Commentary: The real reason Washington calls Putin a thug

There is a near-certainty in American political speech, going back to the 1980s: When a senior United States official labels you a thug, trouble follows. “Thug” is the safest go-to word in the lexicon of American Exceptionalism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, shown here at the commemoration of a Russian chapel in Vrsic, Slovenia. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic

So, it is with concern that folks are lining up at the mic to call Russian President Vladimir Putin just that. President Obama called him a “thug,” as did presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, who added “gangster” for good measure. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan's spokesperson found fault with Putin and his whole nation, even adding an adjective: "Russia is a global menace led by a DEVIOUS thug." One rarely hears ruffian, hooligan, vandal, hoodlum or villain, but watch out for thug.

While throwing the term at Putin is tied to the weak public evidence supposedly linking Russian government hacker(s) to the Democratic National Committee computer breach, there may be larger issues in the background.

It seems the word “thug” is a sort of dog whistle that when blown signals Americans and their media to psyche up for a new fight. For example:

Secretary of State John Kerry on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: "A thug and murderer." Kerry also said, "Daesh [Islamic State] is in fact nothing more than a mixture of killers, of kidnappers, of criminals, of thugs ...”

Then-President George W. Bush on al Qaeda: "If we let down our guard against this group of thugs, they will hurt us again." Bush also thought Saddam Hussein was a thug.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on Muammar Gaddafi: "Look, everybody understands Gaddafi is a thug and murderer."

Madeleine Albright found thugs in Somalia and the Balkans for the wars of her era as secretary of state.

But why Putin, and why now? Perhaps what we’re seeing is preparation for the next iteration of America’s perpetual state of war.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War ("the end of history," as Francis Fukuyama, called it), there was no global enemy for America to face down. No big nasty to spur weapons procurement, to justify a huge standing military with hundreds of bases around the world or to pick fights with to allow a president down in the polls to morph into a superhero.

A lot of people had a lot of power and money in play that demanded some real bad guys. An attempt was made in the 1980s to make drug lords the new major threat, but they were too few in number to sustain the media campaign. Following 9/11, the bad guys were “the terrorists.” The George W. Bush administration riffed off that theme in appointing Saddam Hussein as a weapons-of-mass-destruction threat and in tagging Iran and North Korea as members of an “axis of evil.”

Saddam Hussein turned out to be a bust, and the war in Iraq was ultimately very unpopular. Osama bin Laden never launched a second attack on the United States, and the Taliban were dragged down by a war that seemed to lose its focus after 15 years. Iran and North Korea make a lot of noise but never seemed able to do real harm to America. The United States made a good-faith effort trying to label all sorts of others – Gaddafi, Assad, Islamic State – as global enemies worthy of perpetual war, but the Middle East in general has turned into a quagmire. America likes a winner, or at least the appearance of winning.

Ahead of the next administration, Washington really needs an arch enemy, a poster-child kind of guy who looks like a James Bond villain. And preferably one with nuclear weapons he’ll brandish but never use.

Enter Putin the Thug.

Americans are already well-prepared by the old Cold War to see Russia again as an evil empire, and Putin does look the part. The Russians are involved in Syria’s civil war, so there is some sense of continuity. A new Cold War with Russia would require America to buy more expensive military hardware, plus discover new areas of Europe, like the Baltic states, to garrison. It might even breathe new life into a North Atlantic Treaty Organization that is confused about its role vis-a-vis terrorism.

For politicians, ceaselessly shouting about the Muslim threat has proved to have downsides: It has inflamed many Muslims, perhaps pushing them toward radicalization. In addition, it turns out there are Muslim voters in the United States, and people who respect Muslims. The Kahn family’s moving speech to the Democratic National Convention about the death of their soldier son was proof of that.

On the other hand, Putin doesn’t vote, only a handful of far leftists think he’s a good guy, and he can be slapped around in sound bites without risk that he will actually launch a war against the United States. Why, he can even be accused, without penalty, of meddling in our democratic processes.

Putin the Thug is a political-military-industrial-complex dream candidate. Expect him to feature heavily in the next administration’s foreign policy.

Peter Van Buren, who served in the State Department for 24 years, is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” a look at the waste and mismanagement of the Iraqi reconstruction. His latest book is “Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.” He is on Twitter @WeMeantWell

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.