The Shared Legacy of Bush and Putin


What do these two have in common?

At first glance, the presidential legacies left behind by George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin could not be more different. The former is departing the White House with what could charitably be described as gentle disgrace – a leader solemnly defeated by the deeply unpopular war in Iraq and a sputtering economy. The latter is quite literally laughing his way to the bank, and moving into a position of potentially greater power as Prime Minister and head of the United Russia party, all to the applause of popular approval ratings.Despite the seemingly contrasting fortunes of these two leaders, there are more similar trends and convergence in their experiences and decision-making than meets the eye. In remembering these past eight years in U.S. and Russian politics, we would do well to resist the temptation to resort to the top-drawer narratives, and look beyond these easy explanations to focus on how we arrived to where we are.It is fair to say that hydrocarbons and the pursuit of energy and energy infrastructure are a common keynote of the two presidencies. Both Bush and Putin entered office in a radically different pre-9/11 world, with oil trading at under $25 a barrel and the absence of any colossal ideological struggle in global affairs. In 2008, during the same week that Dmitri Medvedev is being inaugurated as president, crude has broken $120, and is rumored to break $200 in the near future. This historically unprecedented mass transfer of wealth has been a dream for Putin’s popularity, and a troublesome nightmare for Bush.Naturally the fact that Russia got lucky with oil prices explains only a part of its current trajectory. Both Bush and Putin were blindsided by the catastrophic parallel terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Beslan school siege, events that altered the course of their presidencies. Both leaders committed devastating misjudgments in their response to the attacks, yet they both seized the opportunity of moral panic to expand the powers of their office, and centralize authority. Their successors face the complicated task of untangling these myopic changes to the structure of the state.It is not often discussed, but there is a dramatic similarity between David Addington’s use of the theory of the unitary executive and Vladislav Surkov’s sovereign democracy. The unitary executive theory, a highly controversial constitutional interpretation which posits that the president, and only the president, is vested with the power to execute federal law without oversight from congress or the judiciary, was put to aggressive legal use by Addington and John Yoo to help give President Bush the power to do everything from domestic spying without warrants, torture and human rights abuses at Guantánamo Bay, to ignoring laws the president felt restricted his authority.The American Bar Association has declared Bush’s signing of many of these orders citing unitary executive as “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers,” and a former chief of staff to Colin Powell, Larry Wilkerson, has said that Addington could potentially face criminal prosecution should he step foot out of the country. The unitary executive theory arguably represents one of the most egregious abuses of presidential power in recent memory.In Russia, Putin’s creeping centralization of authority was also carried out under the guise of legalism and ideology – thanks to the Kremlin’s rather brilliant rhetorical strategist, Vladislav Surkov. Following the tragedy of Beslan, Putin gave a dramatic speech condemning the “weakness” of Russian government, and passed a decree allowing him to directly appoint all regional governors – a power he has most recently transferred to the office of the prime minister, while appointing double the number of deputies.In February 2006, Surkov unveiled the perfect new ideology for Putinist authoritarian capitalism: sovereign democracy. The theory argues that it is natural and normal for Russia to pursue a developing model of democracy that suits its own needs. The Kremlin argues that Russian citizens are not yet prepared to carry the burden of democratic participation, and that the state has a responsibility to protect their sovereignty from foreign interference (hence the focus on preventing the kind of popular “sovereignty” which made the color revolutions possible).Even before sovereign democracy existed as a formal theory, the rationale was being used regularly by the Kremlin to clamp down aggressively on media, seize private property and increase the state’s share in the economy, and criminalize civil society movements. All alternative pillars of influence were subsequently marginalized.Both unitary executive and sovereign democracy have greatly diminished constitutional separation of powers and have created parallel legal travesties involving both countries whilst endorsing extralegal unilateralism externally. The United States has seen its once strong legal reputation dragged through the mud with the enemy combatant trials at Guantanamo, conduct of the war in Iraq, and illegal implementation of torture. The Russian government, on its own behalf, has blatantly violated its own laws and international law with the unlawful incarceration of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other political prisoners, and has created one of the most dangerous environments for the safety of journalists and opposition activists.Under both administrations, corruption and cronyism has flourished, powerfully demonstrated the bureaucracy’s inability to respond to crisis situations. The fiasco of Michael Brown managing FEMA’s handling of Hurricane Katrina knows no parallel outside of Russia’s failure to act transparently or competently during both the Beslan and Nord-Ost sieges – but at least the media was allowed to report on the former, as Masha Lipman has pointed out in the Washington Post.One may be popular at home and another openly disliked, but both Putin and Bush were responsible for policies which have given very negative reputations internationally to both countries. There are important lessons to be drawn from these comparative legacies. With the ascension of fresh leadership on both sides of the fence, there is an opportunity to get over the offensive hangovers of Cold War-style moral superiority of the United States and inferiority complex of Russia, both of which have dogged relations since the beginning of Moscow’s oil-fed resurgence.It may be time to pass the torch to the leaders of the European Union to address rule of law, democracy, and human rights issues with Moscow – because for the time being, Washington has a lot of work to do to restore its own credibility and repair the damages they have in common with Russia from waging the War on Terror. I’m sure we all look forward to the day when Washington is respected once again.