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The dark truth in Putin's soul

What is it about Western leaders from Neville Chamberlain to George W. Bush who want to find good in men of bad character?

Acting as if he were endowed by special insight bestowed upon no one else, President George W. Bush declared in 2001 that he had looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

According to the Daily Caller.com, in a 2010 interview with talk radio host Hugh Hewitt, Mr. Bush, who was promoting his book "Decision Points," was asked about his ability to see into the souls of men. The former president explained, "The reason why I said that is because I remembered him talking movingly about his mother and the cross that she gave him that she said she had blessed in Jerusalem."

Well, bless my soul, as the saying goes. No doubt several communist leaders in the former Soviet Union had mothers who went to church and took their sons with them -- until faith became a drag on upward mobility in the Communist Party. It doesn't mean any one of them underwent some drastic religious transformation.

What Mr. Bush should have asked Mr. Putin is whether he shared his mother's faith and if so, what difference that had made on his thinking? Usually when people "convert" from one belief system to another they give a reason for the shift. Not so with Mr. Putin. He has not walked the sawdust trail of redemption and embraced pluralistic, democratic or capitalistic beliefs. Quite the opposite.

In a 2005 state of the nation speech, Mr. Putin declared: "Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself."

In the Hewitt interview, Mr. Bush claimed that since that early meeting with Mr. Putin, the Russian leader had become a different person. The other possibility is that Mr. Putin has always been the same person, but lied and projected a different image to a gullible Mr. Bush who wanted to believe what he thought he saw.

Mr. Putin and his cronies are now openly mocking the United States. Under President Barack Obama we are becoming a humiliation nation. Meaningless "sanctions," which amount to not even a slap on the wrist, are laughed at in Moscow. And the problem with sanctions is that Russia has options, too, like cutting off gas and oil supplies to Europe and making trouble in other former Soviet republics. Recently, Russian news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov took to the Rossiya 1 news channel to declare that Russia is the only country capable of turning the United States into "radioactive ashes." A picture of a mushroom cloud was projected on the screen behind him. Iran might see this bragging by Russia as a challenge to its own nuclear ambitions.

Understanding one's adversary is sometimes more important than defeating him, especially if one wishes to avoid armed conflict. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the symbolic collapse of the Soviet Union and occupied Eastern Europe. Mr. Putin clearly believes Russia was humiliated after the collapse and the American triumphalism that followed. But humiliation can cut two ways.

Russia feels slighted for not being recognized as a great power. In some sense -- though the analogy is far from perfect -- Russia reflects Germany's attitude after its defeat in World War I. The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to disarm, concede territory and pay reparations. Hitler's rise to power two decades later was in large part due to his appeal to German nationalism and pride, which is precisely Vladimir Putin's appeal to the Russian people.

Mr. Putin has promised not to annex any territory beyond Crimea. We'll see if he keeps that promise. Meanwhile, it would be nice if President Obama led on this matter instead of making the United States the laughingstock of the world's dictators and to our detriment, perhaps some of our allies.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached at tcaeditors@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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