There is a nasty pattern in American political speech, going back into the 1980s at least: when a senior U.S. official labels you a thug, often times wars follow. Thug is the safest word of American Exceptionalism.
So it is with some concern that lots of folks are pushing each other away from the mic to call Putin a thug (fun fact: Putin has been in effective charge of Russia for 15 years. As recently as the Hillary Clinton Secretary of State era, the U.S. sought a “reset” of relations with him.)
While the current throwing of the term thug at Putin is tied to the weak evidence presented publicly linking a Russian hacker under Putin’s employ to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee computers, there may be larger issues in the background. But first, a sample of the rhetoric.
Putin the Thug
Obama on Putin: “a thug who doesn’t understand his own best interests.”
Mario Rubio on Putin: “A gangster and a thug.”
Paul Ryan’s spokesperson on Putin: “Russia is a global menace led by a devious thug.”
John McCain on Putin: “A bully and thug.”
And for fun, Sir Peter Westmacott, Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. in 2014, on Putin: “A thug and a liar.”
Thugs in American Military Adventurism
That word, thug, seems to be a sort of dog whistle that when blown signals Americans and their media to psyche up for a new fight. For example:
John Kerry on Bashar Assad: “A thug and murderer.”
John Kerry on Islamic State: “Daesh [ISIS] is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs, of adventurers, of smugglers and thieves.”
George W. Bush on al Qaeda: “If we let down our guard against this group of thugs, they will hurt us again.”
George W. Bush on Saddam Hussein: “He is a thug.”
Bernie Sanders on Gaddafi: “Look, everybody understands Gaddafi is a thug and murderer.”
But Why Putin, Now?
Perhaps what we’re seeing here is a realignment for the next iteration of America’s perpetual war. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War (“the end of history”, as one author called it), there was no global enemy. No big nasty to spur weapons procurement, or to justify a huge standing military with hundreds of bases around the world, or to pick fights with to allow a boring president to morph into a superhero war president.
A lot of people had a lot of power and money in play that demanded some bad guys. An attempt was made in the 1980s to make narco lords the new major bad guys, but they were too few in number and the popularity of drugs among Americans got in the way. Following 9/11, the bad guys were supposed to be “the terrorists.” The George W. Bush administration riffed off that theme, appointing Saddam a massive weapons of destruction threat and tagged on Iran and North Korea as part of an Axis of Evil, because, well, no one knows, things sound good in groups of threes.
Saddam turned out to be a bust, and the Iraq War ultimately very unpopular. Bin Laden never launched a second attack on the U.S., and the Taliban were hard to picture, coming and going as they do. The U.S. made a good faith effort trying to label all sorts of others, Gaddafi, Assad, ISIS, et al, as global enemies worthy of perpetual war but they either were defeated, or are just plain are kicking American butt. Meanwhile, the Middle East in general turned into a huge, complicated, sticky clusterf*ck quagmire.
A New Hope Emerges
Like Batman, Washington needs an Arch Enemy, preferably one poster-child kind of guy who can be shown on TV looking like a Bond villain. With actual nukes (Washington spent years trying to convince us the terrorists were a 24/7 nuclear threat [smoking gun = mushroom cloud] and the damn terrorists never complied.)
Enter Putin The Thug.
Americans are already well-prepared by the old Cold War to see Russia as an evil empire, and Putin does look the part. A new Cold War with Russia will require lots of expensive military hardware, plus a large standing army and new areas of Europe to garrison. It might breathe new life into a NATO wondering why it still exists.
For politicians, shouting about Muslim threats has proven to have a downside, as it has enflamed many Muslims and pushed them toward radicalization. It turns out also there are Muslim voters, and people who like Muslims, in the U.S. Putin doesn’t vote, only a handful of hippies think he’s a good guy, and he can be slapped around in sound bites relatively without risk.
It is a political-military-industrial complex wet dream.
And so I predict in the coming Hillary regime a tamping down of terrorism stuff and a ramping up of a new Cold War. After all, isn’t that what her mentor Henry Kissinger would do?