Putin’s massive miscalculation: Echoes of George W. Bush — and a lesson for America’s elites

Google “Putin miscalculation” and you get more than a trillion hits. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine turned catastrophic for both Vladimir Putin’s ambitions and the Ukrainian people, many have suggested that the Russian president’s miscalculation is the result self-isolation and listening only to a shrinking handful of yes-men, a pattern that’s common in personalist autocratic regimes where power is concentrated in a single individual. 

On Feb. 4, well before it was clear that Putin had decided to invade, much less how badly it would go, Adam Casey and Seva Gunitsky laid out the argument in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “The Bully in the Bubble,” arguing that Putin had fallen prey to “information isolation” and warning that “if he makes a miscalculation and launches a major invasion, it will likely be because of the personalist features of his regime.” The authors specifically cited U.S. intelligence reports that Putin was “underestimating the costs of invading Ukraine because his advisers are withholding information about the depth of local Ukrainian opposition to Russia and, relatedly, the strength of Ukraine’s resistance.”

RELATED: Trump admits he was wrong about Putin — but just can’t quit him

Since the invasion, other experts who have studied personalism have weighed in to flesh out the picture, and to highlight that personalism is particularly dangerous when combined with the politics of oil. A more recent Foreign Affairs article has even asked whether this might be “The Beginning of the End for Putin?” The odds of that aren’t high, but they’re rising, the authors argued: 

In personalist authoritarian regimes — where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual rather than shared by a party, military junta, or royal family — the leader is rarely driven from office by wars, even when they experience defeat…. But the thing about repressive regimes like Putin’s Russia is that they often look stable right up to the point that they are not. Putin has taken a major risk in attacking Ukraine, and there is a chance — one that seems to be growing — that it could mark the beginning of his end.

The  article concludes with the statement that “Putin’s downfall may not come tomorrow or the day after, but his grip on power is certainly more tenuous than it was before he invaded Ukraine.”

The historical arc that could lead to the end Putin’s regime would be strikingly similar to the way that George W. Bush’s pursuit of the “War on Terror” brought about the collapse of the Republican establishment, which lost control of Congress and the White House to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, before staging an apparent comeback beginning in 2010. That became something of an uncontrolled reaction, with Donald Trump emerging as GOP voters’ collective rejection, of not just the Republican leadership but the entire political establishment.

Of course, the Bush administration, dreadful as it was, is not comparable to Putin’s regime. But Bush’s “faith-based presidency,” as summed up in Ron Suskind’s 2004 article, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” was similarly impervious to inconvenient facts. Suskind argued that “open dialogue, based on facts” was not valued in that context: “It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” That was amplified in the famous quote from a Bush aide (widely assumed to be Karl Rove) who dismissed the “reality-based community,” saying:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Vladimir Putin could hardly have said it better. Functionally, then, the Bush administration was strikingly similar to Putin’s in suppressing unwanted information (such as the reports that Osama bin Laden was “determined to strike” the U.S.), manufacturing phony intelligence, promoting false narratives (primarily about Saddam Hussein’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction or his supposed ties to 9/11) and ultimately undermining the political support of its base, in a collapse that took Bush and his allies totally by surprise. For the most part, the broader political establishment, including the media, basically went along with them: Hence Sam Smith’s classic “A history of the Iraq War told entirely in official lies.” 

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As mentioned above, in a personalist regime, power is concentrated in the hands of a single individual. Such leaders face few meaningful checks on their power, cannot be punished for failures and choose advisers primarily based on loyalty rather than competence, “surrounding themselves by scared and sycophantic underlings who feed them limited, biased, self-censored, and overly optimistic information,” as Casey and Gunitsky put it. They continue: 

For strongmen, the consequences of losing power can be extreme — prison, exile, or death — and so they tend to surround themselves by sycophants. Their governing bodies can therefore descend into groupthink, and policy can lock onto a single path.

That of course does not describe the Bush administration, which faced no serious threat of prison, exile or death. Bush’s Cabinet appointees were well within U.S. political norms and had considerable reputational capital, most notably in the case of Secretary of State Colin Powell, previously a respected military general. But groupthink set in nonetheless, and the administration’s policy locked onto the single path of an all-out “war on terror,” including the invasion of Iraq, within weeks after the 9/11 attacks, without  as USA Today reported on the first anniversary of 9/11.  

Bush’s determination to oust Saddam Hussein by military force “was set last fall without a formal decision-making meeting or the intelligence assessment that customarily precedes such a momentous decision,” that report found. Its “key findings” included:

  • “There wasn’t a flash moment. There’s no decision meeting,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice says. “But Iraq had been on the radar screen — that it was a danger and that it was something you were going to have to deal with eventually … before Sept. 11, because we knew that this was a problem.”
  • Members of Congress weren’t consulted. Nor were key allies. The concerns of senior military officers and intelligence analysts, some of whom remain skeptical, weren’t fully aired until afterward.

That was an explosive story at the time, revealing that the decision to invade Iraq had been made almost a year earlier, with little discussion or evidence, and virtually no consideration of the potential risks — yet it was also virtually ignored. It was as if Bush’s inner circle didn’t need to think through the decision, and America’s political and media elite felt no need to question their reckless support for war. No Putin-style figure was required, in either case, to control information, curtail criticism or enforce groupthink. Yet everyone involved acted just the way such a personalist leader would have wanted.

America’s elite groupthink rapidly committed to a military response, which was precisely what Osama bin Laden wanted and intended — allowing him to wrap himself in with the mantle of “holy warrior” rather than “mass murderer.” This completely ignored the framework of military restraint, informally known as the “Powell doctrine” and formatted as a series of questions, that had been adopted in the aftermath of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam. Most pointedly, the answer to the question, “Have all other nonviolent policy means been fully exhausted?” was obviously no. The same could be said of “Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?” 

The groupthink was also visible in Congress, which authorized the Iraq invasion almost unanimously — with only Rep. Barbara Lee of California opposing it — and in elite opinion columns at the New York Times and Washington Post, where FAIR identified 44 columns stressing a military response, and just two advocating non-military ones, in the first three weeks after 9/11. 

In sharp contrast, an International Gallup Poll found worldwide supermajorities, averaging over 70%, in 34 out of 37 countries, saying that the U.S. government “should extradite the terrorists to stand trial” rather than launch a military attack “on the country or countries where the terrorists are based.” The exceptions were even more telling: Public opinion in both Israel and India favored a military attack by over 70%, despite those nation’s decades-long histories of failure pursuing exactly that strategy themselves. Public opinion in the U.S. favored a military attack by 54% to 30%, but with 16% unsure. 

Those responses made clear that two further questions on the Powell doctrine checklist should have been considered more carefully. First was, “Do we have genuine broad international support?” From governments, perhaps, but not from the people. As for “Is the action supported by the American people?” Even at that moment, the answer was not clear: Narrow majority support when elites are totally united offered a clear warning about the prospects for a lengthy war.  

Two other parallels to the Putin predicament are worth noting: the illusion of quick victory, based on previous experience, and the role of historical fantasy. Putin apparently believed the Ukraine invasion would be a relatively quick operation, buoyed by his past successes in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and the Crimean peninsula. He did not expect the level of Ukrainian resistance the Russian military has encountered, much less the unified opposition of the West.

Similarly, the Bush-era invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed a series of relatively easy military victories, as the U.S. sought to recover from its experience in Vietnam: There were the wildly lopsided ventures in Grenada under Ronald Reagan and Panama under George H.W. Bush, and then the first Gulf war of 1991, which had a limited scope and a broad international coalition. 

When it comes to narcissistic historical phantasy. Putin seems to imagine himself in the tradition of Peter the Great, restoring the glory of imperial Russia, which has produced a flood of incoherent narratives about Russian-Ukrainian relations and the claim that Ukraine cannot or should not exist as a nation. 

The U.S. version of this involves delusions about remaking the world in America’s image, as described by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone.” This produced a chaotic flood of free market ideologues, incompetents and grifters, all woefully disconnected from the reality of life in Iraq and the broader Middle East. The devastating portrait of folly in that 2006 book takes on a still darker tone after the emergence of ISIS a few years later. In the introduction to “ISIS: A History,” Fawaz Gerges describes four key factors behind that phenomenon: 

The first is that ISIS can be seen as an extension of [al-Qaida in Iraq] which was itself a creature of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. By destroying state institutions, the invasion reinforced popular divisions along ethnic and religious rather than national lines, creating an environment that was particularly favorable for the implantation and expansion of groups such as AQI and ISIS. Second, the fragmentation of the post–Saddam Hussein political establishment and its incapacity to articulate policies that emphasized the country’s national identity further nourished intercommunal distrust, thus deepening and widening the Sunni-Shia divide. 

The chaotic failure of the Iraq war to pacify the Middle East, much less curtail terrorism, began the erosion of the GOP establishment’s credibility. Next, the explosion of ISIS, which flooded Europe with refugees and shocked America, took things to another level: That was what tipped the balance toward a new/old politics of right-wing ethno-nationalism, bringing Brexit to Britain, fueling far-right parties and Europe, electing Donald Trump as president and driving many Bush-era figures out of the Republican Party entirely. 

Many of those figures have become eloquent champions of democracy, staunch opponents of Trump’s limitless mendacity and corrosive attacks on democracy, and equally staunch opponents of Putin’s aggression. Some of them have even tried to grapple with their own roles in having made Trump’s politics possible. There should be no doubt about the need for a united front to defend democracy, both here and abroad. But there should also be no doubt about the collective need for a long, hard look in the mirror, one that reflects how badly our political elites failed in their responsibilities to the people. Such a failure can turn representative democracy into nothing more than a sham, virtually indistinguishable from a personalist dictatorship in terms of its horrific end results.

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