According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, those who consider the United States of America "exceptional" above other countries—including President Obama—represent an "extremely dangerous" mindset when it comes to international relations and global peace.
The closing salvo in a sharply worded, yet conciliatory, open letter to the American people in the form of a New York Times op-ed on Thursday, Putin suggests that amid the ongoing crisis in Syria the U.S. should maintain its leadership role in the world, but drop its claim to ultimate superiority.
Though new diplomatic efforts are underway at the United Nations over Syria's civil war, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry set to begin two-day talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday—a comparison of Putin's op-ed with Obama's televised address on Tuesday reveals an ironic twist for some observers who note that the former KGB official and noted authoritarian is running circles around the Nobel Peace Prize laureate when it comes to promoting a settlement in the region that doesn't include cruise missile strikes or a bombing campaign.
Putin's op-ed—an attempt "to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders," he says—argues that the world must respect the structures established by the creation of the United Nations if it wants to avoid the horrific consequences that could be unleashed if the U.S. decides to strike Syria without sanction by the international community. He writes:
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.
The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.
In contrast, many observers took Obama's Tuesday night speech as a continued assault against international law when he indicated that he alone could still order a war against Syria.
Declaring he still "possessed the authority to order military strikes," Obama also said that U.S. forces will remain on standby "if diplomacy fails."
But, regarding his claim to have "authority" to attack Syria without international or Congressional approval, The Progressive's Matthew Rothschild called the president's assertion "ludicrous," writing:
No you don’t, Mr. President. Only Congress has the authority to declare war, and ordering military strikes would be a clear act of war, thus violating the Constitution. It would also violate the War Powers Act, which says that the President can’t engage in hostilities without a declaration of war or specific Congressional authorization unless there is “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” And Syria has done no such thing.
In a more general statement against Obama's push for war, Putin took the opportunity to "disagree" with Obama's declaration of the well-worn notion of "American exceptionalism."
In his address on Tuesday, Obama told the nation, "My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements -- it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them."
Later—calling the elevated status an "essential truth"—Obama said it was because America is "exceptional" that it might be compelled to attack Syria.
Critics, however, slammed the idea.
By expressing that sentiment, argues Common Dreams contributor Pat Lamarche, "the president rolled the clock back to 1943, claiming in that particular lifetime of U.S. actions on global security, our killings have been more righteous and had better outcomes than the anticipated actions of others. And with this distorted view of the consequences, President Obama hopes once again to use bombs to set things right."
Also writing at Common Dreams, Johnny Barber, currently in Afghanistan as a member of a delegation from Voices for Creative Non-Violence, countered Obama's remarks by saying, "With humility and resolve Americans should deal honestly with our past, with our present, and with our dire future. With modest effort and risk we can make the future safer for all children. We can do this by simply demanding accountability of our leaders and recognizing the only thing that is exceptional about America is our inability to see other’s lives as valuable as our own."
And Putin's direct challenge to the idea:
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 still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
And though none of this touches on the inequities and injustices found readily within Russian society—where ideas of democracy and equality under the law remain under siege—Putin's compelling narrative against U.S. aggression in Syria is worth quoting at length:
It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. 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.”
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.
The world reacts by asking: 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. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.
We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.
As professor of anthropology and Huffington Post contributor Marc Lamont Hill tweeted:
In a bizarre twist, Putin has positioned himself as a diplomat and peacekeeper, giving moral and political lectures to President Obama.
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) September 12, 2013
Putin made a compelling, though disingenuous, case against military strikes. Its effectiveness shows how badly Pres Obama was outmaneuvered.
— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) September 12, 2013
And Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northwestern University, tweeted:
— Dan Kennedy (@dankennedy_nu) September 12, 2013