A funny thing happened when I opened my copy of the New York Times today. Well, actually, that’s not quite true: I, like so many Americans, rarely buy a printed version of the Times or any other newspaper. Instead, I squeeze what I can out of the handful of free articles I can read online each month. Apparently, I’m just too cheap to reward journalists monetarily for the fruits of their labors. (However, I am happy to reciprocate by making my own articles available free of any fees or advertisements!)
As I was saying, I opened up the New York Times app on my phone and viewed a most interesting op-ed by none other than Russian President “Vladimir V. Putin”. (The “V” stands for Vladimirovich, a middle name that more than makes up for its redundancy with its ease of memorization.) The headline reads “A Plea for Caution from Russia” and there is an image of a blackened hand with two black stripes running across it.
I have tried to discern what kind of symbolism the Times was going for with this picture: Russians’ palms are as black as their hearts? Russians really support equal rights for gays despite recently passing discriminatory legislation? All the soot from Beijing has finally made its way to Moscow? But I digress…
I’m not letting the byline fool me – in all likelihood, Putin is not the primary author of this essay. I have a bit of experience with these things, and I can assure you that this has been mostly composed by Russian diplomats here in the U.S. in concert with the Russian Foreign Ministry (with substantial input from any consultants they are paying here in D.C.). Putin will have been required to verify for the Times that he approves the piece written in his name, but I’m guessing that he only gave this draft one final look over before it went to press.
The op-ed begins by stating Putin’s wish to speak directly to the American public. He makes brief mention of Cold War hostilities (interestingly, the Times has chosen not to capitalize “cold war”), but is quick to remind us that, “We were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together.” This is a nice touch, because not only does everybody hate Nazis, but it reminds Americans of something of which they are quite proud.
Never mind that the Soviets under Stalin were almost as brutal as the Nazis, the two allies never completely trusted one another, and that geostrategically the Cold War was simply a continuation of World War II. These are but minor details. Please continue, Vladimir.
“With America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.” Hmm…When I think about the UN Security Council, particularly the way in which it was set up to cement the dominance of the five WWII “victors”, I can assure you that the words “profound wisdom” do not come running into my head. I’m not opposed to the idea of international consensus, but I don’t think we can really give credit to the Security Council for the “stability of international relations”.
Putin warns us that we do not want the United Nations to go the way of the League of Nations, i.e. into the dustbin of history. “This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.”
This might be a good time to mention that the U.S. was never actually a member of the League of Nations, and the Soviet Union joined but then left. The League failed largely because it never represented the whole international community, so the analogy here is not exactly correct.
As for “influential countries” going to war without UN approval, we could always remind Mr. Putin that when he says “Security Council” in this sentence, he really ought to just put “Russian and/or China”. The reason the Security Council has never worked as idealists would hope is that there are some very real differences between the five permanent members which often lead to one or more of them vetoing proposals in order to enhance their own power vis-à-vis the other members. You can still insist on UN approval, but let’s be realistic about the situation.
The Russian president now moves on to trying to convince us of the unique lunacy of intervening in any way in the Syrian conflict. “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria.” Well, this situation did start as a protest movement demanding a more democratic Syria, but once the Assad regime responded with violence instead of reforms, it was only a matter of time before full chaos emerged.
Perhaps if the international community had been quicker to fully embrace groups such as the Free Syrian Army (as people like Sen. John McCain would have preferred), there would not have been so much room for more radical elements to take over the opposition. As the situation now stands, it is rather difficult to tell the terrorists apart from the freedom fighters.
“This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.” It’s absolutely true that weapons have been pouring in to the opposition, though honestly I think more of that support has come from the Gulf region than the U.S. or EU.
The Saudis have a tendency to write checks without asking a lot of questions: see, for example, their funding of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan or their no-strings-attached funding of the Egyptian government’s debt over the past few years. The West tends to be more picky about who it gives money to and just what will be done with that money.
More to the point, if we’re going to talk about foreign countries giving support to participants in the Syrian conflict, we must also mention that Russia has provided many weapons to the Assad regime over the years, including transfers that have occurred during the current civil war. In other words, take the plank out of your own eye Vladimir: it takes one to know one.
Putin moves on to stress the importance of international law. “Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” I’m sure the Obama administration would respond by stating that, according to the Geneva Protocol of which Syria is a signatory, the use of chemical weapons is also a violation of international law. (There is some debate on the legal particulars of this issue.)
However, Putin has a good point here, and I would encourage him to continue denouncing any such “act of aggression” which occurs without the approval of the UN Security Council, starting with Russia’s 2008 military actions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In this case, the Russians claimed to be defending a minority population – along with some Russian citizens – which was being brutally attacked by the central government of Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state).
Even so, it was not a UN mission, it did not have full international support, and it was not a case of Russia defending its own borders. Thus, according to Mr. Putin’s own logic, I would say in the words of Ricky Ricardo, “You got some ‘splainin’ to do!”
But never mind that: let’s see what Putin thinks about claims that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its population. “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria,” the president says, “But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” Yes, there is “every reason to believe” that it was the opposition, not the Assad regime, that deployed the chemical weapons, especially if you really, really want it to be true.
Of course, this would require that all of the evidence the Obama administration claims to have linking the attack to the Assad regime is fake, but why should we assume that the administration wants to implicate Assad? As we have seen over the past few weeks, the U.S. public is not particularly enthusiastic about a military strike, so it hardly seems to be in President Obama’s best political interest. (I admit that Putin may be slow to understand this point as he is not required to be quite so accountable to his population as U.S. politicians are.)
Obama did not take action after earlier reports of a chemical attack because the perpetrator could not be definitively identified. I have to conclude in this case that it is unlikely that the White House is lying. I won’t rule out the possibility of incompetence, but we should at least consider the possibility that Obama is right about Assad’s culpability.
Perhaps hoping to earn the support of the pro-Israel demographic, Putin adds this line: “Reports that militants are preparing another attack – this time against Israel – cannot be ignored.” I’m not sure what reports he is referring to, and more to the point, such an action would be self-defeating for the Syrian rebels. If they are hoping for any kind of support from the U.S., attacking Israel would be about the worst thing they could do. While I don’t deny that the ongoing violence poses a serious danger to all of Syria’s neighbors, I think this claim doesn’t have any legs to stand on, metaphorically speaking.
But enough with the debate about who has been bombing who in Syria: let’s move on to who the U.S. has been bombing. Putin seems very concerned that the U.S. image is slipping with its international audience. “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us’.” Should I be at all concerned that these very words could have been uttered by Rand Paul? Still, I understand the point Putin is making, though I doubt he’s as concerned about our global image as he is about boosting his own.
Having dissed us on the issue of foreign intervention (something Russia would never, ever stoop to, especially not in any of the former Soviet states), he now blames us for threatening the global non-proliferation regime. “If you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction.”
Certainly, there is an argument to be made that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq actually pushed countries such as Iran further down the path of nuclear proliferation in the hope of avoiding the same fate. (In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t tend to invade countries that have a full nuclear arsenal.) We can trust Putin here: stocking up on weapons to deter U.S. invasion is something the Russians know all about.
I now skip through a bunch of empty talk about international cooperation and a possible deal involving Syrian disarmament (something that should be a real cake walk in the middle of a civil war). I just had to point out this one gem: “My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust.” Mr. Putin, if the trust between you and President Obama is currently growing, it is only because it had nowhere to go but up.
Now for the big finale, in which Putin chooses to make his case against the idea of “American exceptionalism”. I quote,
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those [like Russia…oops, had to add a comment there] still finding their way to democracy…We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
In order to properly evaluate these comments, we need to take a look at the history of the term “American exceptionalism”. The idea that America is a uniquely special place is hardly new: in fact, any politician not holding to it is in danger of being labeled “unpatriotic”. The first writer to describe our country as “exceptional” was actually a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the famous work Democracy in America (published in 1835). At the very least, he was the first one who got it into print.
However, this is not the whole story. The Atlantic published a fascinating article by Terrence McCoy last year that gave the history of how the exact phrase “American exceptionalism” was born. Once again, it was a foreigner who coined this descriptor, and a most ironic one at that. Our story picks up at a meeting of international Communists in Russia.
In 1929, [American] Communist leader Jay Lovestone informed Stalin in Moscow that the American proletariat wasn’t interested in revolution. Stalin responded by demanding that he end this ‘heresy of American exceptionalism’. And just like that, this expression was born….Neither Lovestone or Stalin felt that the United States was superior to other nations – actually, the opposite. Stalin ‘ridiculed’ America for its abnormalities, which he cast under the banner of ‘exceptionalism,’ Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history at Princeton, said in an interview.
I will grant you that I was not in attendance at the 1929 Communist meeting: the quotes come from various historians and biographers. Still, these comments by Stalin make perfect sense in light of how Russia views the world. Rather than seeing the U.S. as a noble do-good nation, it views us as an overly aggressive superpower that tries to put our nose in everyone else’s business. You may ask, “Haven’t Russia and its predecessor, the Soviet Union, been just as guilty of foreign interference?” Sure, but the grass is always much more annoying on the other side.
I can’t help but wonder just how cognizant the authors of Putin’s op-ed piece were of the history of this term, which has over the past few decades in particular been embraced by many Americans. Putin seems determined to remind us that we are not special, at least not in any good way.
When he says, “We must not forget that God created us all equal,” he isn’t making a push for human rights. Whereas Jefferson’s words about equality in the Declaration of Independence have been claimed by Americans as proof that our moral compass always points true north in the end, Putin finds us guilty of violating our own principle by denying equality to those beyond our borders.
In answer to President Vladimir V. Putin, I say the following: Yes, the United States has been hypocritical over the years. We proclaimed egalitarian principles while enslaving millions. We have actively sought to overthrow foreign regimes through both overt and covert methods. We cannot claim moral superiority all the time, as we are still all too human. The Pilgrims who said we were a “city on a hill” could not tolerate other Christian denominations, let alone those who were even more diverse.
But there is one thing I can say for my country that I think makes us at least a little bit special, if not outright “exceptional”. We have allowed the President of Russia, a man that many Americans believe to be an enemy of this country, to publish his views in one of our most prominent national newspapers, without government censorship or fear of reprisal.
We have done so because, as much as Putin’s words might infuriate some Americans, we have since our inception been a shining example of the freedom of the press. Say what you like about George W. Bush: he did not ban thousands of movie theaters from showing Fahrenheit 9/11. Say what you like about Barack Obama: he has not tried to take Fox News Channel off the airwaves. (No, conspiracy theorists, he has not.)
Contrast that with Russia, where journalists attempting to uncover corruption can quickly find themselves on trial, where a foreign leader would not be able to published an unedited article in a major newspaper criticizing Putin’s government, and where Freedom House reports, “The already repressive press freedom environment in Russia declined even further with Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012”.
I don’t mind Putin criticizing my country or suggesting another course of action in Syria; but to do so in such a self-righteous manner proves that next time Putin wishes to combat political hypocrisy, he should start by looking in the mirror.