Today there were two longish articles on Vladimir Putin, and I was struck by the tone adopted in both of them. The first, by Stephen Lee Myers, entitled "Never Let Them See You Sweat" attempts a sort of psychological profile of Putin, drawing on his background as a practitioner of judo and as a KGB agent in East Germany at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. Putin, it is claimed, disdains weakness. A commentator at the Carnegie Moscow Centre is quoted as saying that Putin's tactics are strong but that he lacks a strategy. Putin's action in increasing his involvement in Syria is partly explained away as a move to distract attention from "Russia’s disastrous intervention in eastern Ukraine".
The second article by Neil MacFarquar is entitled "On Syria, Putin is Catering to an Audience at Home". As the title suggests Russia's growing involvement in the Syrian tragedy is mainly an effort to boost his popularity at home, ignoring the fact that he currently enjoys approval ratings in Russia that any Western leader would die for. His recent diplomatic activity in meetings with the leaders of Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are dismissed as an attempt to attract more attention to Putin himself, and as a way of leveraging a meeting with President Obama.
The head of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts, in Moscow, is quoted as saying “He has to leave Russia to demonstrate that he is not isolated, that he is a respected member of the international community gathering in New York.” As the Myers article says "Putin will swagger through New York seeking to regain the spot on the world stage he believes he has been unjustly denied by his rivals in the West."
The thing that struck me in both pieces was the way in which Russia's actions were described as being the consequence of the vanity and ambition of one man. There was little acknowledgement that Russia might have a genuine interest in the Middle East, even that nations other than the United States might have the right to pursue their own foreign policies. Anything which deviates from what Washington wants is dismissed implicitly as the result of the perverted ambition of one man, who (of course we all agree) is "bad" and power hungry.
It would be entertaining to see in the mainstream media a scrutiny of US foreign policy carried out with the same underlying premises about the motives of the leaders and without the axiomatic belief that US always acts for good in the world.
While (cf the Myers article) one could hardly say that Obama's tactics are strong, one could certainly say that he lacks a strategy. Unless the strategy is one of creating failed states and chaos throughout the Middle East, in which case it would be one of unimaginable evil.
In the MacFarquar article it says "Mr. Putin has claimed repeatedly in recent years that the chaotic state of the world, particularly the level of violence in the Middle East, is because the United States is the solitary power. The underlying idea is that things were better off when the Soviet Union was around to check American might."
Instead it is explained as a Putin tactic - a way he might frame his speech at the UN with a pitch about "establishing a new pillar so that power in the world is more balanced.”
So this is the way the NYT shapes opinion among its readers. And much of the mainstream media are much, much worse.