That Op-Ed by Putin: Where Is He Right, and Where Is He Wrong?

by Erica Chenoweth on September 12, 2013 · 25 comments

in Foreign Policy,International Relations

Here’s my quick and dirty run-down of Putin’s op-ed published in today’s New York Times. In some places, I assess whether his statements are accurate in terms of what political science research has said. In other places, I just look at it from a logic perspective. His statements are in quotes, and my responses are below.

*******

A Plea for Caution from Russia, by V. Putin (published in the print edition of the NYT on September 12, 2013, page A31).

“Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies. Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again. The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.”


MEH. This is an oversimplification of the League’s collapse and the UN’s role in world politics. Arguably its collapse began when countries initiated wars of aggression—particularly the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, during which the Italians used mustard gas on civilians. Haile Selassie, then Emperor of Abyssinia, came before the League to issue an emotional appeal for action to roll back Italian aggression, but none was forthcoming. This effectively killed the foundational doctrine of the League—collective security—where aggression was supposedly outlawed and theoretically deterred through universal military response to the aggressor. Ironically, then, the UN is in a bit of a paradox. The UN is concerned with two levels of peace—inter-state peace, which Putin references above, and intra-state peace, which he summarily ignores. Yes, it’s illegal for countries to go to war with one another when the UNSC flatly rejects it. On the other hand, it’s also illegal for leaders to commit indiscriminate murder against their own people (hence the R2P doctrine). This means that the UN is in a bind. Its presence as a force to check aggression against ones own people is thwarted by Russia’s insistence on placing the legality of UNSC’s veto player doctrine above the legality of punishing leaders who commit crimes against humanity.

 

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.”

PROBABLY TRUE. Research is all over the map on the question of how limited military actions affect humanitarian conditions and escalation of conflicts. However, I am more persuaded by prior studies that show that on average, military interventions actually exacerbate killings (at least in the short term), lengthen “spells” of repression, and often lengthen civil wars themselves. Extremely robust multilateral interventions—involving boots on the ground and multidimensional efforts to reform political, economic, and social conditions—can halt these killings. But that’s not what the Obama administration is considering, nor is it plausible in this case given Russia and China’s objections.

 

“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

PROBABLY. Previous research shows that weaker states often use asymmetric capabilities to attack their more powerful rivals, and this often occurs in direct retaliation for military actions. Weaker powers know that they cannot confront stronger powers using conventional military force. However, weaker powers also know that sponsoring terror attacks is relatively cheap and low-risk (since they can always deny it), that stronger powers cannot prevent every terror attack, and that stronger powers tend to overreact to terror attacks, which can ultimately weaken them. Think about the series of events surrounding the Lockerbie bombing—Libya’s retaliation for Reagan’s strikes on Benghazi and Tripoli (which was, by the way, retaliation for a Libyan-sponsored terror attack on American officers in a German nightclub).

 

“It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.”

QUITE LIKELY. My thought here isn’t based on research as much as my sense that a strike on Syria would preclude any chance for us to work with the Iranians or the Russians on anything in the near future. Part of the reason Putin has been so unrelenting on Syria is his displeasure with UNSC Resolution 1973. With its aftermath, the Russians felt they were felt tricked into withholding their veto and the result was a back-door regime change campaign in Libya. The Iranians have been launching one hell of a PR campaign lately, but a strike in Syria would probably heighten their security concerns rather than diminishing them. Moreover, Assad has repeatedly invoked threats to the Israeli-Palestinians peace process as something of a deterrent against a US strike, implying that if the US does strike, his regional allies will retaliate against Israel. If this happened, it could certainly be quite the distraction from the peace process.

 

“It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

GIVE ME A BREAK. First of all, it depends on which laws you’re talking about (see my discussion above). Assad has broken a considerable number of international laws—as has Russia—over the course of this crisis. And second, the international order is based on the balance of power in the system, which seems to be quite stable at the moment. Although the United States has not been taking a forward military posture in the Middle East lately, objectively its hard power assets remain considerable. If there is one stable rule in international politics, it’s the one Thucydides wrote about in 431 BC: Great powers do what they will while the weak suffer what they must. If anyone knows that, it’s Putin.

 

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria.

IT DEPENDS. There are plenty of people there still fighting for democracy—some still using nonviolent means, believe it or not!—while armed rebel groups there are doing what armed rebel groups do pretty much everywhere else. Most civil wars of this nature don’t wind up as democracies regardless of who wins, but that’s besides the point. The most pressing concern is to stop the killing. Actually no one has a very good sense of who the “good guys” are in Syria these days. Putin certainly doesn’t know who the good guys are, given that he has supported the first side to commit indiscriminate murder from the very beginning.

 

“But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations.”

YES, BUT SO WHAT? The Obama administration’s strike on the Syrian government’s assets would allegedly be so limited that it would not affect the balance of power on the ground. And even if the strike did give the Qaeda fighters better chance against the Assad government, it would give similar advantages to secular rebels groups.

 

“This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.”

UM…How about all of those foreign weapons supplied to the regime? When states fund incumbent regimes, the likelihood that the rebels receive state support goes up dramatically. C’mon, Putin. Don’t you remember the Cold War? It’s true, though, that external support generally increases incentives for rebel groups to emerge, while increasing the likelihood that they abuse civilians.

 

“Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

YEP. It’s a problem. There are no easy, short-term solutions, though, and Putin is being disingenuous here when he implies that a U.S. strike (or lack thereof) will alter this situation.

 

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”

BLAH BLAH BLAH. Russia’s attempt to push for “peaceful dialogue” occurred while Russia was sending arms to Assad and blocking the all of the UN’s attempts to resolve the conflict. Syria is on trial now for its own violation of international law. Again, see above.

 

“We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” 

THAT IS TRUE. In the absence of a UNSC resolution, a U.S. military strike would be illegal.

 

“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.”

FEW ARE BUYING THIS. In fact, there is every indication that the UN—the law-enforcing body Putin so clearly respects—will point the finger at Assad’s government in the report it will release on Monday.

 

“Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

I DOUBT IT, on two fronts. First, Putin seems to be conflating militants here. There are Al Qaeda types in Syria, who seem to be preoccupied with Assad at the moment. Then there are Al Qaeda types in Lebanon, who recently fired rockets into Israel. Second, if such an attack is in the works, I highly doubt that Israel is “ignoring” it.

 

“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, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”’

IT DEPENDS. Pew polls suggest that people still have fairly favorable views of the American government, although some see it as something of a bully (this is especially true in the Muslim world). On the other hand, Putin doesn’t really seem to care much about how “millions around the world” view it either. Global popularity may help a country get what it wants, but it is not a vital interest.

 

“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.”

KINDA. Although major military adventures weren’t too successful in the end, some have argued that special operations missions and targeted killings of Al Qaeda affiliates have been quite effective, actually.

 

“No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.”

MUCH OF THIS IS TRUE. No military strikes, regardless of how “surgical”, can avoid collateral damage. It’s important to keep in mind that even when we’re talking about “humanitarian interventions,” we are talking about killing other people. Unfortunately systematic research on precisely how many people die in such strikes is hard to come by. Why? Because governments don’t keep track of how many civilians die in such strikes.

 

“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. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.”

AND WE’RE BACK TO IRAN. It’s difficult to fully understand what’s going on in Iranian leaders’ minds at the moment. But working together on nonproliferation—including the Iranian issue—will be difficult if Putin withdraws his cooperation from U.S. efforts. I do think that the claim that inaction in Syria will embolden Iran is overstated, though. The U.S. has been much more considered and consistent as to its interests regarding the Iranian nuclear program than Obama has been vis-à-vis Syria.

 

“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

A WELCOME IDEA INDEED…if Putin is sincere, that is.

 

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. 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. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action. 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. If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

TOTALLY. To me this is the most promising aspect of the current negotiations. If the US and Russia can work together on this problem and find a way to get to common ground, it may build trust and provide opportunities to do more together—both on Syria and elsewhere.

 

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. 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. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.”

WHY EXTERMELY DANGEROUS? Studies show that nationalism (and other forms of identity) are only really dangerous when leaders take advantage of these symbols to pursue policies that are dispossessive and dehumanizing, and predatory. I don’t know of any studies that argue that self-congratulatory nationalism alone leads to violence.

 

“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

NO OBJECTION HERE.

{ 25 comments }

Dan September 12, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Seems to me the sole reason Putin published this piece was to attempt to further erode American popular support for military backup of the diplomatic option. I would evaluate everything here in that context: what arguments can he pull out of his pocket to convince more Americans to go against that policy, so as to undermine Obama’s negotiating position in the diplomatic arena.

I don’t care whether Putin “believes” anything stated here, that seems irrelevant. He’s just trying to shift public opinion in a moment of perceived opportunism following the Tuesday speech — a “field tactic” calculated to improve his strategic position.

I’m personally still on the fence about military action. But the more that Putin argues against it “in principle” the more I’m inclined to give it another look. There must be a big reason why Putin wants it off the table, i.e., that he believes he is in a stronger position without it. That in itself suggests to me that it might be valuable to keep it on the table, as an option at least, if not a guaranteed threat (that is, don’t pre-define the conditions for its use — no more “red lines” here).

Somehow I don’t think Putin is quite up to the level of playing political jujitsu in this arena (“oh please don’t throw me in the briar patch”) — I don’t believe he secretly wants the military option to be on the table. So, let’s keep it on the table for now.

Putin clearly recognizes that Russia does have some common interests with America, and where that recognition is clear it makes sense to work together provisionally and contextually. But I would never view Putin as an “ally” of America in any foreseeable scenario. Any such alliance is purely contingent upon his self-interest, including domestic power politics that may or may not be in the interest of Russia as a nation.

Bottom line, this op-ed seems as good a reason as any to keep military action on the table.

Erica Chenoweth September 13, 2013 at 11:55 am

Dan, I also think it’s irrelevant whether Putin “believes” any of his claims. If, as you say, his attempt was to try to shift public opinion, I thought some readers might be interested in what was and was not accurate in his statements. In fact, I noticed that some people in the US were reposting/citing it as if he had some unique and credible view on the situation.

Scott September 12, 2013 at 8:06 pm

“We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Apparently except for gay people. They go to jail.

Rob September 12, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Or if you openly denounce Putin.
Or if you monitor elections.

Michael Dillon September 12, 2013 at 10:19 pm

Thousands of people monitored the recent elections in Russia, and Vladimir Putin himself called for transparency and fairness. In the Moscow region they had all polling stations monitored by security cameras and a central monitoring center with people constantly watching for irregularities. These security camera feeds were shown on TV as well. Here is an article in English
http://www.epde.org/newsreader/items/golos-press-release-on-regional-and-local-elections-in-russia-election-day-proceedings.html

Nick September 14, 2013 at 3:16 am

The above remarks reflect basic misconceptions and lack of knowledge about current day Russia. Exceptionally striking when found among readers of this blog.
First, one has to understand the logic behind the infamous antigay law. Actually, it’s not targeting gays as such but forbids “propaganda” of gay’s views among children. The goal apparently was to claim that the political opposition which will be inflamed by the law and start criticizing it is populated by perverts and pedophiles. Of course, such broadly formulated (and, therefore, poorly working) laws have inevitably unintended consequences, in this case hurting gays in Russia. But in socially conservative – to a certain degree only – Russia gays are not put in jail for being gays. It is widely known that some top Kremlin players are gays themselves, and no one really gives a damn about that. Making a long story shorts, the antigay law is basically a political ploy, one among many unsuccessful and fruitless efforts to undermine opposition. So most Western critics of the law simply miss the point.

Second, in today’s Russia one can not only publically criticize its political leader in printed and digitalized media but pile dirt on him in enormous quantities. But there is a catch. You can not do this on major TV channels which are either formally owned by the Government or indirectly but firmly controlled by it. The regime uses TV perhaps as its most important instrument (or a club) to shape a reality within the country.

What these clarifications amount to is to serve as a reminder to the readers of the blog is that Russia in many important ways is not yesterday’s Soviet Union and free to the degree simply unimaginable in the previous century. It is – at least, so far – managed to remain only semi-autocratic. Russia also presents a challenge to the political science to define in clearer terms the sort of a regime it has built over the years. The existing regime is, no doubt, exotically unique and, hence, unstable.

Michael Dillon September 12, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Actually, the law that you are talking about does not send anyone to jail. It is a law for the protection of children from sexual propaganda and it sets various levels of fines for violation. If presented with the same text in the USA, most congresspeople would be in favor of that law.

Fred September 12, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Dr. Chenoweth writes “The Obama administration’s strike on the Syrian government’s assets would allegedly be so limited that it would not affect the balance of power on the ground. And even if the strike did give the Qaeda fighters better chance against the Assad government, it would give similar advantages to secular rebels groups.”
If the strike is so limited, why bother? If it is not so limited, who cares about secular rebels groups – any strike that increases the chances that the Qaeda fighters will take possession of the chemical weapons is horrendously stupid and horrendously stupid decisions seem to be a recent specialty of US presidents of both parties.
Dr. Chenoweth also ignores that Syria is relatively very close to Russian borders and relatively far away from US borders. The Russians have rational concerns about their own security which Putin points out. They have lost far more lives to Al Qaeda than the US (and contrary to most Americans I believe Putin, despite his many faults, sincerely worries about getting more Russians killed). If the Russians were to threaten attack on a dictator in Central America allied with the US, the US president would have similar rational concerns but probably would not express those concerns as diplomatically.
This looks to be very like Afghanistan in the late 1970′s and 1980′s where the Russians were fighting ‘terrorists’ and we were supporting ‘freedom fighters’ with weapons that were later turned on us. Russia is hosting another Olympics – maybe we should boycott again?
Putin is a thug but even thugs can have reasonable thoughts occasionally.

Erica Chenoweth September 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm

Fred, my comments weren’t meant to imply that I support a limited strike. I do not. In several other sections of this post, I suggest why: a strike would likely lengthen the duration of the conflict, increase civilian fatalities, and heighten the risk of American fatalities down the road. The type of intervention required to bring about the end of this conflict is not currently on the table. But the type of intervention that the Obama administration is currently considering, he claims, would have very little effect on tipping the power balance among rebel groups. This is precisely why, as you point out, critics are asking why the US would bother.

I take no issue with your additional comments about Russian proximity to Syria and Putin’s concerns with Russian security. But Putin never made those points directly, and this post was simply to evaluate the claims he did make directly.

Mark September 12, 2013 at 10:42 pm

This post misses the forest for the trees. The purpose of Putin’s op-ed in America’s leading newspaper was to publicly stomp on the Administration and mark his territory. He is treating the President like a little lost lamb. A national leader would not do this unless they had contempt for the people they are dealing with and no fear about showing it so openly. There’s a new boss in town and any deal will be on Russia’s terms, though the Administration may be compelled to accept it and tell us it is a good deal just to save face.

Jon Jarman September 12, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Well said.

Jon Jarman September 12, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Putin writes,

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria [...] will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

What destabilizes a region is when powerful countries stand by and let mad men like Assad, Ahmadinejad, Eyadema, Gaddafi, Kim Jong-Il, Castro, Amin, (and you) do crazy things without consequence. It is unstable because powerful tyrants like you protect other tyrants like Assad.

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious country…”

Actually, it is. You are simply lying at this point. This is an attempt for a secular group of rebels to rise up against the ultra-religious, oppressive regime that has killed more than 100,000 of its own citizens in the last two years. Assad is guilty of crimes against humanity and it is a terrible shame that nothing has been done so far. At least the “rebels” are doing something. Both of our countries should be ashamed of ourselves, especially yours.

“There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.”

Yes, Kerry may not admit it, but this is true: terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda have joined the fight against the Syrian government because this is an opportunity for them too. They don’t represent this movement, though, and they are absolutely no reason to allow Assad to remain in power considering that Assad has killed more innocent people than all of Al Qaeda has in all of history.

“Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

So, your concern is that mercenaries will fight in Syria and gain so much valuable experience that they come back to your country and pose a significantly greater threat than they would otherwise? What a ridiculous waste of time to even address this. Any extremism bred in Syria only stands to gain momentum if good men do nothing.

“From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

Well, that is not true at all. You only stand with Assad and would like nothing more than the rebels being crushed under his boot. You have supplied Assad with weapons, equipment, and advice in order to so just that. If you care so much about International Law, why have you not taken a stronger stance against the use of chemical weapons? The only reason you care about the use of the United Nations Security Council is because you are one of the 5 executive countries with the power to veto anything (like U.S. air strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons). How about our extradition agreement? You don’t seem to be sending Snowden home. You are a hypocrite with virtually no integrity, and it is your failure to appropriately respond to the oppressive, violent Syrian government that has allowed the region to deteriorate to the level it has. If anything, we are trying to step in and do the right thing where you have obviously fallen short, from blocking any UN action against Syria to vetoing all UN relief to their civilians.

“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. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

…Add to all that the fact that you deny Assad even used chemical weapons, despite the mountain of intel that proves without doubt that he did, and further, blame those attacks on the rebels, goes to show that you are either completely out of touch, completely full of shit, or both.

“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, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’”

…says the KGB thug who is cracking down against gays in his own country, his own Russian citizens, in the most laughable version of “democracy” outside of The “People’s Republic” of China.

“No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.

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. This is logical: if you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen nonproliferation, when in reality this is being eroded.

We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement. A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. 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.”

You have chosen to give Assad a free pass for his atrocities and cry for “civilized diplomatic” settlement to be your Trojan Horse. The proposal for Assad to turn over his weapons will not work, mark my words. You cannot deal with men like Assad or yourself because you have no integrity and will quickly turn this deal into a political stand against America such as, “We will turn over our chemical weapons when America stops its Imperialism in our region” or “stops its aggressive actions against Iran” or some other nonsense that serves only to highlight both your fundamentalism and refusal to cooperate with our president on a level with our own Republican party.

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. 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. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal. – Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia.”

If you think your relationship with our president is marked by growing trust, I can only stand stunned at your disconnect with reality. We are not equal, Putin. Some countries are much more powerful and influential than others, and that power brings with it the responsibility to keep peace in the face of evil, even if that means by force. If this problem could be solved by Russia, it would have already been done. Russia stands as part of the problem, and your advice is nothing more than the ramblings of a hypocrite as oblivious as the tyrants you protect.

Bandolero September 13, 2013 at 1:23 am

I’m a bit surprised that Putin’s view is not as clear for experts as it seems to me.

1st) Cause for violence & legal dispute. Putin’s view on what’s going on in Syria is that it was a US-sponsored regime change operation from the start, kind of an extension to the string of US-sponsored colored revolutions of the last decade, but in the case of Syria enhanced with US-backed terrorist elements and irregulare warfare. This US-backed regime change op and the US-backed terrorists are responsible for the violence in Syria. The Syrian government defends itself against this US-led plot with legitimate and appropriate means. The reports on Syrian government attrocities, including those compiled by some UN bodies, Putin views as US-cooked propaganda lies, based on false testimony of US-backed terrorists. In Putin’s view, the US has organized a humanitarian crisis in Syria precisely to make a pretext for US military intervention aiming at regime change. In Putin’s view, the US-motive for this bloody plot was and is to reach the strategic goal of weaking the Iran-led axis of resistance. Putin has a string of evidence in support of his view: Bush’s MEPI program to foment regime changes in the arab world was continued under Obama, diplomatic cables of the US show intent to destabilize Syria, one of Obama’s Presidential directives initiating the so-called “arab spring”, one-sided political statements by US government officials and one-sided US-media coverage to foment strife in Syria and so on. Thus Putin sees now repeated desire for US-military action on humanitarian grounds just as a continuation of a preplanned bloody US-led regime change operation in Syria and therefore a totally immoral and illegal war of aggression. Putin is of the opinion that there does not exist any legality of R2P military enforcement without the UNSC and sees the US led military op against Russias ally Yugoslavia as illegal.

2nd) Consequences. “It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.” As I understand it, it is a veiled threat of how Russia will respond if the US continued policies seen by Russia – and others like China – as policies of violent regime changes in foreign countries. So far Putin’s buddy Pushkov, head of theDuma’s foreign affairs committee, has only signaled a very limited Russian reaction to an open US aggression against Syria: delivery of weapons to Iran and blocking of Russian cooperation with the US over Afghanistan. Putin is here announcing that the Russian reaction on an open US aggression against Syria could be much broader. Putin may consider Russia leaving the NPT for example so that Russia can give its’ friends a nuclear deterrent to be safe against US aggression. Putin gave a hint on this with saying it’s logical that countries seek nuclear deterrents when international law is eroding, meaning, when the US launches blooby regime change ops where and when it likes. Northern Korea already went this way and Northern Korean leaders mock the US for offering them a few years earlier to rid their nuke programm to be as well off as Libya.

3rd) Limited strikes. Putin doesn’t believe that the US will do only limited strikes on Syria, because long standing US policy is regime change, and even if Obama intends to make the strikes limited, he won’t be able to, cause the lobby will press him to keep on, especially when there will be hard Syrian-Iranian retaliation. Putin thinks these limited strikes will become almost inevitably an all out war between the US and it’s allies and the Iranian-led axis of resistance. Syria and it’s allys will likely react harshly on US strikes, eg by trying to take out some US battleships with the Made-in-Russia-Yakhonts, maybe even a carrier or two, and smoking out some US bases in the region. Will the US hold back then, and say, OK, our punishment of Syria was properly done? Putin probably assumes, that the US will further escalate when Syria and it’s partners hit back. Iran will probably activate it’s mutual defense pact with Syria then and there we are: a full fledged US-led war against the Iranian axis of resistance. If US strikes do lead to such a war, Russia made it’s position clear: Russia will try to deliver Syria and Iran with the weapons they need to win.

Thus, I see Putin’s NYT op-ed as a friendly-worded, but stark warning to the US: “It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance” is the key sentence of Putin’s warning, and, as far as I know, Putin is well known to follow-up stark words with stark action.

Dan September 13, 2013 at 2:48 am

Interesting viewpoint, certainly as plausible as anything else I’ve heard. Past history of US aggression (prior to the Obama admin) is coming back to haunt us. It’s not an easy position fr Obama to be in, any more than his position right after the Wall Street crash when he took office in 2009.

But clearly this is not the best option for Putin (to have America go ahead with a military strike, with all the consequences as described above). If we accept this scenario, he’s just saying: “If you make us bleed, we’ll make you bleed too.” But he’d probably rather not bleed if he doesn’t have to, and he’d rather have a stable international situation.

So as long as the military option remains on the table, it still suggests to me that Putin will be more seriously interested in negotiating the give-up of chemical weapons in order to avoid it. It’s odd to see Obama on the perpetrating side of brinksmanship, after having been on the receiving side of it for so long in Congress.

Or maybe not so odd after all.

BTW, how come nobody is calling Assad himself a terrorist? There’s terror on both sides here, and as much or more on his side than the rebels. Use the word. Doesn’t ethnic cleansing qualify?

John Glover September 13, 2013 at 10:13 am

When a civil war is based on, among other things, ethnic divisions within a country, it’s very easy to yell “ethnic cleansing.”

Along the same lines, Erica says: “Yes, it’s illegal for countries to go to war with one another when the UNSC flatly rejects it. On the other hand, it’s also illegal for leaders to commit indiscriminate murder against their own people (hence the R2P doctrine).”

This is a civil war. Is it really an accurate statement, in that context, that Assad is “committing indiscriminate murder against his own people”?

I am reminded again of this post: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/your-labor-day-syria-reader-part-2-william-polk/279255/

where the author said:

“Third, as students of guerrilla warfare have learned guerrillas are dispersed but civilians are concentrated. So weapons of mass destruction are more likely to create hostility to the user than harm to the opponent. The chronology of the Syrian civil war shows that the government must be aware of this lesson as it has generally held back its regular troops (which were trained and armed to fight foreign invasion) and fought its opponents with relatively small paramilitary groups backed up by air bombardment. Thus, a review of the fighting over the last two years suggests that its military commanders would not have seen a massive gas attack either as a “game changer” or an option valuable enough to outweigh the likely costs.”

This does not sound like ethnic cleansing to me. Nor does it sound like a madman indiscriminately murdering his own people.

We have to get ourselves away from this rhetoric. If we want to act as an international community (which I am all in favor of), we can only begin by having a clear understanding of what is going on in Syria and why.

Erica Chenoweth September 13, 2013 at 12:39 pm

John, I never claimed that Assad had to be a “madman” in order to indiscriminately murder his own people. In fact, the best argument I have seen for why leaders do this comes from Ben Valentino, who argues that mass killings are a logical choice when desperate leaders perceive an existential threat to their positions and lives. Valentino argues that the most common type of mass killing in the 20th century was in counter-guerrilla campaigns, where governments targeted large numbers of civilians who they perceived to be supporting rebel groups. In other words, most indiscriminate killings of civilians occur in the context of civil wars. Few people dispute that during the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Assad’s security forces and militias were killing unarmed civilians. And indeed, since then, many unarmed civilians have been killed in the intermittent fighting both by rebel groups and the government. Generally, the figures are that the government has been responsible for over 60% of the deaths whereas opposition forces have killed under 40%. War crimes have been committed by both sides. My point here was to challenge Putin’s claim that somehow the “real bad guys” are the rebels alone. And yes, even in the context of civil war, indiscriminate murder is an observable reality.

Bandolero September 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm

“Generally, the figures are that the government has been responsible for over 60% of the deaths whereas opposition forces have killed under 40%.”

Interesting. I would also love to have such reliable sources. Could you disclose them?

My sources are not better then these:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/14/syria-death-toll-120000_n_3272610.html

Dan September 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm

I don’t accept Polk’s logic referenced above by JG: concentration of urban population means those populations are easier to avoid (weapons of mass destruction are still somewhat localized — they just get everyone in that local area rather than targeting military installations, etc.). As I understand it the recent Syrian gas attacks were not in the cities, they were in the areas populated largely by rebels.

Surreal September 13, 2013 at 8:56 am

I cannot believe how superficial this post is. Are you fact checking and subjecting Putin’s op ed against the literature? Is this a joke? Was he taking your class? Was this an assignment? This is a piece of realpolitik! Something that a scholar like you should use as evidence, instead of criticize! Then you wonder why political science is considered irrelevant… It does show, though, a post that would fit right in the POST: unmitigated patriotism.

John Glover September 13, 2013 at 10:18 am

Oh yeah, on nationalism. The professor says:

“WHY EXTERMELY DANGEROUS? Studies show that nationalism (and other forms of identity) are only really dangerous when leaders take advantage of these symbols to pursue policies that are dispossessive and dehumanizing, and predatory.”

If you ask me, that pretty much sums up the direction our government has been going in since September 11.

Bandolero September 13, 2013 at 5:07 pm

“If you ask me, that pretty much sums up the direction our government has been going in since September 11.”

I’ld disagree with that and opine that there didn’t change much in these terms after 911 except the budegt used for living the American exceptionalism.

Do you remember? On May 12, 1996, Madeleine Albright appeared on a 60 Minutes segment in which Lesley Stahl asked her “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” and Albright replied “we think the price is worth it.”

North Russia Intervention, the coups in Guatemala and Iran, the coup attempt 1957 in Syria, the operation in the bay of the pigs, Vietnam, the green belt policy, overthrowing Allende in Chile followed by Operation Condor in Latin America, Covert support for the the Contras, using Al Qaeda to destabilize Chechenia and Bosnia, bombing Belgrad, just to name a few. And don’t forget the humanitarian geniality of US backing for Paul Kagame enabling him to conquer Rwanda to get the US in control over the resources in eastern Congo so far hold by the French. Ah, yes, before I forget, of course, I should not forget to mention the CIAs phantastic Indonesia psyop Operation GESTAPU resulting in ~300k dead where Barack Obamas stepfather was one of the leading guys who perpetrated it.

There is much more, lot’s of American exceptionalism all over the world in the past 100 years.

J September 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm

I’m curious about how this is playing in Russia (and I’m too lazy/busy to dig myself). Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but isn’t Putin’s primary audience for this in Russia? Doesn’t he stand to gain domestically if he appears to stand up to the U.S.? And thus doesn’t placing this in the NYTimes better accomplish this goal than placing it in the Russian media?

dar September 14, 2013 at 6:25 am

You cite absence of research to argue that exceptionalism isn’t harmful. This seems very much like wishful thinking to me. Absence of a proof is a weak argument to make. In fact, your response sounds tellingly defensive. I can imagine even pundits & scholars get a warm, fuzzy feeling when they think of American exceptionalism. Lets call it a nationalist bias, which is probably bi-partisan.

If it isn’t American exceptionalism which makes America think it should go about righting all the wrongs in the world, then i don’t know what does.

dar September 14, 2013 at 6:38 am

In addition, Exceptionalism as an idea is clearly used by the Administration to legitimize its various overreaches. Insofar as it aids unchecked use of power as a marketing instrument of the Govt., it is indeed dangerous.

Mark September 14, 2013 at 10:16 pm

On rereading it I’m wondering whether Putin just took an article written by an American progressive in 2003 and made a couple of minor edits.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: