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Obama had a pretty sick burn mocking Putin's "leadership"

President Obama speaks in Washington, DC.
President Obama speaks in Washington, DC.
Teresa Kroeger/Getty Images

President Obama, during an oddly confrontational 60 Minutes interview on Syria, managed to slip in a pretty good jab at Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He was responding to a question from interviewer Steve Kroft. Much of the DC punditry has hailed Putin's military intervention in Syria as brilliant and bold, complaining that Putin's predilection for action — even when that action is self-defeating — makes him a better leader than Obama.

Kroft put this criticism to Obama, saying, "You said a year ago that the United States — America leads. We're the indispensable nation. Mr. Putin seems to be challenging that leadership."

Obama: So that's leading, Steve? Let me ask you this question. When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they've had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally. And in Ukraine—

Kroft: He's challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He's challenging your leadership—

Obama: Well, Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we've got a different definition of leadership.

This is a jab not just at Putin, but also at his ever-devoted fan base in the DC punditry. The Russian leader sure looks good doing foreign policy — decisive! action-oriented! shirtless! — but he's managed to get his country isolated, sanctioned, and mired in two foreign wars. He has no apparent exit strategy and no obvious long-term plan. Both at home and abroad, he is weaker than ever.

Now, just because Putin is doing a bad job doesn't mean that Obama is doing a good job. There is much to criticize on Obama's handling of Syria (more on this later). But it is pretty odd to suggest that American leadership is somehow imperiled because Putin is sinking ever more resources into a costly and doomed mission, or that just because Putin is now flailing around in Syria he is a brave and brilliant chess master.

As Stephen Saideman points out, Russia's record in Ukraine is a pretty good example of Putin's leadership. Yes, he annexed Crimea (which was already under heavy Russian influence), but he lost most of the country in the process; Ukraine, long a reliable Russian proxy, is now actively fighting Russian-backed forces and drifting ever closer to the Western orbit. Yes, his approval ratings are sky-high, but Russia's powerful elites, sanctioned and angry, are getting fed up. Putin expended enormous resources and came out even worse than where he was before.

We're now seeing that same Putin leadership in Syria, and his fan base in the DC punditry could not be more impressed.