By the time the second World Trade Center tower collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, the whole world was watching it. We may assume that Vladimir Putin was watching. Mr. Putin, a quick calculator of political realities, would see that someone was going to get hit for this, and hit hard.
He was right of course. The Bush presidency became a war presidency that day, and it pounded and pursued the Islamic fundamentalists of al Qaeda without let-up or apology.
During that time, it was reported that Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer in East Germany, deeply regretted the fall of the Soviet Union's empire and despised the Americans who caused it to fall. But no one cared what Mr. Putin thought then. Russia's power was a sliver of its former size. Besides, Mr. Putin's hurt was salved with the limitless personal wealth that flowed from doing business with the West. Conventional wisdom clicked in easily: Capitalism's surplus was enough to sate any rational autocrat.
Sometime in the first Obama term, opinion polls began to report that the American people were experiencing what media shorthand came to call "fatigue" with the affairs of the world. The U.S. should "mind its own business." The America-is-fatigued polling fit with Mr. Obama's stated goal to lead from behind. A close observer of American politics also could notice that Republican politicians, the presumptive heirs of Reagan, began to recalibrate their worldview inward to accommodate the "fatigue" in the opinion polls.
We are of course discussing Vladimir Putin's path to the forced annexation of Crimea. And possibly in time a move on the independence of Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan or Moldova. This narrative has one more point of Putin demarcation: Syria.
Last September, every foreign chancery in the world concluded that the United States would bomb Bashar Assad's airfields with Tomahawk missiles in reprisal for killing nearly 1,500 Syrians with chemical weapons, including sarin gas. Vladimir Putin placed a bet. He suggested to the American president that in lieu of the U.S. bombing Assad's airfields, their two nations, in concert, could remove all of Syria's chemical weapons. Mr. Obama accepted and stood down from bombing Assad. Six months later Vladimir Putin invaded and annexed Crimea.
This moment is not about Barack Obama. By now we know about him. This is about Vladimir Putin and the self-delusions of Western nations and their famous "fatigue." Vladimir Putin is teaching the West and especially the United States that fatigue is not an option.
Sometimes world affairs go off the grid. Diplomats may give reasons why it is not in the interests of Mr. Putin or Russia to take this course. Vice President Biden told the Poles in Warsaw Monday that Mr. Putin's seizure of Crimea was "flawed logic." It is difficult for men embedded in a world of rational affairs to come to grips with Mr. Putin's point of view: He doesn't care what they think.
The solitary but thrilling world of Vladimir Putin's mind is the one inhabited by the Assads, Saddams, bin Ladens, Kims, Gadhafis and Khomeinis of the world, and when it really runs out of control, or is allowed to, by a Stalin, Hitler, or Mao. Whether one man's grandiosity will burst across borders is not about normal logic. It is about personal power and forcing the obeisance of other nations.
Vladimir Putin re-proves that sometimes a bad person gains control of the instruments of national power. Their populations do nothing or can't, because they are disarmed by thugs with overwhelming firepower. Or, as on Russian TV now, they are marinated in anti-U.S. propaganda. Today even second-rate megalomaniacs gain access to high-tech weaponry, including missiles and nuclear bombs.
Running alongside these old realities is a new phenomenon, surely noticed by Mr. Putin: The nations of the civilized world have decided their most pressing concern is income inequality. Barack Obama says so, as does the International Monetary Fund. Western Europe amid the Ukraine crisis is a case study of nations redistributing themselves and perhaps NATO into impotence.
Because no modern Democrat can be credible on this, some Republican presidential candidate will have to explain the high price of America's fatigue. Fatigue will allow global disorder to displace 60 years of democratic order. If the U.S. doesn't lead, the strongmen win because for them it's easier. They don't lead people; they coerce them. Ask the millions free for now in the old countries of the Iron Curtain.