GUMPTION SEPTEMBER 12, 2013
It takes some balls for a man who started two wars to reach out to the American people on 9/11 and plead for peace. But since President Obama can't seem to find his way out of the corner he's painted himself into and since nature hates a vacuum, Vladimir Putin has done just that.
There are many choice moments in Putin's artful op-ed in the New York Times:
Putin addresses the American people over the head of their president, which is fine except for that time when it infuriated him when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a similar initiative, encouraging American diplomats to engage Russians on social media, and over the head of Putin.
Putin begins by addressing the vicissitudes of the Russo-American relationship, adding, "But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together." Besides implying that we are no longer allies, it's also a platitude: every Russian knows that the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis and that the Americans pitched in a little at the end. It also ignores one of the chief reasons for the relationship's deterioration, which is that Putin's propaganda machine has been in overdrive fomenting anti-Americanism in Russia for the last two years, mostly to hold on to power at home.
"No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage." The League of Nations? You mean that international body from which newly Soviet Russia was excluded, and then, later, expelled when the U.S.S.R. invaded Finland?
"This [marginalization of the U.N.] is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization." Or if certain countries use their veto to gum up its works on even the most negligible of resolutions. "Three times the Security Council took up resolutions to condemn lesser violence by the Syrian regime," said former U.N. ambassador Susan Rice on Monday. "Three times we negotiated for weeks over the most watered-down language imaginable. And three times, Russia and China double vetoed almost meaningless resolutions. Similarly, in the past two months, Russia has blocked two resolutions condemning the use of chemical weapons that did not even ascribe blame to any party. Russia opposed two mere press statements expressing concern about their use."
"From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future." No, from the outset, Russia has done everything in its power to maintain Putin's favorite thing: the status quo. And that took a lot of effort on Russia's part, and is in no small way responsible for Syria's devolution from protests calling for reform to an increasingly vicious civil war.
"We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law." I don't know what Putin means by "protecting," but I think that providing arms, diplomatic cover and financial support qualify as "protecting."
"The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not." This is probably my favorite line in the whole damn thing. There's a Russian saying that goes, "the severity of the law is mitigated by the need to get around it." Russians, from a grocery cashier up to President Putin, know that there's a way around every law should the will to get around it exist. This is probably because in Russia, the law is not a framework to enforce rights and order; the law is seen as a bludgeon which can be used to selectively punish people. This understanding of the law has flowered most fragrantly under Putin.
"No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. 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." This is another wonderful Russian habit, one of looking facts in the face and then subjecting them to an adolescent epistemological artillery strike until nothing is anything and nothing is knowable. It goes beyond conspirological thinking to a kind of warped post-post-post-modernism, where words and things disintegrate into sand but somehow, in a Russian's hands, come together to form what could maybe, possibly be a cogent argument that looks suspiciously like a sand castle. This is one reason why Putin, presented with evidence of Assad's chemical attack on August 21, called it "otherworldly idiocy," before constructing his own theorem based on some pretty otherworldly assumptions.
"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?" Thanks, Vlad.
"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." That is, Assad's chemical weapons are for national defense?
"I welcome the president’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on Syria. We must work together to keep this hope alive, as we agreed to at the Group of 8 meeting in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, and steer the discussion back toward negotiations." Steer the discussion back toward negotiations. Schedule a meeting to schedule a meeting. In case it wasn't apparent that Russia is helping Assad play for time, we should talk about having a discussion.
"My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust." It's been, what, five years they've been working together? Putin is a cautious man.
"I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And 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." Except for when Russia does it. Remember the term "sovereign democracy"? It was a term coined during Putin's second presidential term to describe the disappearance of democracy as the rest of the world defines it, and it was rooted in the premise that Russia is different and that it will take its own, unique path to democracy. (This was also the thrust of a Washington Post op-ed he wrote in February 2012, at the height of the anti-Putin protests in Moscow.) This is also at the core of the anti-Western, anti-gay wave in Russia: Russia is unique and will not be corrupted by the influences of the corrupt West.
"We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal." Unless you are gay or you have come out as against Putin and his government. Then all bets are off.
"Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia."
All that said, I have to add this: Putin's op-ed is quite an elegant play to an American public weary of fixing unfixable problems abroad—Putin mentions the strange and useless fruit borne of the escapades in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—and a country that, for most of its history, treasured its isolation from the rest of the world. Invoking the dangers of aiding those already aided by al-Qaeda and their ilk and the threat posed to Israel is a nice chord to strike with a country already confused and nervous about getting involved in a tangled, exotic mess. Moreover, by leaning on international law, Putin reappropriates the very crux of Obama's argument for hitting Assad. Not using chemical weapons is part of international law, in other words, but so is going through the Security Council and not attacking countries that haven't attacked you.
The fact that Putin is not the most credible messenger when it comes to the rule of law or pacificism is one thing, but this has always been his strength: taking words and concepts with generally agreed upon meanings—laws, elections, constitutions—and redefining them for his own strategic benefit, and then cloaking himself in their legitimizing powers.
And if the last week has shown us anything, it is that there is one man in the game who has a strategy, and it is not Obama. So far, Putin has played it all right, and accomplished two goals: standing up to U.S. aggression, which will play nicely at home, and keeping Assad in power. Obama will maybe accomplish one—getting Assad to give up his chemical weapons—if he's lucky. The other one—getting Assad out—well, we'll just walk that one back, won't we. And in terms of addressing the people, well, Putin's now addressing yours, Mr. President.
So if you're keeping score this week, here's the tally: Putin 2, Obama 0.