|Vladimir Putin. Photo by Dmitry Astakhov with Itar-Tass|
I know this isn't the reaction Russian president Vladimir Putin likely expected from Americans reading his op-ed in today's New York Times. But compared with the Putin I've come to know and distrust, thanks to our media's incessant drumbeat of negative Russian coverage, seeing what's ostensibly his frank appeal for partnering over Syria leaves me with more questions than answers.
"We are all different," Putin writes, "but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."
Seriously? He believes that? I believe that, but I'd never have guessed that he does, too.
He waxes poetic about democracy as if Russia is a bastion of it, instead of the autocracy he's made it for himself and his ex-KGB cronies. Democracy may officially exist in Russia, but it does so more in theory than in practice.
He warmly appeals to America's historic - and often unilateral - protection of Israel, as if Russia is our unwavering cohort in cultivating the Jewish state.
And he apparently is under the delusion that Americans wholly support and trust the United Nations. If Russia does not understand that vast swaths of conservatives in the United States would gladly vote us out of it, then Russia's secret intelligence apparatus has serious deficiencies in its data collection methodologies.
Actually, Putin gets many things right when he analyzes the current dilemma in Syria. He says much of what I've been saying regarding the undeniability of chemical weaponry having been discharged, but also the lack of proofs regarding culpability. He points out how several factions of the rebel movement consist of known terrorist cells that have no interest in even the type of democracy Putin values. Syria's simply is a brutal civil war in which virtue of any kind, on either side, is painfully scarce.
Granted, when I heard that Putin had written an op-ed for an American newspaper, I wasn't expecting much. Practically the sole value I thought it might contain involved the ability of such a tactic to stand on its own merits - or lack of them - without the clutter of diplomatic staging and the media's pompous editorializing. It's a kind of "proxy diplomacy," if it's even diplomacy. It's in-your-face, this-is-what-I-think, straight-from-the-horse's-mouth dialog. No news correspondent is telling us what they think Putin thinks; we can read it for ourselves, and form our own impressions. That's the value in Putin's op-ed.
At least, so long as we understand what's going on here.
First, despite his claim to the contrary, Putin really doesn't trust President Obama and his cabinet. If I were Secretary of State John Kerry right now, the man who's supposed to be our chief diplomat, I'd be totally embarrassed to realize that Putin hopes the Times can relate to Americans better than the State Department and the White House combined.
Second, Putin doesn't understand that many Americans see the UN as part of the problem, not the solution. In what military conflict has the UN been able to mediate any sort of lasting peace? Sometimes it can handle the odd weapons inspection, or food distribution program, or water drilling expedition, but let's face it: most of the UN's personnel spend their time disparaging wealthy countries and cooking up vaguely-worded humanist rhetoric to achieve a passive equality Putin himself professes to want (yeah, right!) for all inhabitants of our globe. It's an indelicate pretentiousness thinly veiling the deep jealousy and wounded pride of, well, lesser countries. If Russia, for example, was as wealthy and powerful as the United States, or Japan, or Germany, or England - all prosperous nations with considerable egos - do you think he would bother appealing to us via an op-ed in a newspaper?
When people like Obama and Rush Limbaugh bubble patriotically about American exceptionalism, there is a side to the discussion that strikes all non-Americans on our planet as arrogant and insufferable. And it's true: Americans have a sense of entitlement and superiority that can denigrate and obfuscate the very humanity we claim to value in anybody, no matter where they live. Yes, our country has a greatness to it that can be quantified economically, militarily, and in political influence, but we tend to forget that as far as being exceptional is concerned, we benefit from perhaps the greatest infusion of international cultures and ethnicities of any country in history. Forgetting where we came from does not advance our cause today, and if that is what Putin is complaining about in his final paragraph, then he's got a point.
However, there's also the perspective of the degree to which America, thanks precisely to our "exceptionalism," has been able to lavish other countries around the globe with cash, technical know-how, military protection, and subsidized trade pacts. In a perfect world, we should all be willing to give something with no expectation of receiving something in return, but that's not exactly the type of arrangement upon which a mutually respectful relationship between sovereign nations can be sustained. Reciprocity has its merits, particularly when it comes to politics, and like it or not, politics is how players in the international community communicate.
Perhaps Putin's even making some sort of reciprocal promise when he floats the idea of America's withholding of military force in Syria resulting in an improved diplomatic dialog. An improved diplomatic dialog that could "open the door to cooperation on other critical issues."
Unfortunately, Putin prefaces that lofty opportunity with the phrase, "shared success," implying that Russia and America would have to be recognized as partners in achieving some sort of peace through diplomacy in Syria. That's likely why Putin went off on a tangent against American exceptionalism, knowing how many of us bristle at the thought of the United States sharing anything with anybody, let alone Russia.
Nevertheless, whether we're liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, it's hard to ignore the inability of our current administration to act with integrity when it comes to foreign policy. This impasse over Syria has stripped Washington of international credibility in Middle East affairs. Even in today's Times, the same edition carrying Putin's op-ed, their Number Two story is reluctantly entitled, "A Rare Public View of Obama's Pivots on Policy in Syria Confrontation." In other words, as reporter Peter Baker summarizes, "President Obama's handling of his confrontation with Syria has been the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly."
If you've never agreed with the Times before, you can now.
Many of us may not have voted for him, but Obama has gotten us into a mess, and seems incapable of getting us out of it. His is definitely no example of American exceptionalism, is it? Perhaps this time, this once, we need to let Putin offer some advice, even if it is laced with some Russian swagger and a curious dose of stilted, hollow moralizing.
Hey, if "shared success" is what Putin is after here, we've let other national leaders presume worse stuff than that.
After all, none of this is really any laughing matter.