09/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putin's Lesson

When George W. Bush famously said after his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul," my assumption was that there was a deeper meaning: they spoke as oil man to oil man. Maybe I was being charitable.

Ron Suskind in his new book The Way of the World suggests instead that Bush was speaking
candidly and naively, ignoring the advice of CIA briefers that KGB veteran Putin viewed his job as "seeming like your friend". Seven years later, we know at least what was in Putin's mind. As he watched the United States plunge into two wars, tying up our military might in the Middle East, Putin saw a power vacuum in his neighborhood. Using his oil and gas resources to pressure his neighbors, the Russian leader (President-turned-prime-minister) was playing old-fashioned power politics while his "friend" Bush was trying to remake Arabia.

Now, with Russian troops in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, conservatives (Bill Kristol in the NYT, John McCain on the campaign trail) are calling back memories of 1938 and 1924 -- small European countries calling out in vain for Western help in fending off savage attacks. But what Putin seems to be asking is whether, in fact, the memories being called back are 1919 and 1920 -- when the victorious West humbled a defeated Germany, while breaking up an old empire and (thanks to the British skill at drawing lines on maps) inventing new nations (see, e.g., Iraq). Many nationalities were promised their own countries. Most got them.

So, after the US encouraged the breakup of Serb-controlled Yugoslavia when Russia was weak and humbled, Putin now asserts the notion that the process should continue, and more nationalities -- the Ossetians, the Abkhazis -- deserve self-determination, especially if they want to rejoin the Russian state. And we, obsessed and tied down, are unable to do anything but issue strong statements from Beijing and the secure undisclosed vice presidency.

Watching from the sidelines with interest must be the leaders of the nationality that was promised but didn't get its own country after World War One -- the Kurds. Putin appears to be simultaneously asserting power in his own neighborhood and throwing gasoline-soaked rags into the one we're bogged down in.

This administration came into power saying "the grownups are in charge." But the "grownups" saw Iraq in an ahistorical, ageopolitical prism. Paul Wolfowitz famously testified that Iraq had no history of ethnic conflict. He had it exactly backwards: ethnic conflict had a far longer history in that region that did the concept of "Iraq". Then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice didn't publicly correct him.

Perhaps because the part of the world where she had her academic expertise was Russia.