Memo to Putin

To:    V. V. Putin
From: Acme Ad Agency, NYC
Re:     New York Times op-ed and the future

Mr. President, we’re pleased that you’re pleased about the generally good reception our PR efforts have had in recent days. The piece “you” wrote for the NYT admonishing President Obama and the United States in ringing moral terms was, if we may say so ourselves, a smashing success.

Don’t let the carping of a few politicians about “wanting to vomit” make you doubt our effectiveness in the least. If Americans became nauseous every time a public figure dressed up an insincere argument in high-toned moral phrases, they’d all be on permanent disability. As would the White House staff, whichever party is in power.

And they know it. So do we. The difference this time: we grabbed the verbal high ground before they figured out what they wanted.  Even now, they can’t decide whether they’ve been lucky or been taken to the cleaners – or both.

Let’s do everything we can to prolong that state of indecision.

The key is to keep them hovering between conflicting moral principles. Yes, we’re aware it’s not your usual mode of operation, President Putin, but trust us on this. There’s no better way to paralyze the United States and, by extension, the whole Western world than by appealing to their idealism. Please let us explain.

During the Cold War, you worked for an officially atheist regime and had to use economic justice to cover for your actions. There’s still some usefulness in keeping those arguments close by. (You may want to brush up on your old KGB disinformatsya too.) But the world has moved on. So must you.

“You” were right to close with the words, “God created us equal.” It plays on a confusion that exists in the post-Christian societies of the West. The first proponents of equality knew it meant equality in fundamental rights – and duties. The things God really made equal.

But we have to encourage Westerners to think that many acts, once believed worthy of severe moral judgment and forceful action, are now merely “different” or a “perspective.” President Obama thinks a lot about differing perspectives. We want to keep him doing that.

But we must be more careful. “You” claimed, “From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” There’s a different perspective, to say the least. But you took a chance. Some people – fewer and fewer to be sure – remember facts beyond the immediate news cycle. This claim didn’t hurt much because there’s a lot of relief out there that military action won’t happen now. But in future, avoid claims that could be disputed or proved false. We don’t want attention to facts. We want conflicted moral appeals. And paralysis.

For instance, in the NYT, we made good use of the pope’s condemnation of war. All Western governments already feel guilty about using force, even to protect the innocent.

       Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Our research department has been combing the Vatican archives for other useful ideas. We just found this, which Pope John Paul II said on World Day of Peace 2000:

Clearly, when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defense prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor. [Our emphasis.]
John Paul II was a shrewd cookie, as we say in America. He’d faced your Communist predecessors and paid more attention to facts than words. You see the danger of facts?

Fortunately, he continued:  

These measures however must be limited in time and precise in their aims. They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and, in any event, never left to the outcome of armed intervention alone.
John Paul II wanted reason – in the form of international law – to keep one country from attacking another on the pretext that it was engaged in “humanitarian intervention.” But he didn’t want to protect thugs. So if we want room to maneuver, we have to make sure international institutions are not reformed so as to make them effective.  

“You” had a moment of inspiration, therefore, when you turned the truth upside down:

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.
Keep to that line. Recommend U.N. leverage while making sure that the Security Council, where you have a veto, is as useless as the General Assembly.

“You” also hit a strong note in denying that America is “exceptional.” In trying to make his case, President Obama surprisingly appealed to “American exceptionalism,” which he has otherwise denied during his whole presidency.

He must have been desperate for any moral argument he could find, and that’s exactly what we want. “You” gravely warned: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”

That’s perfect. Obama talks about American ideals as exceptional. You change the subject, as if he’s the Führer encouraging the Volk. Many Americans and Westerners will just hear – holding on, as they do, to mere bit and pieces of the old Christian ethos – that someone’s claiming to be better than someone else.

They wouldn’t make an outright argument for humility, which is not modern. But numbers of them are ready to dispute that anything American is better than something in other societies. They’ll pull down American ideals out of resentment, disguised as modesty.

Really, this has opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Our creative team is putting together a campaign and we’ll shoot you another proposal before the chemical weapons negotiations are done.

Good show, Vlady. Na zdorovie, tovaritch.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.