Paul Greenberg

The evil empire, Ronald Reagan called it when Détente was in fashion and it was not done to call things by their right names. The tyrant might be offended, and his rage could prove almost as effective back then as the left's fashionable condescension. It was enough to call an aging B-movie actor with presidential pretensions a radical to dismiss him. That way, when he said the obvious, he could be ignored instead of answered.

By the 1970s, Radical had become, as it still is, a term of opprobrium -- unanswerable, undeniable, unrefutable. That settled the matter. As if truth is not always radical, much as it offends the superficially sophisticated, the bien pensant, the right-thinking. Or rather, back in the era of Nixon, Ford, Carter and Malaise, the left-thinking.

Those days are far from gone. Indeed, they're coming back strong. The old evil empire may be gone, but it takes new shape under new management. And it waxes strong without a leader of the free world to call its bluff.

Leader of the Free World -- remember when that was a synonym for president of the United States? Now the title can be used only ironically. What a dated reference it has become as this president "resets" relations with Moscow, first abandoning old allies in Eastern Europe and now subletting American foreign policy in the Middle East to a not so former KGB agent, that is, thug.

But those aren't observations the diplomatic will make, and if American leadership is anything these days, it is diplomatic to a (severe) fault.

Vladimir Putin is putting the old empire back together again, still evil but with all-new styling. Like the engine of an old Soviet T-10 tank installed in a body designed by Ferrari. This shadow Soviet Union no longer uses troops to enforce its way on satellites but economic pressure, like oil and gas contracts. Which can be much more effective. The evil empire may be as evil as ever and its ends just as ruthless, but its means are more subtle.

It's the same old empire but in a new version. Naturally the new model can no longer be called a Union of Soviet Socialist "Republics," that name having acquired a certain odium. So now the old empire is called a "customs union," but its essence remains the same: Moscow gives the orders and its satellites had better obey. Just as its subjects at home do when Tsar Vladimir tightens his autocratic grip, shuts down the press, rigs his re-elections, and in effect becomes president-for-life with all the outward grace and inner brutality of a typical Latin American caudillo. The more tyrannies change, the more they remain the same.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.