Western critics of Russia's Sochi Winter Olympics have picked up too much speed and risk skidding off piste. A justifiable attempt to scrutinise the government of President Vladimir Putin has degenerated into an exercise in schadenfreude and ill will. Politicians who have decided to attend the games (including China's Xi Jinping, Japan's Shinzo Abe and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan) have been level-headed. Those who have ostentatiously stayed away -- the UK's David Cameron, Barack Obama of the US and France's Francois Hollande -- are following what the critic Harold Rosenberg once called "the herd of independent minds".
There was, however, a notable partisan split. Among Democratic voters, 20% have a favorable opinion of the Russian leader, while 32% of Republicans voters agree. Putin isn't exactly popular with either group, but the Russian president seems to impress the right more than the left.
With this in mind, the Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell published a piece late last week in the Financial Times arguing that Vladimir Putin's international critics have been needlessly "harsh."
Caldwell proceeded to offer a curious defense. Sure, there was Russian corruption around Olympic construction, but it wasn't all Putin's fault and it's commonplace anyway. Sure, Putin has arrested and jailed political opponents, but the Russian president graciously released "several" of them. Sure, Putin has cracked down on peaceful demonstrations, but blame Yeltsin.
Caldwell concedes that Putin's respect for the democratic process "has been fitful at best," but that's about as harsh as the conservative writer ws willing to go. Scott Lemieux noted in response, "'Fitful respect for democracy' is one way of describing a leader who not only routinely suppresses dissent but refuses to hold competitive elections. 'Authoritarian' would be the far more accurate term."
The point, of course, is not to pick on Caldwell for an unpersuasive defense. Rather, the larger takeaway is that many U.S. conservatives have begun to see the former KGB officer as some kind of kindred spirit.
Indeed, Pat Buchanan was rather explicit on this point, writing recently, "In the culture war for mankind's future, is [Putin] one of us?"
This isn't exactly new. Social conservatives in the U.S. have been openly celebrating Putin for quite a while -- support that grew in the wake of Putin's anti-gay crackdown, and which was further solidified in December when the Russian president mocked the West for having "moved away from their roots, including Christian values."
But as we discussed in the fall, Republicans in general started embracing Putin in greater numbers during the Syrian crisis. The Obama administration pushed Syria into the chemical weapons convention, helped create a diplomatic framework that will hopefully rid Syria of its stockpiles, successfully pushed Russia into a commitment to help disarm its own ally, quickly won support from the United Nations and our allies -- all without firing a shot -- leading U.S. conservatives, including several members of Congress, to marvel at Putin's leadership skills.
This continued last month when Mitt Romney talked about how impressed he is with Putin's performance over the U.S. president's performance.
The conservative cheerleading for the Russian president continues to be a little creepy. Putin isn't -- or at least, shouldn't be -- a new iconic leader for the right. As Rachel recently put it: "It`s one thing for the right to fall in love with its own politicians, to make Ronald Reagan a saint, to make Sarah Palin their collective fake girlfriend. But the president of Russia, you guys? He is not that into you. Seriously, I know you guys hate President Obama, so it feels good to have a man-crush on somebody else, but this guy is a president of Russia. Zip it up, you guys, seriously. Have some self-respect."