Putin to US: 'Exceptional?' Nyet!

In a rare, direct message to Americans, Putin lays out his case against a US strike on Syria. Opposition extremists, not Assad, used poison gas, he says. Then, the kicker: America is not exceptional, and it's dangerous to think it is.

Maxim Shemetov/Pool/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during his meeting with Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Thursday. Meanwhile, his first op-ed for an American audience is making waves in the US.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has an opinion piece on Syria in today’s New York Times that has official Washington buzzing.

The article argues against any US strike on Syria in retaliation for alleged chemical weapons use. Attacking without UN Security Council authorization would weaken the UN and ignore international law, writes Mr. Putin.

The Syrian civil war is not a battle for democracy, according to the Russian president. “There are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government,” he says.

Putin reiterates his claim that the alleged chemical weapons attack, which the US says killed over 1,400 civilians, was carried out by the opposition, not the Bashar al-Assad regime, “to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons."

But he welcomes Mr. Assad’s willingness to place Syria's chemical arsenal under international control for destruction, as well as President Obama’s willingness to work with Russia to perhaps make that happen.

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust,” Putin writes.

He concludes by disagreeing with Obama’s words pushing American exceptionalism in his Tuesday speech to the nation on Syria.

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin writes.

Initial reaction from many pundits to Putin’s op-ed was bemusement. Some wondered aloud whether Putin wrote it shirtless, perhaps while wrestling an alligator. (Photos of Putin on vacation often show him in manly pursuits.) Others blustered that The New York Times should reserve its op-ed space for the blathering of US politicians, not the blathering of foreign ones.

Washington Post Wonkblog editor Ezra Klein asked rhetorically if any could imagine the Putin op-ed editing process.

“What happens when international diplomacy stops being polite and starts getting ... weird?” wrote Mr. Klein and Evan Soltas in a Wonkblog piece.

Others argued that some of the things Putin said made sense. A unilateral US strike in Syria could undermine the international legal framework while leading to more terrorism and complicating efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program, according to Paul Christensen, an adjunct associate professor of political science at Boston College.

“If you can get past the hypocritical posturing, there’s actually quite a bit there that’s both true and useful,” said Professor Christensen, in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

Some experts added that the article was just more evidence that Putin is driving the agenda on Syria for the US. Others said the Russian president was jumping at the chance to capitalize on the Obama administration’s undisciplined foreign policy in regards to the Syrian crisis.

“Putin clearly relishing the moment after decades of humiliation,” tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But Putin’s piece elided some facts and omitted others. For one thing, it discussed the Syrian civil war as if Russia has had no hand in its continuation. He called the fighting “an internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition," without mentioning the Russian arms that have long propped up the Assad regime.

Putin’s continued assertion that the alleged chemical attack of Aug. 21 was carried out by rebels was perhaps undermined by his words welcoming Assad’s declaration that the Syria government, in fact, has stocks of poison gas. (US, French, and British intelligence all say the killings were the work of the regime. A forthcoming report from UN chemical inspectors is expected to allege that the poison gas attack was the work of Assad’s forces. )

There is nothing in the piece about the larger picture of Assad’s atrocities, which include the deliberate killing of thousands of civilians with all manner of weapons, executions, torture, and arbitrary arrest.

“There is not a single mention in Putin’s article, addressed to the American people, of the egregious crimes committed by the Syrian government and extensively documented by the UN Commission of Inquiry, local and international human rights groups, and numerous journalists,” writes Anna Neistat, an associate director of Human Rights Watch.

Lastly, Putin’s parting words about American exceptionalism, deserved or not, was perhaps misguided. It’s a thumb in the eye to a widely held US sense of patriotism and something that US politicians across the spectrum can focus on in an attempt to discredit other aspects of Putins’ argument.

“He was trying, in his own way, to weaken the United States,” said former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on NBC’s “Today” show.

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