The “Tough Guy” Debate

When Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin absconded with Crimea, Fareed Zakaria (Time magazine and CNN) analyzed the Washington political debate about how to handle Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine under the title, “Enough of the tough guy debate.” In his article, Zakaria noted “Many Republicans are arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened in the Crimea region of Ukraine because of President Barack Obama’s weakness. Putin saw that Obama didn’t want to go to war in Syria, for example, and this emboldened Putin.”

Zakaria points out, however, that President George W. Bush “invaded Afghanistan and Iraq for good measure (and, in the latter case, defying massive international pressure and opposition). And yet, Putin invaded Georgia… he sent in Russian tanks roaring into Georgia and – without any referendums – simply annexed two pieces of that country.” Apparently, Bush’s toughness didn’t deter Putin.

When tough isn’t enough

Once again, with Iraq falling, the accusation is that Obama has not been tough enough. Beyond the fact that toughness may not deter foreign aggression—and in the case of Iraq any form of military intervention, will probably be useless and counter-productive—what’s important to see is that those who currently throw out accusations of inadequate toughness are playing the same game as Putin. Win with toughness. Bully your way into getting what you want.

Like adolescents, Putin and those criticizing Obama seek to out-tough the other guy. I associate this peacock-like strutting with a grandiose form of masculinity that my colleague Randy Flood and I discuss in Mascupathy: Understanding and Healing the Malaise of American Manhood.

Ending the “who’s the toughest?” debate

In so many ways, human beings have grown more self-aware, and therefore more able to manage their behavior. In many situations, they’ve become less self-aggrandizing and more compassionate. But in matters of state, where we should expect the best, we continue to find the worst characteristics of aggression and violence.

Whether it’s played by ragamuffins on tree-lined suburban streets, gangs in the inner city, or suited hooligans in the halls of Congress, the game of “who’s the toughest” is not sustainable. And, when it comes to issues of war and peace, it can be deadly. It is my hope that by identifying and explaining the reasons behind the “tough guy debate” we can help change the conversation of aggression and violence to one of diplomacy and conciliation.

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