We really are in a scary time when Donald Trump begins to sound like a foreign-policy realist. Scary or not, we should give him a little credit for forcing Russia into the 2016 presidential campaign. Vladimir Putin started this latest episode by appearing to speak approvingly of Trump during his year-end press conference. Trump's rivals promptly pressured him to repudiate Putin's praise; as yet, Trump has seen no reason to do so. On the Morning Joe program on MSNBC Joe Scarborough increased the pressure, urging Trump to recognize that Putin was a bad man. As a rule, it seems, Trump likes people who like him, but did he want the approval, and thus did he approve, of a leader who has, in Scarborough's words, killed journalists? Trump's answer was a Rorschach blot of laconic understatement: "Our country does plenty of killing, also." This was cold-blood cynicism, moral blindness, or something else. Was Trump saying that the U.S. also killed journalists? Was he equating the killing of enemies in war with the killing of journalists in one's own country? Over the last weekend Trump clarified, explaining that the killing of journalists is abhorrent, but that he's seen no evidence directly linking Putin to the several high-profile killings of Russian journalists. That put the ball back in Scarborough's court, where today he took his anger out on Katrina vanden Heuval, the editor of the Nation magazine, who chided him for turning a discussion about Russia into a discussion about Trump. Scarborough pressured her to affirm or deny that Putin was responsible for the murder of journalists. Even after she stated her position with apparent clarity -- there's no evidence that Putin ordered anyone killed, but his authoritarian policies have created a climate in which reporters can be killed with seeming impunity -- Scarborough badgered her to answer his question, his own position, perhaps modified on the spot, being that Putin was essentially responsible for those killings regardless of whether any smoking gun is ever found.
There are people who want to deal with Putin, it seems, and people who do not. If Trump is one of the former it's one of his few good points. Scarborough seems to believe that no good can come from working with Putin, and that the friendliness toward Putin that Trump expresses is ill becoming a Leader of the Free World. Scarborough speaks for many in both major parties when he lashes into Trump on this issue. That's because we have virtually a bipartisan consensus that, as an "authoritarian" leader, Putin cannot contribute to the stabilization, much less the democratization, of the Middle East. Part of this consensus is the premise that Syria's authoritarian government is a necessary if not sufficient cause of the Syrian civil war, which follows from a more general premise that authoritarian leadership is a destabilizing force everywhere on Earth. Why should this be if authoritarians are dedicated, presumably, to order above all else? The consensus answer is that authoritarians are bullies with limitless ambition, constantly pushing the limits of what they can get away with globally before someone smacks them. From this perspective, Bashar Assad is not a force for order in Syria but a disruptive force in the Middle East, as proven by his alliance with Iran and his hostility toward Israel, while Putin is less a force for order even in his own region than a disruptive threat to other nations' sovereignty and other people's freedom. This answer could be expanded upon, though I'm not sure whether anyone in the consensus would care to do so, by arguing that authoritarianism results in instability because it invites insurrections that are a human right of their oppressed perpetrators. In other words, authoritarians destabilize the world because anti-authoritarians are always fighting them. If this is a fallacy, the corrective cannot be to counsel unconditional obedience to rulers everywhere on Earth, since power always can be abused and people must be able to do something when it is abused. It would be more correct to say that other countries have no business waging war by proxy on authoritarian states, especially considering the consequences apparent in the Middle East. If that means propping up authoritarians against multinational terrorism, so be it, with nose held if necessary. Donald Trump might not even hold his nose, but in this case we shouldn't hold that against him.