Between one exotic spin and another it is difficult to get any grasp on the geopolitical truth of what is happening on our planet these days.
We know for sure that two great powers are playing at war games on a sandy patch of earth far from their own homelands. Most of us are somewhat cagey about this, because cowboy shootouts like these could escalate into an unimaginable conflagration – it is not inconceivable that a nuclear war could be triggered.
That sounds alarmist, but lesser situations in the past have brought us to the brink of Armageddon.
There is a narrative now emerging in the alternative media that Putin is riding in like some Knight in Shining Armour to save the world from the deviousness and weakness of Obama who has been arming and supporting fundamentalist Islamic groups in Syria and failing to control murderous mad men jihadis. In this alternative world of conspiratorial media there is a great deal of influence from Biblical fundamentalists who tie in notions of Anti-Christs, Messiahs and End Days to the narrative of unfolding events. There is a right-wing, machismo culture flourishing underground where keyboard warriors claim smugly to have the whole world figured out. And this rhetorical certainty muddies the waters. The truth is led astray, if ever it could have been found.
The fact is that Obama and Putin are mortal men of flesh and bone. They are neither of them without their vast darkness, and neither of them are Messiahs. They are ambitious humans who find themselves centre-stage in a moment of history, figureheads on the advancing front of a complex situation.
In many ways both are powerless, being driven helplessly by anonymous forces and well-oiled machines behind them.
I do not know either of them, beyond what I see in the media, beyond the construction they have both projected of themselves. So, I cannot speak to the arcane forces that may or may not be forcing their hands. There are however a few observations I can make about the general situation.
Putin has been in power for 11 of the last 15 years in Russia. Obama has been in power for almost 8 years. So, both are well established leaders of large empires.
Both these leadership roles were achieved in a manner that was apparently democratic, in that elections were held for their positions.
Putin has a background in Law and military intelligence, and Obama has a background in Law and academia.
Both men came from relatively humble beginnings.
Obama rules over the lives of 300 million people, and Putin rules over 143 million people. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of America is some 16 trillion dollars, while that of Russia is 2 trillion dollars. The average annual income per person in America is approximately 25,000 dollars, while in Russia the average person takes home 10,000 dollars annually. Lfe expectancy in America is on average 78 years and in Russia is 70 years.
So, on the face of it, life is better for ordinary folk under the stewardship of Obama in the wealthier America.
As military powers, Russia is also somewhat dwarfed by America, in that spending on military there is 70 billion per year, while in America it is almost 600 billion dollars per year. We can safely say that America is better armed than Russia therefore, and is thus more powerful when it comes to war games. America has active duty troops stationed in 150 countries world wide and is actively involved in over 130 military engagements. Russia has troops stationed in neighbouring countries that were former Soviet republics, and is admitting publicly only to the recent engagement in Syria in terms of overseas military activity.
But a modern war would never be a question of your tanks versus mine, or the numbers of personnel. It would boil down to brinksmanship and whether or not one or the other was willing to choose the nuclear option.
An inconceivable choice at this stage, but it is not simply a matter of these world powers holding all the marbles anymore. Both have assembled a raggle taggle coalition of countries who hang on their coat tails and who may not be as circumspect when it comes to radical options. Why not?
Because there is a strong undercurrent of Islamic millenarianism that flows beneath the complex problems in the Middle East.
The seductive powers of Millenarianism is not absent either in the halls of the American policy makers. Exceptionalism betrays this kind of fundamentalist thinking, the idea of the land of the great and the good policing the globe and ushering in a new world is no different at root than the idea of a return of a Hidden Imam.
Nor is Russia without its fundamentalist mystic leanings. America is viewed as a decadent civilisation, and the balance of world power will be restored by an avenging motherland with the creation of a just and moral Eurasian union.
People involved in all sides of these dirty affairs can often have very black and white thinking processes, severe delineations of ideas of good and evil, and of their own righteous God-given authority to settle matters before Heaven and usher in a Utopia. Never underestimate how these kind of guys may get their rocks off with the entertainment of vast cosmic plans.
Millenialists always root for an ”us against them” argument that demonises those with different belief systems; they tend towards a conviction that some paradisiacal world lies just beyond a time of revolution that blows apart all the corrupt existing structures, and they also hold that certain elite chosen ones are necessary to impose this revolutionary end game upon a mass who are too stupid to fend and think for themselves
It could be said therefore that primitive and conservative religious views are what is bringing the world to its present unstable condition, and that reason has long ago fled the field. What a pity, given that we as a species show such potential to be creative, compassionate, intelligent, spiritual beings, that we are still stuck in such Neanderthal posturing.
Putin was an atheist who converted passionately to his mother’s native Russian Orthodox faith after some life-threatening events. There is a strain of the Messianic in some of his speeches that call for Universal Social Justice. The same could be said for Obama whose election campaigns focused on revolutionary change, and hope for a new type of America. He rode in on an almost Messianic wave of assurance that he would remake the nation. Naturally he has failed to do anything of the sort. Likewise Putin will not be an avenging angel.
The most likely foundation to all of this, in my opinion, is Chaos. I find it difficult to believe that either man is in control of a steering wheel, or that any subterranean force is truly manipulating events. Things are just happening because of greed, and stupidity, and raw bullish fanaticism, and no one is in control.
Perhaps Putin’s strong arm in Syria and the praise his actions are receiving in certain circles is because he appeals to the messianic strain of the right wing sector of the conspiracy movement, who look for simple, stark, one-strike solutions to all that ails us.
But something is not sitting right with me in this ”all hail the new saviour” routine. I do think confronting ISIL is an expedient policy move, I even feel that Assad has the right to remain as the elected leader of Syria and that this should be supported against the trumped-up military assault on him. But I do not think this is necessarily some shift towards a better international order.
Because whatever the rights or wrongs of Putin’s intervention in Syria, one cannot say that life under his leadership has been easy for the citizens of Russia. It has not.
And likewise life for the ordinary citizens of America has been harsh and difficult of late.
There are no saints in this arena. No good guys versus bad guys. No Messiahs. No Satans.
Just a pair of fallible, vain, power-infatuated, religiously-driven men at the spear-head of powerful geopolitical forces that they themselves possibly do not have the faintest hope of understanding.