Weeks after Russia seized Crimea, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinScarborough says he'll never return to Republican Party after GOP supported Trump Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? Russian vessel threatens to ram US warship in disputed waters in Sea of Japan MORE continued to insist that Russia hadn't seized Crimea. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom Putin had enjoyed a reasonably good relationship, finally despaired of convincing him to back down.

"He's in another world," Merkel reportedly told President Obama.

Merkel was wrong. Putin is very much in this world and doing quite well. So are radical Islamists, as they reminded us again with the Charlie Hebdo atrocities. It is Western leaders who seem to be living in another world.


Putin resorted to force in annexing Crimea and turning much of eastern Ukraine into an ungovernable mess. He calculated that we would not respond militarily. He was correct. We undertook economic sanctions, hoping he would relent. He has not, despite a collapse in oil prices that has given the sanctions unexpected bite.

We also are hoping against hope that conducting airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and outsourcing ground combat to Shiite militia, Kurdish terrorists, Sunni tribesmen, the Iranian military and "vetted" Syrian moderates will destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and bring stability to the region. Again, it is we who seem to be in another world.

But our greatest deficit lies in the fact that Putin and the Islamists understand us far better than we understand them. They have read our books, watched our movies, followed our politics. They know our vulnerabilities and strengths, our military capabilities and our aversion to using them. This knowledge informs their strategies.

Our strategies, on the other hand, are often grounded more in illusion than fact, less on understanding who our opponents are than on who we imagine them to be.

That lack of understanding is evident in our insistence that Islamists are not practicing Islam. Obama typified this last summer after ISIS terrorists beheaded American journalist James Foley, declaring that the terrorist group "speaks for no religion."

In reality, the religion of Islam motivates everything ISIS does. Their understanding of the faith may in fact be defective, but the president is in no position to make that judgment or to instruct them in Islamic doctrine. What he really is saying is that the Koran cannot possibly teach things that we Westerners find abhorrent. That is not only condescending and insulting, it is also ineffectual. ISIS and its growing legion of adherents will not change their interpretation of their holy books because Obama finds it offensive.

That lack of understanding also manifests itself in the habit of referring to Islamists as "Muslim fundamentalists." Fundamentalism is a Christian movement that arose in the U.S. in the early 20th century. It reasserted faith in ancient Christian teachings ("fundamentals"), like the deity of Jesus Christ and the notion that his death atoned for the sins of the world, beliefs that had been diluted or abandoned in many Protestant pulpits. It is safe to say that no Muslim embraces these doctrines.

Those who use the term "Muslim fundamentalist" are superimposing their faulty and disparaging conception of Christian fundamentalists on certain Muslims, whom they understand even less. The formulation is a shorthand that arises from their own prejudices and intellectual torpor.

Perhaps Western leaders routinely declare that terrorist acts by Islamists violate Islamic teaching in order to dissuade their own populations from taking retribution against their Muslim neighbors. If so, they are condescending to us, rather than to Muslims, regarding their own constituents as bigoted, small-minded and prone to vendetta.

Whatever their motivation and however their condescension is directed, their pronouncements disclose a deeper deficiency among Western leaders: their inability to understand those they regard as enemies.

This lack of understanding is a choice. We can't be bothered with reading the Hamas Charter or Putin's speeches. And if we do, we dismiss them as ravings that no one could possibly find credible, although hundreds of millions of people evidently do. We don't take their beliefs or motivations seriously and therefore can't make sense of Putin's popularity or the eagerness of young Muslims to slaughter French cartoonists.

Dismissing them as crazy, as being "in another world," or having "no place in the 21st century" keeps us comfortable in our ignorance and confident in our poorly conceived strategies.

Putin and the Islamists have assumed prominent places in the 21st century. Western leaders need to adapt to that fact, arrive at a better understanding of how it came about and devise strategies rooted in reality, not in lazy misconceptions.

Badger was formerly deputy assistant to the president for legislative affairs, where he helped formulate the George W. Bush administration's policy and legislative strategy.