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Putin a 2nd Tier Thinker?

Has Vladimir Putin just revealed himself on the global stage this week to be a world-class statesman? While a number of American commentators seem to have taken offence at Putin’s letter to the American people in Thursday’s New York Post yesterday, around the world other commentators, such as Der Spiegel’s Uwe Klussmann, postulate that Putin is saying what others around the world actually think.

Already the Internet is alive with discussion of who seems the more reasonable, assured and statesmanlike: Putin or Barack Obama… with many people coming down clearly on Putin’s side. Obama might have argued in his televised speech on Tuesday evening that what makes the United States ‘exceptional’ is its resolve to intervene in the truly horrible…but Putin’s riposte that no one has the right to consider themselves that much more exceptional than others is hard to beat. From an Integrated SocioPsychology perspective, Obama’s argument comes from a vMEME harmonic of BLUE nationalism and ORANGE status-seeking; Putin’s more complex argument comes from the GREEN vMEME and possibly beyond.

Back in February 2009 I posited whether Obama [was] a 2nd Tier thinker. Despite the huge sense of optimism in much of the world at his election, within weeks I wasn’t impressed that he was doing 2nd Tier thinking and it looks to me like events have rather borne out my reservations.

For all his undoubted ability to lift many Americans (however briefly!) to loftier sentiments with his folksy and inclusive charm, Obama has proved a largely ineffective president. On the domestic front, the economy stubbornly refuses to do more than sputter while his healthcare policies provoked unbelievably bitter divisions across American society. The president’s foreign policies are even more of a mess. Guantánamo Bay is still open, the American withdrawal from Iraq has left the country rumbling on the verge of an all-out Shia-Sunni civil war, American soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan,  billions of US$ fund the Egyptian military as it massacres protestors in Cairo and the Israel-Palestine quagmire is as bogged down as ever. But it is arguably over Syria that Obama’s notorious tendency to prevarication has been most damaging.

Many rebels foolish enough to dream the West would fly to save them in the way those French jets halted Muammar Gaddafi’s rag-tag army at the gates of Benghazi in March 2011 have been let down by a reluctance to provide meaningful support. Desperate men, seeing their comrades slaughtered in an unequal fight and hearing endless tales of torture, rape and murder – and watching some of it on YouTube! – have taken desperate means, welcoming the Islamist jihadis as their allies (however reluctantly). Funded and trained by the Saudis, the jihadists looked for a while as if they might turn the war their way. But the more the jihadists came to dominate the Syrian opposition, the less the West was keen on a revolution they never really wanted anyway.

Several minor instances of apparent chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime were treated by Obama as not proven unequivocally to have crossed the ‘red line’ he laid down in August 2012. Reports – eg: Damien McElroy in the Daily Telegraph – that the United Nations were accusing the rebels of using chemical weapons only served to further muddy the waters and provide yet another excuse for inaction.   Obama comes across as mildly introverted and perhaps a little neuroticist. Though there must be strong RED in his selfplex for him to assert himself as a politician – he clearly is very determined! – the BLUE vMEME would find a comfortable home in such a temperament and this accords with the president’s cautious approach to almost every issue, running Detail Conscious and Move-Away-From meta-programmes.

He is undoubtedly well-meaning and may be as sincere as an American politician can get; but he seems to be driven more, generally speaking, by a vMEME harmonic of ORANGE and GREEN than having a real 2nd Tier insight.

Looking at what Putin has done over the past week or so, the question may better be posed as to whether it is the Russian president who is accessing 2nd Tier thinking.

Obama and Kerry – a tale of reticence and assertiveness T
It’s probably true that Putin has saved Obama from his own ‘red line’ trap.

While Obama could fudge over previous minor uses of chemical weapons in Syria, Ghouta on 21 August could not be ignored. The body count was too high. The rush of videos posted on YouTube and similar sites were too graphic and too disturbing.

Obama’s first typically, instinctive response, as Erika Solomon reports, was to hold off from a knee-jerk reaction, saying:  “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”  

Within a week, Paul Lewis & Spencer Ackerman (2013b) (among others) were reporting the high-profile press conference in Washington DC at which secretary of state John Kerry announced: “History will judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turn a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction.” He advocated “limited and tailored response that a despot’s flagrant use of chemical weapons will be held responsible”.

It was a move that trapped Obama on his infamous ‘red line’. From that point on, Obama had no choice other than to act tough…and all too much it looked like it was Kerry, rather than the president, who was driving the campaign for a missile strike.

It seems that a RED/ORANGE vMEME harmonic has run Kerry’s selfplex for the past few weeks. Manning up Obama to keep to his ‘red line’ declaration on chemical weapons use – and thus walking the president into the very trap he had made for himself– must have seemed like a great idea when the videos of Ghouta began appearing on YouTube.

Clearly it took a lot of RED energy for Kerry to have picked himself up from the lacklustre presidential campaign of 2004 and eventually reinvent himself as Obama’s right-hand man…but his ORANGE ambition is strong and he has played the game – even to the point of role-playing Mitch Romney when Obama was rehearsing for the 2012 televised presidential campaign debates. Still he had to wait for Hilary Clinton to have her shot at being secretary of state before his turn came. Clinton didn’t exactly achieve much but at least she achieved very little with undeniable style – a certain pizzazz. By comparison Kerry, returning from yet another of his failed attempts to get the Israelis and the Palestinians talking to each other, seemed dull, boring and uninspiring.

Then Ghoutta gave him his moment – and he rose to it!

I’ve talked about Kerry’s RED and ORANGE motivations but it may also be pertinent to speculate about the influence his temperament may have on his thinking. He shows signs of compulsiveness and ruthlessness that may well indicate he is significantly psychoticist.

His compulsion to pursue his ‘great idea’ – the missile strike on Syria – seems to ignore the obvious fact that there is, as yet, no incontrovertible proof that the Syrian regime – and Bashar al-Assad in person – were directly responsible for the chemical weapons attack on Ghoutta.

Yes, the Israelis have an intercept of a telephone conversation between middle-ranking officers implying chemical weapons are about to be used. Yes, the Americans have evidence of some government soldiers in East Damascus putting on gas masks immediately before the attack commenced. That’s still a long way from having incontrovertible evidence that the Syrian regime ordered the attack. Peter Weber and others have reported a theory, based on German intelligence reports, that Ghoutta was ordered by a middle-ranking soldier against the wishes of Assad and his top ministers who, reputedly, have refused several requests from commanders on the ground to use chemical weapons.

Unravelling the mystery of who ordered Ghoutta is made even harder by various stories circulating, some with real credibility, that lend support to Assad’s claim that the rebels instigated a ‘false flag’ attack to so horrify Western countries that they would be forced into a response via public and media pressure. (This argument is discussed in more detail in Chemical Weapons: escaping Obama’s Trap.) One recent claim along these lines, reported by the Voltaire Network, has it that at least some of the children in the Ghoutta videos were, in fact, Alawites kidnapped from their village by jihadists and now recognised on YouTube and elsewhere by their grief-stricken parents. The Voltaire Network report raises queries about the timing of some of the videos being posted, notes inconsistencies in the symptoms presented compared with the  usual symptoms from sarin poisoning and asks why the medical staff  in these videos weren’t wearing any protective clothing or showing any concern for their own wellbeing when in contact with those (supposedly) suffering from nerve agent poisoning.

Short of the UN weapons inspectors’ report (due Monday 16th) pointing the finger, it may take months or even years before there is incontrovertible proof about Ghoutta.

None of these queries and uncertainties seem to trouble Kerry. He says it is ‘common sense’ that culpability must lie with the regime.

But no court of law in the modern Western world would try someone for murder and then sentence them to death on the basis of ‘common sense’. Incontrovertible proof would be required. Yet John Kerry would sentence hundreds, if not thousands of people to death on the basis of ‘common sense’.

The nonchalance and ruthlessness with which he has pursued this unwavering determination would seem an indication of Psychoticism.

The Russians to the rescue!
You could believe it was a stitch-up.

On Monday morning (10th), at a joint press conference with William Hague at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, when asked what Assad could do to avoid military action against Syrian military targets, Kerry said: “He can turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week…. He isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.”

Within hours Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his Syrian opposite number Walid al-Moallem were holding their own press conference in Moscow announcing Syria’s acceptance of a Russian proposal to put the country’s chemical weapons under UN control and to be destroyed under UN supervision.

First impressions were that the Russians had acted spontaneously on Kerry’s remark – reportedly described as a ‘major goof’ by one administration official, according to the Daily Mail (James Chapman & Tamara Cohen) – and managed to pull off the deal of the decade by getting the Syrians not only stop denying they had chemical weapons but to agree to hand them over to the UN.

All of a sudden Kerry’s relentless drive for a military strike looked pointless. They Syrians were going to give up the chemical weapons anyway. They were even talking about signing up to the Chemical Weapons Convention (which they have now applied to).

On later broadcasts on Monday Kerry had the air of an 8-year-old who’s had his favourite war toy snatched off him. To compound his misery, Putin stated that he and Obama had discussed this possibility in a private meeting at last week’s G20. Kerry refuted that any such discussions had taken place. On Wednesday both Putin and Obama separately revealed that they had been discussing such a move from before the G20.

Not only did Kerry look seriously wrong-footed. He looked like a man his president had difficulty trusting when Obama stated that Kerry would meet Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday while “I will continue my own discussions with President Putin.”

Effectively Putin rescued Obama.

The American president had already found a way to stall Kerry’s rush to missile strike by taking inspiration from the UK Parliament’s rejection of David Cameron’s desire to join in a military strike against Syria – see: Cameron: “I get that!” (Or does he?). A couple of days after Parliament’s decision Obama announced his intention to have Congress debate and vote on the matter when they returned to Capitol Hill from the Summer.

This time around Obama out-manoeuvred Kerry. The missile strike had to wait until the 2 houses of Congress gave their approval. In the gap, as Kerry (enthusiastically) and Obama (reluctantly) made the case for a strike, the American public consistently polled against military action and Representatives queued up to tell interviewers why they wouldn’t be voting Obama’s way. It even began to look doubtful the Senate would support the Government.

Though technically, like Cameron in Britain, Obama could still carry out a strike without approval from the legislature,  a No vote would have robbed him of what little moral certitude he could claim for military action. However, while a No vote might have stopped the missiles being launched, it would have left Obama damaged, a ‘lame duck’ president 2 years before second-term presidents usually give up and coast through their last days in the White House.

With theatrical near-last-minute timing, the Russians, like the 7th Cavalry in those old Western movies, rode over the hill to rescue Obama and neutralise Kerry with the Chemical Weapons Convention deal.

If the basic plan was agreed between Obama and Kerry at the G20 or even earlier, you have to wonder how Obama implanted the surrender-the-chemical-weapons notion in Kerry’s head. I imagine a private conversation between them the day before Kerry flew to Europe: “You know, John, even if Assad were to offer us giving up the CW to the UN, he isn’t going to be able to do that in the week it’s going to take Congress to come around to our way of thinking. Not a chance!”

The Russians and making a plan work
Putin has revealed himself to be a master manipulator over the past few weeks. Now he is able to portray himself as the ‘great peacemaker’, with Obama in his debt and without losing any weapon sales to the Syrian Government.

He tore a hole in the American arguments on 31 August when he called Obama and Kerry “simply disrespectful” for not presenting to the UN their evidence pointing to Assad being responsible for Ghoutta. “If there is evidence it should be shown. If it is not shown, then there isn’t any,” he said.

The Americans, of course, didn’t take their case to the UN, leaving the unspoken assumption in the air that their evidence wasn’t good enough to withstand rigorous scrutiny…and Putin with the moral high ground. Either Putin knew the weakness of the American evidence for certain or he is one hell of a poker player. All it needed was for the Americans to agree to present their evidence to the Security Council, advised by an independent panel of military and chemical weapons experts, on condition that the Russians would agree to be bound by the conclusions reached…and it would have been the Americans taking the moral high ground.


Now, not only are the Russians able to get Assad to agree to giving up the chemical weapons but there is talk coming out of the Kerry-Lavrov meetings of reviving the wider peace process. Sergei Lavrov is a wily and experienced negotiator and Kerry will struggle to counter the Russian’s moves. However, from looking at the ITN video (above) of their conference yesterday, it looks like perhaps Kerry’s ORANGE recognises the way things are going and that it may be better for him to go with the new flow rather than bang on about a missile strike. Everyone knows – even if Assad won’t admit it – that it is the threat of a missile strike which has galvanised the Russians into doing something about the Syrian crisis before there is another and possibly worse atrocity. (While Ghoutta failed to stir Western public opinion up enough to risk the potential consequences of a missile strike, no one could guarantee that another, worse atrocity might not arouse public anger so much up, a missile strike might become acceptable.)

At least Kerry seems to have lost the spoilt child look of Monday evening!

There is, of course, an inevitability to the Kerry-Lavrov negotiations having to take in a wider perspective on Syria. As many commentators have pointed out – eg: Jonathan Marcus (2013b) – there are considerable practical and logistical difficulties in searching for and destroying chemical weapons – even in a relatively stable environment such as pre-invasion Iraq. Take on that job in a hot, undisciplined, brutal and bloody civil war, with almost daily war crimes and atrocities…well, the possibilities of it going wrong are almost endless as well as inevitable. A sardonic joke on Facebook this week had it that the worst job in 2014 would be a weapons inspector…but it would be the most frequently-occurring job vacancy!

Let’s be honest: weapons inspectors will get shot at – they were in Damascus earlier this month! – and there is a very high risk of one or more of them getting killed. Or kidnapped and tortured…and then killed. As the Russians influence Assad and the Syrian army has at least a semblance of discipline, the weapons inspectors will probably be more at risk from the rebels – especially the jihadists whom no one really controls.

As I advocated in Chemical Weapons: escaping Obama’s Trap, the Americans and the Russians really need to close down the civil war via a joint invasion force. How else, will the safety of the weapons inspectors be assured and the location and destruction of all the chemical weapons ensured. One can but hope that Obama/Kerry and Putin/Lavrov can see this in advance, rather than being driven into it piecemeal over the coming year as more and more weapons inspectors are kidnapped and/or killed.

Vladimir Putin: world-class statesman?
As for Putin, his machinations over the past few weeks, may have shown an extraordinary and very complex level of thinking – 2nd Tier? – with a real ability both to understand other key players’ values and to anticipate their plays.   Yet in the West Putin is often labelled a ‘tyrant’ who manipulates elections and constitutional matters to perpetuate his hold on power. Political and business foes – such as Alexey Navalny – have been found guilty in courts that more resembled the show trials of the Soviet era than a courtroom in a modern Western-style Democracy.

Some will look at Putin’s domestic policies and say how could such a tyrant possibly be a 2nd Tier thinker? Yet Spiral Dynamics and the Clare W Graves research on which it is founded allow that different vMEMES will dominate in the selfplex according to the life conditions being experienced. In the domestic context Putin perceives that it is in his and Russia’s interests for him to have an effective monopoly on power. In the global context Putin perceives that Russia has to find a balance between supporting its only real friend in the Middle East, Assad’s Syria, and getting support around the world, including the USA and, according to Uwe Klussmann, even Israel, to combat globally the jihadists, some of whom are actually threatening moderate Muslim states on Russia’s borders.

As I write, Putin has proved quite a success as a world statesman – so far, at least! – but the Syrian crisis is far from over and there are many implications to be worked through from how ever it is eventually resolved, for both the Middle East and the larger world beyond the region.

12 years ago I thought Tony Blair had the makings of a world-class statesman in the way he travelled the world, quoting the Qur’an, to persuade Muslim leaders to at least not oppose the American invasion of Afghanistan. But then he slavishly allied himself to George W Bush, resulting in the Iraq debacle….

Now Putin appears to be developing psychologically at an astounding rate and taking on at least some of the qualities of a world-class statesman.

It’s a long time since we had a true world-class statesman: Nelson Mandela at his prime in the early-mid-1990s.

But Putin is going to have to reconcile the way he works domestically with the way he seems suddenly to be working internationally. Spiral Dynamics might anticipate it but, because of the way the Western media works – and Putin is going to have to educate himself in this respect – he simply cannot be a tyrant in Russia and a respected statesman on the global stage. Driven by RED short-termalism and ORANGE’s desire to earn profit, the Western media will rake over and expose every negative aspect of Putin they can.

It suddenly seems Vladimir Putin has the potential to make a very positive difference in the world…but he needs to clean up and clean out his own house as well as telling others how to clean up theirs. It would be a shame if Putin became another Blair, the great statesman who never was.



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  1. Peter Fryer says


    Suggesting Putin as a second tier thinker is coming on a bit strong. He is a wily old bird who has got to where he is by deploying street cunning and being smarter and more street wise than his opposition. Whereas Obama got to where he is by the good old American way – money helped by a spot on gift of powerful rhetoric, unfortunately he is not so gifted at taking decisions.
    Putin is very quick witted and spotted an opportunity and exploited it brilliantly – a man to be very wary of, but if he can pull this one off good luck to him and all the rest of us!

    Keep on thinking – Peter