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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

George and Vladimir Yawn at Democracy

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At first blush, there is little similarity between the diligent ex-KGB foreign intelligence officer who rules Russia and the blue-blooded scion of a political family who rules the United States. And yet, when George W. Bush declared in 2001 that he got a sense of Vladimir Putin's soul by looking "the man in the eye," it rang strangely true. There actually are close parallels between the men who, at the start of the new millennium, stumbled upon the presidencies of the two former Cold War rivals.

Both are accidental rulers. Putin was chosen almost at random by a coterie of rich oligarchs and Kremlin insiders. Bush, although born with a silver spoon in his mouth, was so lacking in experience and intellectual depth that even his own family never hoped to see this particular Bush in the White House. In fact, it took a Florida recount and a Supreme Court ruling to make him the leader of the free world.

Vladimir Vladimirovich and George Georgevich came to power around the age of 50 and both as exceptions to the rule that modern democratic political leaders typically rise to power through party ranks.

Bush and Putin didn't have to pay their dues, and thus failed to learn about compromise and realism -- qualities that make politics, in Bismarck's famous words, "the art of the possible." As a result, the two presidents have introduced something that had been pleasantly absent from great power politics for several decades -- namely, the private vendetta.

In Putin's Russia, there has been a strong personal element in the Kremlin's attack on Yukos, with its determined hounding of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his associates even after their company and freedom have been taken away from them. More recently, we have been treated to an even more blatant display of Putin's vengefulness and spite. The Russian leader clearly felt dissed when his attempt to get Viktor Yanukovych elected Ukrainian president was insolently spurned. He then spent last year brooding over ways to get back at Ukraine, the result of which was the early January gas crisis.

But Russia at least lacks democratic tradition and boasts instead of a long list of willful autocrats. It is far more disconcerting to see American policy governed by the whim of the president. Nearly three years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the conclusion seems inescapable. For all the neoconservative geopolitical conceits and the need to control Iraq's oil, the fateful decision to invade was ultimately pivoted on Bush's private vendetta against Saddam Hussein, the guy who "tried to kill my dad."

In the United States, this kind of privatization of national policy is wholly unprecedented. The framers of the Constitution were wary of all forms of militarism and tried to ensure that if the United States were forced to go to war, it did so under duress and for a very good reason. The perils of Bush's dynastic adventurism have been revealed promptly. Bogged down in an unnecessary war in Iraq, Washington no longer presents a credible threat to Iran, a country with a radical ideology and dangerous nuclear ambitions.

More to the point, Putin and Bush have shown with their privately driven policy initiatives that the world's two nuclear superpowers have become bored with the democratic process -- Russia after only a decade, the United States after 230 years. An institutional vacuum has developed in both countries. After what we have seen in recent years, the emergence of a real, far more dangerous dictator or a world-class adventurer can no longer be ruled out either in the Kremlin or -- far more troubling -- in the White House.

Alexei Bayer, a former Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.