PARIS -- There's no faster or easier way to shut down legitimate debate than to slap an undesirable label on someone based on their views. Criticize same-sex marriage and you're a bigot. Take issue with immigration policy and you're dismissed as a racist. In the latest incarnation of this phenomenon, any conservative who dares to criticize U.S. President Barack Obama's stance against Russia on the issue of Ukraine runs the risk of being called a Putin-loving communist.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested this week that Republican lawmakers may have helped Russia annex Crimea by delaying a vote on aid to the new Ukrainian government. The message: If Republicans want to avoid the friend-of-Putin label, they had better vote later this week to approve a $1 billion loan guarantee for the government in Kiev, along with Obama's sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials.
Russia itself seems aware of the peer pressure. When Canada imposed its own silly sanctions, Russia retaliated with a few irrelevant sanctions of its own, but with a very telling caveat. "We need this cooperation as much as Ottawa does," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich. "That said, we make no secret that we will react accordingly to unfriendly moves -- no matter what motives they are explained by. We hope that Canadian officials and politicians will draw adequate conclusions."
We get it, Aleksandr. The "adequate conclusion" to draw is that the pressure was on for Western allies, including Canada, to participate in Obama's silly season.
I've been unapologetically critical of Obama's actions vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine: the support of an undemocratic coup d'état; the escalating rhetoric despite a dire need to cooperate with Russia on matters arguably more critical to U.S. interests than Ukraine, including Iran, Syria and China; the lip-service sanctions that are tantamount to spitting on a tank. In my view, opposition to Obama on the Russia/Ukraine issue reflects a commitment to democracy, international law and pragmatism.
But here's how the perverted logic of some critics works: Any analytical position that results in disagreement with Obama when Russian President Vladimir Putin happens to be on the other side of the debate means that you're a commie or a commie sympathizer.
Except that there's a problem with that theory, and with all the hyperventilating over this new Red Scare: Russia isn't the Soviet Union, and Vladimir Putin isn't Vladimir Lenin.
Much like Socialist President Francois Hollande in France, Putin is largely a pragmatist. Is there corruption in Russia? No doubt. And the country is still in a post-communism transition state that may last for decades. France, for example, still hasn't emerged from the old monarchy mentality. The only real difference between the French monarchy and the republic that replaced it is that now the country elects its kings. The same class system still exists, with average citizens still expecting the state to provide for them. There is, however, a shift consisting mostly of independent businesspeople and entrepreneurs seeking freedom from the status quo, but it's a slow, painstaking process -- about 200 years and counting.
By contrast, Russia has only had about 20 years to work on reforming its entire economic and social fabric. It's easy to forget that the Berlin Wall, symbolizing the fall of communism in Europe, only came down in 1989. In this age of instantaneousness, it's all too easy to forget that the fabric of a superpower can't be rewoven overnight.
The most encouraging sign is that Putin is a proponent of tax reduction, having reduced the personal income tax rate to a flat 13 percent, with businesses taxed at 20 percent. It's hardly Texas, but it's a start.
It will likely take a great deal of time -- decades or even centuries -- for a nation of over 143 million people to be fully deprogrammed and begin to appreciate the direct link between work and profit.
Is Putin "rebuilding" the old Soviet bloc and Russia's global influence? Yes, he's trying, but through economic partnerships and trade relationships rather than force. Which is exactly what we in the West have always wanted for Russia, isn't it?
The Russians are finally playing our game now -- our capitalist, global free-market game -- and it appears that some people are simply upset that Russia isn't always keen to play ball with us strictly on our terms.