October 16, 2007

The Spy Stares Back into the Eyes of the Cowboy

TEHRAN, Iran -- "Vladimir Putin issued a veiled warning Tuesday against any attack on Iran as he began the first visit by a Kremlin leader to Tehran in six decades _ a mission reflecting Russian-Iranian efforts to curb U.S. influence.

"He also suggested Moscow and Tehran should have a veto on Western plans for new pipelines to carry oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea, using routes that would bypass Russian soil and break the Kremlin's monopoly on energy deliveries from the region." Washington Post, October 16, 2007.

On Real Time with Bill Maher recently, Bill interviewed the wily Vicente Fox, former president of Mexico, who has generated a little buzz lately with his less-than-complimentary take on the Decider himself. In the interview he took his previous comments that Bush was a "windshield cowboy" who speaks "grade school Spanish" to a new and definitely snarkier level. He told Maher's audience that while Bush was visiting Vicente at the old family hacienda in Guanajuato, Fox offered to let Bush try out his favorite stallion, a caballo which Fox himself often takes for long rides. Bush demurred, Fox said, and then el presidente described with malicious glee how Bush seemed to "tremble" as he stood next to the horse and tentatively patted its head.

This shouldn't be that surprising. Bush is not actually a cowboy. When he puts on his Wild West costume, as Bob Cesca hilariously noted, he looks like a "preening line dance instructor." Bush was a cheerleader at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, which is possibly as effete a background as a guy can claim without actually undergoing a sex-change operation. The nation's oft-noted gullibility in mistaking image for reality does the rest, so that perhaps many Americans assume that Bush was a rodeo clown in Yuma, Arizona in the lost years before he became president. All the Bush guys go to Phillips Academy, and they aren't cowboys. Bush can walk around bowlegged and squint into the sun and speak with that phony drawl all he wants -- he ain't no cowpoke and that ain't his horse. He's the lazy and spoiled scion of a rich Connecticut family that uses the well-greased track of the Ivy League Brahmins for their connections and success. (Brahmin bullshit - that's as close as Bush comes to the rodeo.)

And then there's Putin. The after-thought child of a factory worker mother and a World War II vet, Putin lost two much older brothers to childhood diseases, one to diphtheria during the German siege of Leningrad, where Putin was born in 1952. As a kid he lived in a communal apartment with other families, but he did well in school and went to the State University in Leningrad, where he attracted the attention of KGB recruiters (his father worked during the war with a sabotage unit of the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB). Putin has a decidedly checkered past, with accusations of corruption and even plagiarism (his PhD dissertation was allegedly lifted from an American monograph) following him wherever he goes. He's fluent in German from his days as a KGB operative in Dresden during the Cold War, and speaks English well.

Bush claims that by looking deeply into Putin's eyes he saw his soul and declared him a good man. My guess is that Bush's SoulVision needed focusing. However, I also guess that this cunning and probably ruthless spy who worked and maneuvered his way to the top of the Russian ziggurat, beginning from very humble origins, was taking Bush's measure at the same time. I've often thought that Bush's personality represents one of the most serious threats to American security. He just pisses people off, to the point where a danger arises that foreign leaders will behave irrationally simply because they can't stand the guy. Vicente Fox called Bush the "cockiest" guy he'd ever met, which probably explains his delight in his needling story. Putin doesn't seem interested in name calling, only sabre rattling. There were the joint air force exercises with the Chinese, with the resumption of Russian fail-safe flights approaching American airspace. Then Putin, in retaliation for the American abrogation of the ABM treaty and plans to place missiles near Russian borders, announced Russia's intention to target European cities with Russian ICBMs. And now the rapprochement with Iran. Putin has announced, with his own form of Russian Monroe Doctrine, I guess, that none of the -Stan states around the Caspian can be used as a jumping-off point for an American invasion of Iran, and has gone even further in supporting Iran's claim that only the "littoral" countries bordering the Caspian have a right to its oil and gas, or to construct pipelines in the region. Putin is still playing cute about Russia's intention to cooperate in building Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr, as if acknowledging that he recognizes he can't alienate the rest of NATO just to bug the United States.

But my guess is that Putin has spent enough time around Bush to see some of what El Presidente Zorro says that he saw. A KGB operative no doubt learns to read the subtleties of human weakness. It's also an interesting contrast in relative bravado that Putin, who received credible death threats before traveling to Tehran (the first Russian head of state to visit in 60 years), nevertheless made the trip in a very public way. Bush, by contrast, has made his very few journeys to Iraq as complete surprises and is gone almost before the outside world is aware he's there.

Putin has probably also figured out that America's anemic Congress is no doubt completely incapable of standing up to Bush and denying him the authority for a preemptive strike against Iran. Thus, if the American runaway train in the Persian Gulf area is to be slowed, Vlad the Devious has decided it's up to him, and he keeps pumping up the Cold War rhetoric as he goes. Like Bush, he only has about a year left in office. You have to wonder whether either one of these egotists can bear the thought of leaving Hadleyville on the train at high noon without seeing which one would back down from a real fight. One way or another, the international seems dangerously dependent on the personal. Bush once invaded a whole country just to prove he was manlier than his father. Now he has another guy failing to give him his props. And I'm wondering: how far would Putin go to stop a U.S. invasion of Iran before Bush leaves office?

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