READINGS INTO PUTIN
The reaction to Putin’s essay in the New York Times shows how preconceptions can overwhelm reality. Because so many op-ed writers and politicians knew what Putin really meant, they didn’t pay much attention to what he actually said. Seeing Putin as an enemy, they failed to notice the obvious. If Putin really was the enemy they think he is, he would be delighted to see the USA mired in an incoherent military intervention – "limited”, "shot across the bow”, "unbelievably small” but not "pinpricks” – with a vacillating leadership, opposed by two-thirds of its population, probably its legislature and most of the world and with no allies to speak of. Something that could only weaken the USA. On the contrary, he extracted the USA from this future.
The themes in his essay are ones with which Putin-watchers are familiar, the central one being "The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus”. In short, there is a set of international norms and rules to govern the use of armed force that have more-or-less worked for years. It is gravely weakened when "influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization”.
Who could deny that? Whatever one may think of the effectiveness of the UN, so long as one does not renounce it altogether – and Washington has not – then Putin is correct. Moscow has, of course, a strong self interest in preserving the UNSC but that does not make Putin’s defence of it stupid or wrong.
Putin believes that a US strike on Syria: "would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism”; Moscow is a proponent of the status quo; things can get worse. He reminds us that the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafy spread trouble into Mali; they did get worse. He maintains that the fighting in Syria has nothing much to do with "democracy”. He reiterates for the nth time that Moscow is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” And that Moscow has many times called for talks without preconditions and blocked Washington’s(how can you expect to have talks if the victor is pre-assigned)?
Some have taken contemptuous disagreement with his belief that it was not Assad that used poison gas. These people should speak more carefully: German intelligence is apparently doubtful,US intelligence is hardly certain either. Putin’s belief is not, therefore, outrageous.
So, familiar themes: the UNSC must be upheld (note that he nowhere suggests that it is perfect, just that it is all the world has today); intervention in a horrible civil war is not likely to make anyone happy and the USA’s behaviour is making it be seen as a bully. Altogether his remarks are unremarkable. Or would be, had they come from the Dalai Lama, the Pope, or, come to think of it, Senator Obama a few years ago. But, because people knowthe fact that Putin repeats points "made in good faith by American and Europe opponents of air strikes” it’s only "mendacity” and "hypocrisy”. So, even when Putin speaks the truth, he’s lying. Finally this curious retort: "‘American exceptionalism’ was Moscow’s idea. So quit complaining, Vladimir.”
But what seems to have made someAmericans want to vomitwas this paragraph: "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…”. Or that he questions "American exceptionalism”. But just what is "American exceptionalism” in this context? Washington can bomb anyone it wants? we must all go along with it when it does? the US is never wrong? only the US can criticise others ? what? And, anyway, how dare a thug like Putin lecture us!
The brutal truth is that the USA, in the person of its leaders, has looked ineffectual, confused, weak and alone. It was not Putin who did this. Putin in fact saved it from greater folly and that is hard to forgive. A real enemy would take delight in watching that train wreck develop. Instead Putin has given Obama a way out: perhaps not a "friend” but a concerned neighbour that would have to live with the results.
Even if the writers don’t get it, most of their readers seem to. The most recent three comments on The New Yorker piece at this time of writing are contrary to the author’s line: 1 "Is there any of you with enough humility to say the words THANK YOU to a world leader. Putin needs to receive a gift from the UNITED STATES.” 2 "Americans have had their nose put out of joint and received a lesson in -wait for it -- rationality after the hysterical incoherence that has gripped the polity.” 3 "What is curious to me is what our own propaganda and actions looks like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to those countries when a President Bush lectures them? Or Obama?”
On the original NYT piece, the top three pick comments are: "Say what you will about the Russians and Mr. Putin in particular. This reaching out is unprecedented. Surly our country and our leaders cannot ignore this gesture from the Russian government.” The second one is rather scornful of Putin but the third is not: "Aside from the obviously specious claim that it was the rebels who used the gas, much of this post is thought provoking and has a tone of reasonableness that I find disturbing to my prejudices. What a crazy world we are living in when Russia sounds more sane and responsible than our own government on a serious international crisis”.
This disconnect shows a gap between Americans and their opinioneers and gives another example how pre-conceptions determine observation. And did we not see this before when the authorities ignored Moscow’s warnings about the Tsarnaev brothers? If you believe Putin is a thug then he has nothing to tell you and you don’t have to listen.
But it seems that few readers were fooled: opposition to involvement in the Syrian war was and is overwhelming; few supported Obama and his strikes; many are grateful to Putin for stopping another open-ended military operation.
As Putin pointed out, these "humanitarian interventions” not only are more complicated than expected (vide Somalia, Kosovo, Libya) but have unanticipated consequences. Whatever deficiencies the UN system has, it is better in most cases to operate within its creaky framework. Finally, Putin has a point: consider that Somalia had general UN support, Kosovo was agreed to by most of NATO, Libya by some of NATO and the putative Syria intervention by hardly anybody. It is becoming "commonplace”.
The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Patrick Armstrong,
Patrick Armstrong is a former political counselor at Canadian Embassy in Moscow
Expert Panel Contributions
The U.S.-Russian Tug of War
Lessons from Serbia 1913 for Syria 2013.
Martin Sieff is a senior fellow of the American University in Russia. He is a former chief foreign correspondent for The Washington Times.
Yet again the same hellish little region of the world has erupted into endless revolutions, wars and civil wars. The superpowers are dangerously aligned on the different sides of the bitterly opposed groups.
Corrupt old regimes have recently been toppled all around the region. Terrorism is rampant and the bright promise of a democratic spring has unearthed fearful nationalist and religious hatreds.
The Middle East — especially Syria and Egypt — today? Of course. But it was also the Balkan Peninsula 100 years ago.
In 1913, a two-year cycle of fierce, vicious little Balkan wars ended — or, rather, seemed to end. The superpowers of the day agreed that an international conference was the best way to try bring a breathing space to the apparently endless cycles of conflict. Every little war had only created new grudges as well as the causes of future bloodbaths. No war ever seemed to settle anything.
Worst of all, the superpowers of the day could not resist investing their prestige and interest in the local rows, murders, assassinations and atrocities.
Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the modern, united Germany and also the pioneering architect of the country’s modern social security systems, showed equal prescience and wisdom when he looked at the Balkans. He quite literally proclaimed it not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier. (The Pomeranian Grenadiers were a good-natured joke in 19th century Germany as the most useless soldiers in the nation.)
Getting tripped up over nothing
But in August 1914, every great nation and empire in Europe forgot the wise warning of Bismarck, who had been sent into retirement by his emperor in 1890. As a result, all those pesky little wars changed into a general European and then world war.
All of that happened because a young Bosnian Serb fanatic named Gavrilo Princip, whose terrorist group The Black Hand was secretly backed by the Serbian government, assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Ferdinand was heir to the ancient Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Hapsburg Empire really didn’t need the disputed Balkan provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They were far more trouble than they were worth. They were not exporters of wealth or security. They cost a fortune to maintain and were a security nightmare.
Imperial designs and saving face
Similarly, Imperial Czarist Russia of the day was experiencing rapid economic growth. The agricultural reforms of assassinated Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin had laid the foundation of a new era of unprecedented prosperity. Above all, Russia needed international security and peace.
However, its leading generals did not see it that way. They craved general war and worked hard to sabotage Czar Nicholas II’s inept, but well-meaning efforts to mediate peace with his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.
Russia had no real security interest in protecting the guilty government of Serbia from the anger of Austria-Hungary. But it was determined nevertheless not to lose face in the Balkans yet again after allowing Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina only six years before.
And so the three great empires stumbled into a catastrophic war that destroyed them all. For causes that should not have mattered at all to any of them.
Fast-forward an entire century and it is clear nothing has been learned.
Today, the United States and Russia warily watch each other and assemble their naval forces off the coast of Syria, where a ferocious civil war has killed more than 100,000 people over the past two years.
Neither nation has the slightest direct interest in Syria. In real terms, it is worth nothing to either of them. But both governments face remarkable pressures to intervene on opposing sides.
In the United States, the reckless obsession with unilateral interventions to promote instant democracy around the world started with George W, Bush and his neoconservatives.
Today, it has spread to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration, where it is championed by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Samantha Power, Rice’s successor as Ambassador to the United Nations.
When Russia feels down
The Russian government of President Vladimir Putin today looks at Syria the way the government of Czar Nicholas II looked at Serbia 100 years ago.
In both cases, they supported a small country of no strategic significance on its own that had no significant sources of oil, coal, uranium, gold or other natural wealth.
Both Serbia and Syria were justly and understandably distrusted by their more advanced and wealthier neighboring states on every side. Both governments had long secretly supported some of the most notorious terrorist organizations on the planet.
However, Russia in 1914 had been forced to stand by, while its rivals made one gain after another in the Balkans, apparently at its expense. The Russians decided they had retreated long enough and hunkered down. They drew a red line in the sand in support of Serbia. And they stuck to it.
Russia’s leaders today feel the same way about Syria. They have seen their traditional allies toppled in one Middle East country after another. They also see U.S. and Western European influence growing in Eastern Europe and even into the Caucasus and Central Asia.
These advances would have appeared inconceivable to Russian and Soviet leaders over the previous 250 years. And they are now determined to stand their ground and draw the line with Syria.
In fact, the real interest of both the United States and Russia should lie in avoiding getting sucked into the imbroglio in Syria. This is especially ironic for the United States, which has already wasted $2 trillion in straight military costs on useless, futile, endless and unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.
Will sanity triumph in both Washington and Moscow in the end? The record of both nations’ leaderships over the past half-century offers solid grounds to hope so. But as the fearful precedent of 1913-14 in the Balkans shows, it would be unwise to take too much for granted.
Syria: The Alternative to War
Stephen F. Cohen & Katrina vanden Heuvel
Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. Katrina vanden Heuvel is publisher and editor of The Nation.
By claiming for weeks that "doing nothing” is the only alternative to a "limited” military response to the Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons in Syria—plainly stated, an illegal American war against a nation that has not threatened the United States—the Obama administration has continued Washington's post–Cold War disdain for diplomatic solutions to international crises. It has done so in the same triumphalist, America-as-indispensable-nation spirit that inspired the Clinton administration’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the Bush White House’s disastrous war in Iraq, both carried out without a UN mandate and over Russia’s protests.
But the Russian foreign minister’s September 9 proposal to put Assad’s chemical weapons under international control makes clear that a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis is eminently possible. President Obama called the initiative "potentially positive,” while Washington’s powerful pro-war and anti-Russian lobbies rejected it, as usual, as bogus and "very bad news.” In fact, the best approach has always involved both the UN Security Council and Moscow. Until now, the Obama administration has refused to pursue this path on the grounds that Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom it has repeatedly denigrated, would use Russia’s veto to block any military action—in effect, dismissing diplomacy before it is even tried.
The Obama administration should now fully endorse an emergency session of the Security Council without calling for immediate military measures. The session should begin instead with a full examination of conflicting claims as to who used chemical weapons, the Assad regime, as the White House insists, or Syrian insurgents, as the Kremlin suggests. All of the evidence, including the findings of the recent UN inspection mission, would be weighed by the Security Council.
Even if the evidencepoints conclusively to Assad, a compelling nonmilitary approach remains, if it is backed by the United States, Russia—whose leading political and logistical role is essential—and the UN. Assad should be given a limited period of time to place all of his chemical production facilities and stockpiles under joint UN-Russian control. Moscow and UN specialists—both of whom have ample knowledge and experience in this regard—would then begin the long, complicated process of destroying those installations and weapons, whether onsite or outside Syria, as has been done in other countries. In addition, Assad would sign the 1993 international treaty that bans the production and use of such weapons and requires their destruction.
Influential segments of the US political-media establishment will vehemently object to any central role for Russia. For years, they have demonized Putin rather than analyze what he actually says about international developments. But given his longstanding argument that aggressive American policies have been fostering dangerous instability and jihadism in the Middle East, not democracy, there have been good reasons all along to think Putin would be receptive to this kind of diplomatic approach to the Syrian crisis. After the September 9 proposal made by his foreign minister, there can hardly be any doubt. (If nothing else, Putin’s insistence on a peaceful resolution should be tested.)
Certainly, the advantages of US-Russian cooperation would be enormous, possibly a turning point in international relations. The United States would avoid a military action that is likely to kill many more innocent Syrians without eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons capacity; again inflame Muslim and Arab opinion against America; undercut recently empowered moderates in Iran; do nothing to end Syria's civil war, possibly making a negotiated settlement even less likely; create yet another US precedent of unsanctioned wars for others to imitate; and further the perilous drift toward renewed Cold War between Washington and Moscow. Instead, their joint diplomatic effort at the UN could restore the necessity and legitimacy of the Security Council; revive the US-Russian plan for a Geneva peace conference on Syria; repair the needlessly damaged relationship between Obama and Putin; and lead to fuller cooperation in the fight against international terrorism and in other dangerous conflicts that lie ahead.
This opportunity for a nonmilitary resolution of the crisis must not be lost. It is a major test for both American and Russian leaders, especially President Obama, who once called for a "new era of American diplomacy” but has yet to act on that promise.
Russia’s Finest Hour
Gilbert Doctorow, Research Fellow, The American University in Moscow
Vladimir Putin’s September 11th essay in the New York Times is a remarkable document well worthy of analysis in its own right for what it tells us about the thinking processes of its author. Many commentators have concentrated on the essay’s tactical intent, to influence American public opinion on the urgent issue of a potential military attack by their government on Syria now that the ultimate decision of war and peace was put back in the hands of Congress by President Obama.
In this context, members of the American elite expressed outrage, none more vividly and less diplomatically than the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who had successfully steered the President’s resolution on use of military force through the skeptical questioning of his colleagues only to see Russian diplomacy change the script and his President make a U-turn. Menendez was quoted by CNN as saying Putin’s essay ‘made him want to vomit.’
Foreign Affairs magazine has taken slightly higher ground by opening the pages of its September 20th online edition to a Texas professor who explains with reference to American history why outsiders rarely succeed in changing public perceptions by their efforts at speaking directly to the American people (Jeremi Suri, "Offensive Charm). It is difficult to gauge to what degree Babbitt-ry is a trait of today’s American public or just of its leadership. But in any case this is to ignore the effect Putin’s brilliantly-argued message to America might have on the rest of the world, enhancing America’s self-imposed isolation and appearance as a rogue state.
Putin’s essay also must be read for its strategic content. In it, he is pursuing doggedly the fight against United States unilateralism which he so eloquently initiated behind closed doors at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, denouncing hegemony by the world’s sole remaining superpower and promoting a multi-polar world in which Russia plays a leading part. Now he edged a step further in taking on the notion of American exceptionalism which underpins the arrogant American overseas behavior that Putin finds so repugnant.
At the same time the thought piece in the New York Times must be seen within the continuum of a hyperactive period of three weeks for Russian diplomacy and exercise of soft power. It all began with Putin’s masterful stewardship of the G-20 conference in St Petersburg on September 5-6 where he facilitated a civilized discussion among world leaders of the Syrian crisis and made it obvious to all but the blind that there is no consensus of the "international community” under American leadership, and that in fact many countries, representing a substantial part of the world’s population, oppose military intervention by the Western powers.
The initiative moved on to gain important traction on Monday, September 9th, when the Russians took up Secretary of State John Kerry’s offhand remark about Syria turning over its chemical weapons to international control and destruction and made the Obama Administration an offer it could not refuse, thereby taking the crisis from the military plane back firmly into diplomatic channels with Russia as key participant.
Putin’s NYT piece two days later hammered home the constructive and principled role Russia is prepared to assume in resolving international tensions and guarding the peace.
And the charm offensive has continued right up to Putin’s keynote speech on September 19th at the festive 10th anniversary session of the Valdai Discussion Club, where he delivered a tour d’horizon of the principles of domestic harmony, of the humanistic ideals that he seeks to further in the Russian Federation during his presidency, with outreach to opposition leaders and to minorities, while staying clear of political correctness and frankly looking after majority interests. This was done in the presence of unusually high level foreign guests on the dais and in the hall; and, for the first time, the proceedings were broadcast live and in full on state television, carried globally via satellite.
It would be no exaggeration to say that September 2013 has seen the most intense burst of Russian diplomacy since September 2008, when, in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian War, the country marshaled all its resources to lock in relationships with friendly governments around the world in the face of threats by US Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to subject Russia to the world’s opprobrium, to isolate it and punish it for alleged aggression.
But where the hyper-active September of 2008 was an exercise in self-preservation, the activity of 2013 has served to project Russian statesmanship and responsibility. It has been a demonstration that Russia also can stand tall, see further and resolutely defend international law and shared values.
Whether out in front as the author of the op-ed page piece in theNYTor standing back somewhat as the father of the diplomatic solution over Syria now being implemented, Vladimir Putin’s persona has been in the world news daily and has forced the attention of pundits everywhere. It is entirely in line with this preeminence that the latest issue of Timemagazine, has placed Putin’s portrait on its cover (in all but the US edition).
Some commentators have retreated into their ad hominem attacks to avoid facing facts which might overturn their Russophobe prejudices. In this regard, Newt Gingrich with his casual dropping of the words ‘dictator and thug’ in his television interview was not alone. Others have sought to suggest that what was attractive in Putin’s message had been purchased from a Western PR agency.
But still other American thought leaders have, like some of Putin’s domestic opposition at Valdai, grudgingly conceded that there is magnetism about the man, a strength that is hardly seen among other world leaders. As an example, I would point to Fiona Hill’s article in Foreign Affairs of September 11th, "Putin Scores on Syria.” Hill seeks to understand the sources of this strength, of this successful statecraft and identifies Putin’s practice of judo and martial arts since childhood.
In this regard, looking to the distant past to understand Putin today, Hill is close to the standard American media script on Putin, where every article on the man necessarily reminds the reader that he once was ‘a KGB spy.’
All of this peering into the distant past misses what I believe is the essential fact about Vladimir Putin: his remarkable ability to grow. The consummate statesman, respectful and yet firm with his opponents, who has dominated both the world stage and domestic politics these past three weeks is worlds apart from the hesitant and inexperienced newly minted President of Russia who famously responded to Larry King’s question about what happened to the submarine Kursk with the tight-lipped remark: "It sank.”
And let us be very clear about the meaning of the foregoing remarks: such an ability to grow intellectually, and, as we saw most persuasively in his Valdai speech, spiritually and morally, as well to become a grand master in the skills of statecraft, to deal easily with fellow world leaders in periods of great tension just as on the sporting field, is a very rare trait. Other world leaders have tread water before our eyes, Angela Merkel coming firmly to mind. Then there are those, like our own President Barack Obama, who has become steadily smaller and regressed in office. It was painful to recall that we elected an editor of the Harvard Law Review when on September 6th we saw him mishandle his press conference following the conclusion of the G-20 meeting. Anyone watching his stumbling and offensive response to a question about NSA spying on the Brazilian president must regret the course of America’s political fortunes under his inattentive watch.
Washington attacks Putin the messenger, again
Robert Bridge, Political commentator, RT
Vladimir Putin’s New York Times column ("A Plea for Caution from Russia,” Sept. 11, 2013), which has caused a thunderbolt of consternation in US media and political circles, is controversial for good reason: It shows – with no loss of irony - the Russian leader’s views on Syria are more in sync with those of the American people than are those of Washington’s.
The main thrust of Putin’s argument seems irrefutable: The use of outside military force in Syria, where a chemical weapons attack of unknown origins killed civilians in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21, will only "increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.” This practically goes without saying considering that al-Qaeda, the very terrorist organization that allegedly attacked America on 9/11, is in cahoots with Syria’s western-backed rebel opposition.
The Russian leader then noted with alarm (similar to that of his ‘Munich speech’ of 2007 when he spoke out against America’s "uncontained hyper use of force”) that "military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace in the United States. Is it in America’s interest? I doubt it.”
It’s interesting to note that one of the most popular US politicians in recent years, Ron Paul, campaigned for the US presidential nomination on almost exactly the same argument as Putin’s: Ending America’s unsustainable overseas military adventures is essential for sustaining peace both at home and abroad.Yet the major US media channels, shackled as they are to the US military-industrial machine, arrogantly ignored the 12-term Congressman from Texas. Without the necessary media exposure to complement his popular message, Paul’s rising star sank into oblivion.
So if a Congressman from Texas can’t get a fair shake from the US media establishment, the president of Russia should expect far worse treatment.The US media, of course, did not disappoint.
Putin then hit a raw nerve with American audiences when he expressed skepticism with the historically entrenched idea of "American exceptionalism,” even going so far as to remind his readers that "God created us all equal.”
For much of the US Beltway, such seldom-heard suggestions strike as sacrilegious.
Liberals and Conservatives alike, not comfortable with having their one-dimensional worldview challenged, were suddenly speaking in one incredulous voice: ‘How dare the Russian president preach to America on the subject of war and peace? How dare Putin utter the name of God when addressing the global superpower? How dare he demand that America reconsider the use of military force when the dogs of war have already been unleashed?’
So now the debate is no longer (if it ever was): How will the American people respond to yet another foreign war that lacks all legitimacy? Rather, the ground under the debate has magically shifted to: ‘What is it about Vladimir Putin that makes him want to thwart America from waging war in Syria?’
In other words, the issue – at least from the American perspective – is no longer a serious debate as to who initiated the sarin attack in Syria, or what the global response should be, but rather why Putin is acting theway he is. According to the warped logic of the US corporate media, there must be some ulterior motive for Putin to want to put the brakes on war, as if the threat of World War III breaking out wasn’t cause enough.
So now the debate has deteriorated to the level of Cold War arguments.
"Putin wants to raise not only his own but also Russia’s profile and prestige…He wants Russia to share in the limelight and in the power,” wailed Frida Ghitis in her CNN column (which carried the shock and awe headline, ‘Putin a hypocrite with blood on his hands’)."The former KGB man is trying to maximize the influence of a country that once shared the title of superpower only with the United States.”
These mass-produced mantras are canned and sold to an unsuspecting public despite their overdue expiration dates.
Newt Gingrich expressed practically the same opinion when he wrote: "Putin is a great Russian nationalist who is coldly and methodically maneuvering to maximize Russia's prestige and influence.”
Again, more heated discussion on Putin as the issue of Syria gets pushed to the sidelines.
John McCain, meanwhile, apparently took time off from playing poker on his Iphone to pen a column for Pravda.ru (available in English), which was meant to be an argument against Putin’s column in The New York Times. It turned out to be anything but. Instead of discussing the main issue, which is the allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, McCain wasted precious Pravda ink ranting on everything from Pussy Riot to Stalin. The question of Syria was given exactly two sentences, and of very little substance at that.
Once again, the question – at least for American commentators – is not an issue of war in Syria, or the use of chemical weapons there, but rather some sort of embarrassing expose on the personality of the Russian leader. Clearly, the US is hoping to make this the central issue: Putin attempting to exert his power on the poor American war machine that just wants to wage an "unbelievably small” war in an unbelievably volatile part of the planet. They may even be attempting to squeeze some sort of pity from the US electorate.
Several weeks ago, the Obama administration had its finger on the trigger as war against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and without the necessary proof and congressional authority, looked inevitable. This despite the fact that Barack Obama is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The latest military adventure in the Middle East got stuck in the mud, however, when the British House of Commons forbade Prime Minister David Cameron from joining in the war games. Only then, it seems, did the Obama administration change tact and request congressional authority before launching a Syrian attack.
But then came a mysterious miscommunication from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who reportedly ‘misspoke’ when he said America would call off the dogs of war if Syria surrendered its chemical weapons (the same sort of ultimatums, it should be emphasized, were used before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). This provided Russia with an opportunity, it seems, to spare the volatile region from yet more bloodshed.
However, the possibility remains that Washington – inhabited as it is with every warmongering special interest group - will find some new pretext to enter a war that it must know will be extremely unpopular with its people, especially given the US economic and political climate.
In any event, through this smoke and mirrors of impending war, that is loaded with unintended consequences and unforeseen dangers by unscrupulous individuals, there is one person who I would fully support for the next Nobel Peace Prize, and his name is Vladimir Putin.
Putin has done everyone a favour
Vlad Sobell, Professor, New York University, Prague
The Russian president’s address to the American people courtesy of the New York Times is vintage Putin in the spirit of his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007. Calling a spade a spade in a message sent over the heads of the politicos may well be undiplomatic, but there are occasions when this is the only viable course of action.
Despite its successful track record in past decades, Western democracy is failing today. It has spawned the ongoing global economic crisis, while the West-supported revolutions in the Arab world have only fuelled instability and deadly conflict. Clearly, democracy is no longer working as it once did. Putin should be commended for reminding the Americans of their share of responsibility in this failure.
While many in the West, including political leaders, have deep reservations about yet another ill-conceived military campaign (this time in Syria), they have been unable and/or unwilling to confront their Washington ally. Thus Putin has done that very large constituency a huge favour by speaking out on their behalf. And it seems that Moscow’s stance has delivered a breakthrough in long-standing efforts to bring the Syrian conflict to an end.
The generally hostile reaction in the US to Putin’s article – some of the commentary has bordered on the hysterical – confirms that he touched a raw nerve. Confident democrats would welcome constructive criticism from a world leader, not deride it. Their hostility is yet further evidence that the West is failing.
Finally, the issue that US pundits and politicians appeared to find most painful was Putin’s impassionate plea for Americans to give up their pretensions towards being "exceptional”, which Russian president described as "extremely dangerous”. I could not agree more. The spectacle of the world’s democratic leaders setting themselves up above the rest is unseemly. Exceptional can be only those who are voluntarily recognised as such by the rest. To claim that status for oneself seems to me to be a negation of core democratic values.
Andrei Tsygankov is professor of international relations and political science at San Francisco State University.
Putin’s New York Times Op-Ed should be understood in the broader context of the U.S.-Russia relations.Without partnership with the United States Russia cannot address important international issues such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, or instability in the Middle East. Russia’s president needs Obama’s support and wants to strengthen Obama against those sabotaging the U.S.-Russia relations.
Putin’s Op-Ed served the purpose of strengthening the anti-war mood in the United States, and weakening militarist elites. While criticizing the decision to go to war with Syria, Putin characterized his relations with Obama as "growing trust.”
Putin understands that he was not likely to win over Russia critics and his intended audience did not include those who, like the Republican House Speaker Boehner felt "insulted” by Russian president’s criticism of the U.S. or Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez who "almost wanted to vomit” after he read the article.
Instead, the article appealed directly to the anti-war public and, judging by the overwhelmingly supportive comments by the Op-Ed readers, the message was effective. The article returned around 4,500 comments. The most popular one was by a Texan who wrote "Say what you will about the Russians and Mr. Putin in particular. This reaching out is unprecedented. … Put aside mistrust and bad feeling for the moment, and try find and do something positive for the world.”
Whatever Russia skeptics have to say,exploiting Obama’s weaknesses is hardly Putin’s intention. For example, Putin supported Obama during his re-election campaign in 2012 because his opponent Mitt Romney was hawkish on Russia and called it the "No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
Putin’s Syria proposal reflects a similar desire to weaken Obama’s hawkish opponents, not Obama himself. While Putin has a long list of complains about the U.S., he understands very well that Obama is still his best partner when compared to his critics in Washington. By formulating the proposal, Putin sought to strengthen his ties with Obama and start fresh after the series of crises in the two countries' relations. Such crises included passing of the Sergei Magnitsky Act by the U.S. Congress, granting asylum to Edward Snowden by Russia, and Obama’s decision to cancel his bilateral summit with Putin in Moscow.
It remains to be seen whether Putin’s strategy to strengthen his relations with Obama at the expense of Obama’s opponents will work. So far, Putin’s proposal helped to get Obama out of his "red line” dilemma. Despite his reluctance to go to war, the U.S. president felt obligated to do so because of his own verbally expressed commitment. Future successes in the two countries’ relations in part depend on Obama’s willingness to stand up against numerous Russia skeptics at home. In the meantime, Putin too should ignore those in Russia who sabotage.
Andrej Kreutz is Adjunct Professor of University of Calgary and Affiliated Expert of the European Geopolitical Forum
Russian-American-Syrian Triangle: The Syrian Chemical Weapons and American-Russian Relations
During the last few weeks, the Syrian-American-Russian triangle directly or indirectly involving all Syria’s neighbors and a number of other nations, has become one of the major focuses of the political commentaries. The Russian initiative to help disarm Syria from its chemical weapons and Putin’s article which was published in the New York Times on September 11, 2013 apparently contributed decisively to prevent a new American military intervention in the Middle East, and brought Russia and its leader world-wide public attention, unknown since the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to the well-known American political analyst George Friedman, for the first time since the early 1990s, the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov was able to sit with US State Secretary Kerry as an equal.
The agreement which they signed in Geneva on September 13, 2013 might open a way to solve the Syrian chemical arms problem and perhaps provide an opportunity for better Washington-Moscow relations. However, the path to those two very desirable goals is a rocky one, and there are both many obstacles to be overcome and many related dangerous problems which could remain unsolved. Although President Obama’s administration has accepted the Russian initiative and at least postponed the military attack on Syria, in the US and some other countries, there are still very powerful forces which want to go to war there. According to the prevailing consensus of the American political class, the Baathist regime in Syria needs to be destroyed. The Americans want to disarm the existing Syrian state, but are not going to stop to arm and support the Syrian rebels and their allies in the region. The future of Syria seems to be similar to that of Libya or even Somalia, and the impact of that on the whole region is difficult to predict. It is hard to believe that it could be a positive one.
The present improvement in American-Russian relations seems to be a shaky one. The US political class does not want to recognise Russia as "a partner in the world arena who is valuable in itself,” and following its imperial tradition the West still "attempts to foster the geopolitical disintegration of Eurasian space.” As the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitri Trenin notices, "The United States expects deference, Russia insists on independence. For Washington partnership with Moscow means Russia helping the United States on the US agenda; for Moscow, it means splitting the difference” and the necessary compromise. The US, which originated as a country relatively isolated from the rest of the world, and in the 20th century in the aftermath of the two great European wars (World War I and World War II) became a global superpower, has neither the experience nor the patience for that, and rightly or wrongly does not want to perceive Russia as an equal partner. While the US and its allies are persisting in their accusations of the Assad regime for the chemical attack near Damascus on August 21,2013, Russia, on the other hand, presented evidence which in its view rather indicates some groups of rebels. Moscow and Washington are also divided on the issue of the use of military force in case Damascus does not fulfill its promised chemical disarmament. Neither side seems to change its basic position on the protection of sovereignty and the right to intervene in the internal affairs of the other nations. Putin’s appeal to the American public in his article in the New York Times was received with outrage and insults from many influential members of the American political class and opinion-makers. Not just the US but the West as a whole not only "does get Putin” but his persistent demonization which was usually based on flimsy or much exaggerated premises, sometimes made it unable to make a balanced judgement and to perceive the complex reality. Partly as a result of that, the future is still uncertain and the Middle East is probably the most difficult place to achieve expected results and mutual recognition and understanding.,
However, in spite of all these challenges, one can also notice some reasons for hope and encouragement. Many American readers still found that Putin made a compelling case against military strikes, and according to public opinion polls, the majority of the Americans did not want a new war inthe Middle East. Perhaps because of that, Obama’s administration proved, at least until now, to be more cautious and moderate than some other political forces in the country. What is no less important in the case of Syria, Russia has acted and is still acting as a moderating force in international politics, not as a trouble-maker, but as a problem-solver. According to a well-known British scholar, if it would be able and willing to continue that, "a golden age of Russian international diplomacy beckons.”
1 George Friedman, "Strategy, Ideology and the Close of the Syrian Crisis”, Stratfor.com, September 17, 2013, In his opinion, "The most important outcome [of the agreement] globally is that the Russians sat with the Americans as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union” (Ibid).
2 "Interview with Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center”, by Sergey Strokan, Kommersant, September 18, 2013.
3 Richard Sakwa, "Russia’s new normal: From troublemaker to problem solver”, http://russia-direct.org, August 20, 2013.
4 Dmitri Trenin, "The Snowden Case as the Mirror of US_Russia Contentions”, Carnegie Moscow Center, August 2,2013.
5 Trenin, "Hold off on Champagne: Hard Slog Lies Ahead”, Carnegie Moscow Center, September 19, 2013.
6 For example, Democratic Senator Robert Mendez said that Putin’s article made him almost want to throw up, and the House Speaker John Boehner said he felt "insulted.” I believe Putin made an unfortunate mistake by touching the issue of American "exceptionalism”. The Americans are attached to this semi-religious idea and as in the 1920s G.K. Chesterton noticed, they are "the nation with the soul of the Church”.
7 Trenin, "The West Just Doesn’t Get Putin”, Bloomberg, September 13, 2013.
8 Stephen Cohen, "Demonizing Putin Endangers America’s Security”, www.the nation.com, September 16, 2013.
9 Sakwa, "Russia’s New Normal: From Troublemaker to Problem Solver”, htpp://Russia-direct.org, August 20, 2013.
Former Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, teaches "Leadership in the 21st century” at various business-schools in Moscow
Putin’s direct address to the Americans was an unprecedented event, which is likely to enter history as a defining moment of the world’s emerging multipolarity. The readers’ reaction to it gave this analyst a rare glimpse into the American heart, mind and soul.
I was particularly struck by the Americans’ emotional reaction to Putin and implicitly Russia (at least on the part of the New York Times readership). In all, some 4,500 readers responded to Putin’s address – an unprecedented number, an all-time record. Think of it – the Russian president suggested a common-sense solution for an impasse that the Obama administration has driven itself into. So why such a fury? Why did some characterize Putin as Satan, while others saw him almost as a Savior? Clearly the question is not about Syria. Rather it is a MORE painful question of America’s future as the hegemon.
In all fairness, perhaps 60% of readers greeted Putin’s proposal as a sensible way out of the Syrian impasse. To them, Putin’s position makes more sense than anything they hear from the American political-military-industrial-
Most emotional were some thirty percent of readers who sensed in Putin’s address a threat to American supremacy. Just listen to their language! He is a "hypocritical cunning manipulator,” "the Devil himself couldn't have written a more manipulative piece.” They called him despot, fascist, thief, "one of the most terrifying and repressive dictators in the world,” a "tyrant responsible for the imprisonment of thousands of men and women,” "another pawn taken by the Dark Lord.” They liken him to Stalin or Hitler, "the killer of freedom, the terminator of human rights,” a "strong-arm mafia godfather of the world's most corrupt mafia state” who "instituted a reign of terror against the nation's free press” and "tacitly endorses the murder of professional journalists.” All this about the leader of a great nation, not some cannibal from Uganda. For these Americans Putin is Devil incarnate who eats newborns for breakfast and threatens to unseat America from the apex of humanity’s pyramid.
To a political psychologist such hysterical vitriol betrays some profound inner fears. These psychopaths are so blinded by hatred and fear that they don’t realize how insulting their vitriol poured on Putin is to the Russian citizens. Are the Russians so stupid and indoctrinated to rate such a monster consistently over 60% and elect him three times?
Obviously Putin struck the nerve, and it was the notion of "American exceptionalism” that was its sorest point. Putin hit their key identity button. The Americans can forgive foreigners almost anything except questioning their exceptionalism, their conviction of being the "chosen.” Only an exceptional people chosen by the Almighty for a special mission have the right, indeed obligation to impose liberty, democracy and happiness on others by all means including bombs, destruction, torture and humiliation. By disavowing America’s divine right to do so Putin takes away America’s identity and raison d’etre.
Putin’s idea that "it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional” is a simple and "self-evident truth,” which Americans have to seriously contemplate before it is too late. At the moment when a nation or a group of people declare their superiority and exceptionalism they start digging their own grave. Such claim automatically creates enemies out of all other people and cultures. It creates a vicious circle of insult, wounded pride, violence, counter-violence, genocide, endless wars, destruction, and loss of life. I surmise that such claims have been the prime reason of all empires’ demise in the past. All of them perished from the hands of the barbarians because the "superior” feels no need to listen to the "inferior.” Perhaps some 10% of readers who called Putin a "true statesman,” the "most important world leader” who "deserves Nobel Peace Prize,” sensed that the self-proclaimed exceptionalism leads America to the inevitable self-destruction.
There is also a "national character” angle of the Putin-American story. The Americans were pretty comfortable with Boris Yeltsin because he perfectly fit the stereotype of a Russian -- a nice, erratic, emotional, drunk, and heroic guy. As a spontaneous and poorly organized manager Yeltsin presented no danger. Putin completely defies this stereotype which makes many Americans very confused and scared. This highly intelligent, sober, fit as a fiddle, exquisitely logical and highly efficient manager incarnates an ideal leader who can, presumably, grow only on the Anglo-Saxon soil, and yet he is a Russian Orthodox Slav. You can read between the lines of the white supremacist readers’ comments: How come that this superb Nordic specimen leads an uncivilized, reactionary and dangerous country while our great "beacon and last hope of humanity” is run by a "Kenyan Arab Muslim”? It is this agonizing cognitive dissonance which makes their blood boil.
In theDirty Harry inspector Harry Callahan (played by Clint Eastwood) tells a "bad guy”: "Make my day, punk.” Imagine that at this moment another tough guy steps in and calmly tells Callahan "No, Harry, you put your gun down, and stop harassing people.” Putin tells the world policeman that the time has come to stop intimidating other nations in the name of "democracy, progress and happiness.”
Most Americans are pragmatic and are ready to listen to Putin’s advice. Unfortunately, there are millions of Callahans out there who are outraged: "How dare you lecture us, Putin!” These armed and dangerous vigilantes are the greatest threat to the world and America in the first place.
 See Ronald Hingley, The Russian Mind(Scribner's Sons, 1977) and George Kennan, Memoirs.
Patrick Armstrong is a former political counselor at Canadian Embassy in Moscow
The dénouement of the Syria crisis provides a learning opportunity for two inimical groups of Americans. For Obama’s admirers there is the uncomfortable revelation of his and his team’s unimpressive behaviour. They will have to process this revelation.
A more conflicted group, however, are the anti-Obamites. They are to a degree delighted to have Obama shown up; they gloat that Putin "schooled him”, made a fool of him and so forth. On the other hand some are starting to complain that the agreement legitimates Assad to a degree and, in the end, may not destroy any weapons. Some, convinced, as these people are, that Putin is not only the sworn enemy of the USA but also devilishly cunning (a favourite gibe is that while he plays chess, Obama plays tick-tack-toe or some other childish game), have decided that the agreement is a huge victory for Russia. Of course this gives them another opportunity to bash Obama’s leadership which is 90% of the point of these pieces, actually.
But none of these people notice the big news. Or, rather, the big non news. And that is that we are not today hearing and seeing attacks – attacks that while "unbelievably small” are not "pinpricks” – commanded by the uncertain; attacks that are unsupported by Congress, the American population or by allies. We do not see an intervention in a savage civil war that will benefit only the jihadist enemies the US is fighting elsewhere. We do not see the light-hearted beginning of another "short sharp” intervention that will drag on and on like the eight month Libyan intervention or the three month Kosovo intervention followed by 12 years of military occupation. That is the big news: the US is not getting stuck into another mess. Were Putin the cunning enemy so many think he is, he would have encouraged Washington:"Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”Instead, he extracted it.