The Right Opinion

Vladimir Putin Takes Exception

A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an op-ed piece.

By Peggy Noonan · Sep. 14, 2013

He twisted the knife and gloated, which was an odd and self-indulgent thing to do when he was winning. Vladimir Putin, in his essay in the New York Times, may even to some degree have overplayed his hand, though that won't matter much immediately. As a public posture, grace and patience would have brought him a lot further, impressing people and allowing them to feel some confidence in the idea that he's seriously trying to offer an actual path out of the Syrian mess.

But maybe he doesn't think he has to win anyone over anymore – and maybe that's the real news. In any case, the steely-eyed geopolitical strategist has reminded us that he's also the media-obsessed operator who plays to his base back home by tranquilizing bears, wrestling alligators and riding horses shirtless, like Yul Brynner in “Taras Bulba.”

Clearly he is looking at President Obama and seeing weakness, lostness, lack of popularity. His essay is intended to exploit this and make some larger points, often sanctimoniously, about how the U.S. should conduct itself in the world. And so he chided American leadership, implicitly challenged its position as world leader, posited the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has done so much mischief, as the only appropriate decision-making body for international military action, and worried the U.N. will “suffer the fate” of the League of Nations if “influential countries” continue to take action without authorization.

He does not doubt chemical weapons were used in Syria but doubts it was the government that used them. It was probably the rebels, he asserts, in an attempt to “provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons.”

Still, in general, Mr. Putin made a better case in the piece against a U.S. military strike than the American president has for it. And he did so, in a way, by getting to the left of the president, who he implies is insufficiently respectful to international bodies. Mr. Putin was candid about his primary anxiety – a spillover from Syria that could threaten Russian stability.

The Syrian civil war, he both conceded and cleverly noted for a U.S. audience, is in no way “a battle for democracy.” He made no moral claims for his ally, Bashar Assad. The war, he said, is a battle between government and opposition, with the latter composed of militants and mercenaries including al Qaeda fighters and “extremists of all stripes.” He sees what is happening as a danger to his country. Some of the rebels are from the West, and some from Russia itself. He does not want them returning home with the training they've acquired. “This threatens us all,” he said. True enough.

Mr. Putin's challenge to the idea to American exceptionalism was ignorant and tone-deaf. The president had thrown in a reference to it at the end of his speech. Mr. Putin, in his essay, responded: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” After all, he said, God made us all equal.

My goodness, that argument won't get you very far in America, and it's a little worrying that Mr. Putin either wouldn't know this or wouldn't care. (Here it must be noted: The Times is reporting Mr. Putin's essay was placed by an American public-relations firm. Really? This is the kind of work you get from a big ticket, big-time communications outfit? Can't America even do PR anymore?)

America is not exceptional because it has long attempted to be a force for good in the world, it attempts to be a force for good because it is exceptional. It is a nation formed not by brute, grunting tribes come together over the fire to consolidate their power and expand their land base, but by people who came from many places. They coalesced around not blood lines but ideals, and they defined, delineated and won their political rights in accordance with ground-breaking Western and Enlightenment thought. That was something new in history, and quite exceptional. We fought a war to win our freedom, won it against the early odds, understood we owed much to God, and moved forward as a people attempting to be worthy of what he'd given us.

We had been obliged, and had obligations. If you don't understand this about America you don't understand anything.

I don't know why the idea of American exceptionalism seems to grate so on Mr. Putin. Perhaps he simply misunderstands what is meant by it and takes it to be a reference to American superiority, which it is not. Perhaps it makes him think of who won the Cold War and how. Maybe the whole concept makes him think of what Russia did, almost 100 years ago now, to upend and thwart its own greatness, with a communist revolution that lasted 75 years and whose atheism, a core part of its ideology, attempted to rid his great nation of its faith, and almost succeeded. Maybe it grates on him that in his time some of the stupider Americans have crowed about American exceptionalism a bit too much – and those crowing loudest understood it least.

But I suspect on some level he's just a little envious of the greatness of America's beginnings. The Russian Revolution almost killed Russia – they're still recovering. The American Revolution has been animating us for more than two centuries.

The irony of course is that Mr. Putin used the exceptionalism argument against Mr. Obama, who himself barely believes in the idea and no doubt threw it into his speech the way he often throws things like that in at the end: He thinks Americans like it, that the nationalist ego of the clingers demands it. But he doesn't mean it. Asked about American exceptionalism once, he said sure he believes in it, just as the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. Thank you for that rousing historical endorsement.

After Mr. Putin's comments, New Jersey's Sen. Bob Menendez was asked for his response. “I almost wanted to vomit,” he said. This was the best thing Bob Menendez has ever said, and really did sum up U.S. reaction.

* * *

A mystery of the Syrian crisis, and the Putin essay, is this. Mr. Putin obviously feels considerable disdain for the president, in spite of what he threw in at the end of his essay – that he and Mr. Obama have a personal and professional relationship marked by “growing trust.” Sure. But I keep thinking of Mr. Obama's meeting with then-President Dmitry Medvedev in May 2012 and Mr. Obama's famous hot-mic comment that after the election he would have “more flexibility” and hoped Mr. Putin understood that. Why didn't Mr. Obama's promised flexibility earn him any gratitude from Mr. Putin? Why didn't it earn him Mr. Putin's discretion, especially at a difficult moment like this?

One thing is certain. Mr. Putin's essay was not Nikita Krushchev slamming his shoe on the desk at the U.N. and saying, “We will bury you!” Those were bad days. We'll see, in retrospect, what these days are. It's not a cold war between the U.S. and Russia, and it's not a hot one, but there's a new chill in the air, isn't there?

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12 Comments

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

The mother of all Ironies, when Vlad Putin sounds Jeffersonian,"All men are created equal."Eisenhower had many moments of testing, during the cold war. Restraint was part of his response. O'Zilla, the destroyer, goes all out,for a tempest in a teapot. Where is the restraint, from our commander-in-chief? O'Zilla's red line, is a river in Egypt---denial, obfuscation, and simply immature!Meanwhile, in Syria, grows more fanatical with Jabhat al-Nusra-mil muzz butchers.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 6:43 AM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Ooops, delete the word 'in',in last sentence.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 6:44 AM

Abu Nudnik in Toronto said:

Two problems with your column. Most importantly, American exceptionalism has its root in the matter of self-rule where sovereignty is invested in the citizen and the government's powers are strictly limited so that liberty can flourish. This is, literally, an exception in governance. It has nothing to do (as you point out) with superiority but with literal exceptionalism. At the time of the American Revolution, the world was in revolt. Feudalism and monarchy was dying. The implosion from that ideological war led to the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the revolutions of 48, the Franco-Prussian War and all the other wars leading up to the two World Wars. America beat everyone by a long way to a completely different and exceptional idea of governance. If we can't govern ourselves, we are lost, the Founders made clear with their extraordinary document. America is still mankind's greatest hope for that reason alone. It is not exceptional as Greece was or Frenchmen think they are. It is literally an exception to all governmental systems where citizens are subjects, subject to the will of their rulers and rights are not rights but privileges given and taken away by authorities higher than they. There is no authority higher than the American citizen. THAT is the exception.

Secondly, Putin is a sadist pure and simple. Twisting knives is as natural to him as eating or combing his hair. Obama had better not show him his Nobel Prize. It'll end up in the same case as Kraft's Superbowl ring.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 9:22 AM

BuzzardB in Havertown replied:

Well put,Abu. I enjoy your rejoinders . We the people here in USA think that the clowns in colleges, politics and main stream media believe we are to listen to them and not the reverse. Getting uglier by the week. My oldest brother at FIU believes I am over the top. I think he has too long been under the influence of all those lefty clowns down there in Miami! Too many elitists in the USA. They are the ones who do not understand American exceptionalism.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 6:51 PM

Abu Nudnik in Toronto replied:

My brother also. Some people go for what's popular and what will give them the least pain. The path of least resistance. I was told that since I was very young: "Why don't you go with the flow?" they'd all ask. "I like the salmon," I'd say.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 11:59 PM

Mac in Arizona said:

"New Jersey's Sen. Bob Menendez was asked for his response. “I almost wanted to vomit,” he said." -unquote-

Gee, Bob - after stiffing that underage hooker south of the border - and your indignation of having to explain what you do on your own time..... I'd a' thought nuttin' could faze you.....

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Mac in Arizona said:

The long and short of it?

Putin and Obama pretty much are on the same damn page.... but Putin is actually better at politics (lying) - if you can believe that....

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 10:11 AM

boilingfrog in N.C. said:

I will restate my comment from a few months back. obama could be a crack smoking self admitted pedophile and the liberals would still defend their position of voting for him. Anything obama wants.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Kevin from Arkansas in USA said:

"Clearly he is looking at President Obama and seeing weakness, lostness, lack of popularity."

And Putin would be right.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 1:24 PM

Tex Horn in Texas said:

Why did Putin say America is not exceptional? Because Obama has gone out of his way to ensure that we're not. He has made us a nation of weaklings. And now, we are so deluded that many think Hillary Clinton can be our savior. So, I guess at this point, "what difference does it make?" No wonder we are the laughingstock of the world.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 1:48 PM

Ancient Warrior in The Great American West said:

We must remember that Putin is a /Russian/ patriot with 30 years' training and experience in realpolitik. He will always say and do whatever enhances Russia's power in global politics, which not so incidentally makes him look good at home and to potential allies. And no doubt makes him feel good.

He was playing this one quite well even before Kerry made him the gift of an unforced error.

Some of his statements are a bit much, and we all tend to gloat. Even while grinning between clenched teeth and shaking hands.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 2:55 PM

BuzzardB in Havertown said:

True enough Murricun! Now why does Obama not understand real politic? And all the deems in power? And how about John McCain and Obama ready to deal with the devil to make themselves feel better?

Saturday, September 14, 2013 at 8:01 PM