Clarence Page: Putin can be trickster

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Did the Obama administration just get lucky with Vladimir Putin? Or did it cleverly offer him a chance to play his favorite role: the Most Interesting Man in the World?

President Barack Obama was caught in a deep political and diplomatic bind. His vow to strike militarily in response to the gassing of hundreds of Syrians by President Bashar al-Assad was running into stiff bipartisan resistance from Congress, our trans-Atlantic allies and American opinion polls.

But the president suddenly looked like the luckiest guy in the world a day before he was scheduled to plead his case in a televised address. Russia’s President Putin, responding to an off-hand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry, stepped up like a last-minute hero and suddenly Assad’s government was agreeing to give up to international supervision the chemical weapons that, until then, Assad had denied possessing.

A lucky break? No doubt. But what’s striking to me is how prophetically this Putin scenario was predicted months ago by a well-known television executive who used to be a Republican political consultant to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

“Putin is angry,” the TV exec said. “He thinks the United States doesn’t take him seriously or treat Russia as a major player. OK, fine, that’s how he feels. If I were president, I’d get in a room with him and say, ‘Look at the slaughter going on in Syria. You can stop it. Do it, and I’ll see to it that you can get all the credit. I’ll tell the world it was you who saved the innocent children of Syria from slaughter.

“‘You’ll be an international hero,’ “ the TV exec continued. “‘You’ll go down in history.’ Hell, Putin would go to bed thinking, ‘That’s not a bad offer.’”

Who is that savvy and reasonable broadcaster? It’s Fox News’ creator and chief Roger Ailes, as quoted in Zev Chafets’ recent book about him, Roger Ailes: Off Camera.

Sure, there would be many other issues to settle with Russia, Ailes acknowledged. But “(e)verybody needs dignity. And what does it cost? You get what you want and you give up nothing.”

That’s good advice. Respect means a lot to Putin, who promotes himself as a sort of “Dos Equis Man,” the super-classy dude billed in the beer company’s commercials as “the most interesting man in the world.”

His Syria gambit puts Putin at risk of owning the outcome of that tragic civil war, which must come as a relief to Team Obama.

But it also brings him an ego-fulfilling chance to bask in the international spotlight as the tough guy who saved post-Cold War Russia — an image he has cultivated with flashy photo ops of himself.

It may not take his public’s mind completely off Russia’s economic and political discontent, but it gets him noticed. It also apparently has won the hearts of a fourth of his country’s young high school-educated women, the Los Angeles Times reports, who told an independent pollster that they would like to marry him.

Beware, women. I detect a trickster, particularly in his New York Times op-ed essay, placed by his American public relations firm. He made his case for negations with Syria with statesmanlike charm until he hit a couple of factual clunkers.

“(T)here is every reason to believe,” he wrote, that poison gas “was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces.” Actually, no, it is Putin who has every reason to want us to believe that. Mounting evidence links the gas back to the Assad’s army.

He also tweaks Obama for referring to the United States’ policy as “what makes us exceptional.” Putin calls it “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Then he ends with nice words about how countries are “all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” I would hope he would apply those sentiments to other causes. He could, for example, repeal a law he signed earlier this year to ban public discussion of gay rights and relationships where children might hear it. Equality begins at home.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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