different from George W. Bush’s in 2001?

Here are the faith-based passages from Bush’s address:

And this is my solemn pledge: I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity.

I know this is in our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image.

And later, in speaking of “our nation’s grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity”:

We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose. Yet his purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another.

Obama, meanwhile, spoke of “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”   He also said this:

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.


Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

I would say that Bush’s religious rhetoric was a bit more flowery, but in terms of actual religious content and mentions of God as the source of inspiration of political ideals, the two inaugural addresses are roughly equal.


Filed under Barack Obama, religion

Post-inaugural thoughts

The speech: The best inaugural address since Ronald Reagan, says Thomas Sowell.  That’s pretty high praise.  “A fine speech,” says Michael Goldfarb on The Weekly Standard blog, particularly impressed by Obama’s emphasis on the role military force has played in maintaining American democracy.   Ron Radosh likes the speech too, while The New Republic‘s John Judis doesn’t (particularly the overly Bushian “Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred”) and neither does Paul Krugman, who thinks Obama’s assertion that we’re all collectively at fault for the economic mess we’re in is a cop-out.  (I couldn’t disagree more; I’m glad it was said in so public a venue.)  This is not to say that Obama is generally making a better impression on conservatives — at least, those of a neoconservative bent — than liberals, but he certainly continues to confound expectations.

Incidentally, Jonathan Last at the Standard blog thinks that Obama’s  reference to “worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics” was a potshot at conservatives, but Ron Radosh thinks it was a reference to dogmas of both right and left (notably, Judis disliked it).  I’m inclined to agree with Ron, since at least so far, if the Obama presidency has an ideology, it’s trascendence of ideology.   Take this passage: Continue reading


Filed under Barack Obama, left and right, race

Why Bush is not Putin

Over the past several years, whenever I have written about the slow (and sometimes not so slow) destruction of freedom in Russia, my responses have invariably included comments that boiled down to, “Well, how is that different from what Bush/Cheney are doing to this country?” Here’s a 2007 blogpost along the same lines. The “Bush is as bad as Putin” trope also pops up quite frequently in various forums and comments sections of websites; sometimes, the trop is, “Putin isn’t nearly as bad as Bush” (see, for instance, the last comment here).

So, now that we are nearing the moment when we won’t have Bush to kick around anymore, I offer you a list of a few things that would have had to happen for Bush to be remotely like Putin.

  • Shortly after September 11, Bush pushes through a constitutional amendment abolishing direct elections of governors and Senators, for nebulous “national security” reasons. They are now appointed by the administration.
  • All the news networks except for one or two small stations are taken over by Bush cronies and turned into Fox News clones.
  • Several politicians and journalists critical of Bush are murdered. Their killers are never found. Commenting on the murder of one journalist and speculation that she may have been killed on government orders, Bush dismissively comments, “We had no reason to kill her — her death has done much more harm to the country than her writings.”
  • After George Soros announces his plans to finance a movement to defeat Bush in the next election, he is jailed on trumped-up charges of tax fraud and repeatedly denied parole on technicalities. Most of his wealth is confiscated.
  • Due to the manipulation of election laws, after 2004 both houses of Congress are more than 70 percent Republican. Most of the remaining seats are held by the Conservative Party, the Right to Life Party, and Democrats loyal to Bush.
  • In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both disqualified from running for office due to alleged irregularities in the documents they filed to be certified as candidates. Bush’s handpicked successor, Dick Cheney, runs against Al Sharpton and and Ralph Nader and handily defeats them.

And that, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, to say that Bush is better than Putin is faint praise, and besides, even an American Putin would have found his ability to wreak havoc on democracy constained by our political system. But the point isn’t that Bush is so great; it’s that the comparisons to Putin are so specious.

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Filed under George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin

My take on the Bush legacy and the Obama transition

The paradox of George W. Bush.


Filed under Barack Obama, George W. Bush

Some pre-inaugural thoughts

No, I’m not suggesting that everyone has to join the Obama worship. Criticism, in a democracy, is a healthy thing (pardon the cliché). But some of the conservative sniping is silly or downright ridiculous (dear Lord, not the “Bill Ayers ghosted Obama’s memoir!” story again), and some seems rather premature (this piece assumes that Obama will be a big-government guy, but Larry Kudlow points out that 40% of his proposed stimulus package now consists of tax cuts). Conservative guru Richard Viguerie is quoted as saying that the inauguration is no big deal: “we can be happy that we’ve taken another step in the racial progress, but I just am not about race, quite frankly.” And he puts up this quote on the “news from the front” on his website. Way to win friends and influence people. Can you say “tone-deaf”?

But there’s some pretty silly Obamania out there, too. See, for instance, this letter posted by Andrew Sullivan on his blog:

I remember with Bill Clinton, he had way of making people feel they were “the only person in the room:” and that they “mattered to him” as many articles during his tenure claimed. But what Obama seems to have is the ability not to appear as if he is acting, faking it. … [H]e is not a faker, not a schmoozer, not a dolt, not a skirt-chaser, not a charlatan, etc. etc. Obama has the realness that comes from the hard psychological work that it takes to really get to know yourself and come out on the other side unafraid of whatever might come your way.

And how does the letter-writer know that? Intuition? So far, Obama has done a pretty oustanding job of being all things to most people. I would say he’s a pretty impressive schmoozer all right. I’m sure he has genuine convictions, but I think he’ll have to be tested much more before we can truly judge his sincerity. Sometimes, “the ability not to appear as if you’re acting” is the best acting of all.

With that, of course, I wish Obama well. And frankly, whether he has that “realness” or not and whether he has completed that fearless journey of self-knowledge is not my first concern. He’s been elected president, not spiritual leader; and while moral leadership is often a part of the president’s role, especially in troubled times, his actual policy-shaping decisions count for more.


Filed under Barack Obama

Russia’s undead heroes

My take on the “Name of Russia” contest, in The Weekly Standard.

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Filed under articles, history, Russia