Putin’s “Exceptional” Argument

By: Nicole Goetz As Americans, it is common to think that when we invest our time and resources abroad they are always appreciated on the receiving end. When disaster strikes some place in the world, the international community looks to the United States for help and aid. Based on past international policies, we see ourselves as a benign state that has a responsibility to the international community to help keep the world at peace and the people safe. However, our tendencies to act morally just are not viewed in the same light by many countries and world leaders. In fact, the U.S.’s past international strategies on dealing with conflict in other nations has at times come off as intimidating and forceful. This concept of “American exceptionalism” was recently criticized by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his op-ed in the September 11th edition of The New York Times.

Putin criticized President Obama’s United States policy of American exceptionalism, as he wrote, “I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is ‘ what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.’ It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”[1]

However, President Obama’s words were taken slightly out of context. His original remarks from the night before Putin’s letter were, “America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”[2]

To clarify, all that Obama meant was if the United States is in the position to lend a helping hand to protect people from getting killed by cruel dictators, then the U.S. should act. President Obama did not say that the U.S. could intervene anywhere in the world just because it can and has the power to do so. That is the beauty of America though; with one the world’s largest economies and by far the largest military, the U.S. could easily change the game in Syria or anywhere else it chooses to, but that it does not is significant.

Putin’s letter was one of caution to the American people, warning the citizens of the possible negative implications if the United States were to take military action against the Assad regime due to its use of chemical weapons on its civilians. He was quick to mention Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, all of which are still fresh in the minds of Americans. He wrote, “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.”[3]

While the majority of Americans are against heavy military commitment in Syria, Obama’s red line threat about the use of chemical weapons to Assad was crossed and in order to sustain the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency and leadership, he must act in some way. Unfortunately Obama’s red line threat now has drawn him into a box with limited choices on Syria. Given the wording of Putin’s letter, it is clear Putin is also aware of that and is making use of this situation to make the U.S. appear weak.

If the U.S. were to launch an attack on the Assad regime, it would be highly organized. Reports reveal that the U.S. intelligence knows where most of the chemical weapons in Syria are being stored.[4] The U.S.’s military action would be limited to the destruction of these sites in a swift, airborne, no boots on the ground operation. As organized as these strikes may be, civilian casualties are a risk, as seen in the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan where at least a hundred civilians were killed this year.[5]

Putin is not concerned with the casualties, though;  his concern is just a facade. Putin is just looking out for Russia’s best interests. Putin’s policy on international intervention is the opposite of that of the United States. Russia opposes intervention, especially those initiated by Western countries. This goes back to the Cold War mentality of Western imperialism that serves as an indirect threat to Russia. In addition, the fact that Russia has a naval installation in Syria cannot be ignored. Due to Russia’s lack of warm-water port locations, Syria is very strategically important for Russia. The Syrian government, under both Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, has strong military ties with Russia. In 2011 alone, the Assad government purchased two billion dollars worth of what was mostly military exports from Russia.[6] This deal seems insubstantial when compared to 2005 when Russia wrote off roughly 70 percent of Syria’s national debt or the estimated 19.4 billion dollars (at least) Russia has invested in Syria for infrastructure, energy, tourism, and projects ranging from a nuclear power plant to oil and gas exploration.[7]

Overall, Putin will support whatever side that is in power as long as Russia can still have strong influence in Syria. Syria is important to Russia, economically, politically, and militarily. Likewise, Russia is important to the Syrian government. The Russian government is therefore the country that can get Assad to negotiate. Diplomatic peace talks are in Russia’s favor as it is most likely that, no matter the outcome, Russia could still manage to have a strong influence in Syria.

Putin does agree that chemical weapons were used in Syria; he does, however, argue that, “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.”[8] Alas for Putin, a day before his letter, an investigation by Human Rights Watch indicated that the Assad regime was responsible for the attacks.[9] Another story, released minutes after Putin’s letter, revealed that a United Nations (UN) investigation also pointed to the Syrian government as responsible for the use of chemical weapons.[10] Putin further weakens his argument when he says, “The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction,”[11]  because this does indicate that Putin does believe that Assad’s regime is, indeed, behind the chemical weapon attacks.

Putin also mentions that any U.S. strikes on Syria would be illegal under international law according to the UN charter, which states in Article 2(7) that, “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”[12] This view is, of course, in conflict with Article 42, which states if the state is killing its own people or performing war crimes on its civilians, then the Security Council, “may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.”[13] If Putin was really concerned with international law, Russia would not have taken so long to reprimand Assad’s use of chemical weapons. After many attempts by the Security Council to condemn Assad’s use of chemical weapons, due to constant vetoing by Russia, they finally collectively agreed to act on September 29th.  Putin’s invasion of Georgia five years ago over minor disputes and his war to crush separatism in Chechnya further prove Putin's overall disregard of international law; Putin shows that he is certainly willing to violate sovereignty and the right of self-determination.

Luckily for President Putin, America fully supports the First Amendment, the right to free speech, whether those words expressed are, as Putin puts it, “with us or against us,” a.k.a., Putin’s interpretation of the American slogan[14]. Whether or not his criticism and words are welcomed by the American people is its own matter, but much to his benefit, his words are allowed to be said and circulated amongst the masses due to the very American First Amendment. However, if the tables were turned and a Russian politician tried to voice the same criticism towards Russia in Russia, the publishing of such a letter would be out of the question. In no way is Obama saying America is more superior than any other country by calling it, “exceptional,” but when looking at the World Values Survey, the U.S. ranks 15th in the world to the extent which it feels that its members enjoy free choice and control of their lives, whereas Russia ranks 95th.[15] Or one can look at the 2013 report of the Trends in International Migrant Stock, where the United States ranks number one for the most immigrants with 45 million plus people immigrants versus the number two, Russia, with its significantly less 11 million immigrants.[16] There is a reason why everyone wants to come to the U.S.- everyone has the chance to be something, even an op-ed for The New York Times if certain qualifications are met of course.

In the midst of Putin’s twisted words and propaganda, he did present some valid points to the American people, but perhaps the best way to get the Americans to listen is not by calling out the faults with American exceptionalism. America is not perfect (it has its share of mistakes and scars) but it has produced the world’s most powerful economy and military, both of which have arguably been used for more good than bad in this world. America is not the world’s policeman, but if America has the power to save lives in cooperation with other countries, then why should it not? It is going to take a lot more than carefully skewed words from a narcissistic politician to change that about America.

[1] Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” The New York Times, accessed September 20, 2013.

[2] Barack Obama, “Obama’s Remarks on Syria,” The New York Times, accessed September 21, 2013.

[3] Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” The New York Times, accessed September 20, 2013.

[4] Barbara Starr, “US intel at odds over location of Syria chemical weapons,” CNN, accessed September 22, 2013.

[5] “Six killed in US drone strike in Pakistan: officials,” NDTV, accessed September 22, 2013.

[6] Mark Adomanis, “Is Russia Supporting Syria Because It ‘Needs The Money?’” Forbes, accessed September 22, 2013.

[7] Yousef Gamal El-Din, “What’s at stake for Russia in Syria,” CNBC, accessed September 19, 2013.

[8] Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” The New York Times, accessed September 20, 2013.

[9] “Syria: Government Likely Culprit in Chemical Attack,” Human Rights Watch, accessed September 20, 2013.

[10] Colum Lynch, “Exclusive: U.N. Report Will Point to Assad Regime in Massive Chemical Attack,” Foreign Policy, accessed September 19, 2013.

[11] Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” The New York Times, accessed September 20, 2013.

[12] United Nations, Charter of the United Nations, 24 October 1945, 1 UNTS XVI, accessed September 21, 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Vladimir Putin, “A Plea for Caution From Russia,” The New York Times, accessed September 20, 2013.

[15] Ronald Inglehart, “Putin Was Right About American Exceptionalism,” Bloomberg, accessed September 19, 2013.

[16] “Total Migrant Stock,” United Nations, accessed September 19, 2013.

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