Americans are used to having televised speeches by their president followed by an opposing viewpoint from the loyal opposition. They are not, however, used to having such a message delivered by the president of Russia.
Vladimir Putin’s impeccably timed op-ed in the New York Times this week clearly caught the free world by surprise. It seemed to put Putin in a position of moral authority, lecturing the United States on the rule of law and its own long-term interests, sounding alarm over U.S. militancy and casting aside notions of U.S. exceptionalism.
The op-ed was a brilliant political maneuver, but it was only that. President Obama still is in position to take control of the Syrian crisis by making the use of force a credible option and by demanding a strict and credible accountability for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons as part of any potential settlement.
Congress could help this process enormously by now voting to give Obama its approval for the use of force if necessary. Only with a believable military option on the table would Syria and Russia feel forced to do more than just state platitudes in American media.
Putin’s op-ed was audacious for all that it didn’t say. The biggest irony of all is that his ability to address the American people this way was made possible because of U.S. respect for the rule of law, which includes constitutional protections for freedom of the press. Russia’s constitution contains similar language, and yet the International Press Institute has called Russia one of the most dangerous places in the world in which journalists can do business. Putin’s government has been known to use politically motivated investigations to retaliate for unfavorable coverage and to keep news reports in line.
Putin decried what he said is a condition in which “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force ” And yet Putin himself initiated brute force against Georgia and Chechnya without any appeal to the United Nations, let alone to any sense of democratic approval within Russia.
He neglected to note that Russia has been sending military aid to Syrian President Bashar Assad for use against rebel forces, working behind the scenes to support brute force. Nor did he confront Assad’s brutality and disdain for the rule of law, or explain Russia’s unrelenting support for the dictator.
U.S. exceptionalism is understood by its allies around the world, as well as by oppressed people who long to be free. This is a nation built upon ideals, whose conquests are followed by efforts to establish liberties and leave the conquered to govern themselves.
As Putin’s op-ed noted, “God created us equal.” However, not all nations are dedicated to the idea of allowing all people to equally pursue their potential.
Putin appears to have scored a victory in that the United States has backed off military action and turned toward a diplomatic track that may be deliberate and slow. Negotiated solutions are always preferable to war. But if Putin’s future actions demonstrate duplicity and disingenuous delay tactics, that will be quickly evident.
The Obama administration is right to take the high road and refuse to let the op-ed intrude on negotiations. But it cannot slacken its tough pressure on Assad as it pushes for a real disarmament.
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