Grassroots Commentary

Vladimir Putin: Man of Peace

Bill Franklin · Sep. 23, 2013

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

These excerpts, from Vladimir Putin’s recent New York Times op-ed piece regarding the Syrian crisis, are remarkable in at least three respects: (i) they are the words of the leader of a hostile nation speaking directly (through one of their major newspapers) to the American people over the head of their leader, (ii) they were published on 9/11 – a day which lives in infamy, to borrow a phrase from FDR, and (iii) they parrot the liberal anti-American drivel that Obama has been spewing since his 2008 election – i.e. the supremacy of the UN among sovereign nations, America’s unexceptional nature, America the bully, etc. Obama’s “blame America first” rhetoric was inevitably bound to be shoved in his face by our adversaries like a pie in a Mack Sennett comedy routine.

Asked by a reporter in 2009 if he believed in American exceptionalism, Obama answered “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, every nation is exceptional therefore no nation is. Three years ago I blogged on the origin of the concept, which was articulated in 1831 by Alexis de Tocqueville in his commentary entitled Democracy in America describing the year he spent traveling this country. The fact that Obama doesn’t view America as exceptional speaks volumes about his political philosophy. That Putin doesn’t consider America as exceptional is understandable from an adversary.

America most certainly is exceptional, Obama and Putin notwithstanding. Its exceptionalism allowed Putin to publish his critical and disingenuous remarks even though he does not have the constitutional protection of our First Amendment. And he did so on the 12th anniversary of a sacred day when violence rained death from the sky in our country. I doubt that Obama would be accorded the same opportunity to speak to the Russian people in Pravda on the anniversary of, say, the Bolshevik or October Revolutions.

As exceptional as America is, it isn’t a license to do as it pleases in a world of full of neighbors. The Syrian face-off originated with an off-handed remark Obama made last year to a reporter about Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation…. We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.

Those are the words of war. They are at least an ultimatum that invites testing of the speaker’s resolve. Obama, however, didn’t engage in any credible activities to show Assad and the “other players on the ground” that he was prepared to back up his words with action. When the testing came, Obama blinked. He stalled for a year as the confrontation gained momentum. Putin saw a weak president, unpopular at home, who could be tangled in his own rhetoric and forced to sell a military strike to an unwilling Congress and American public. Putin’s offer of a compromise solution accomplished two things: it made him look statesman-like and it rerouted the matter through the UN where Russia can block actions not in its interests. Checkmate.

Putin can fret about the fate of the League of Nations and chide against “go it alone” actions of a sovereign nation, but the Russian president, an alleged expert in judo, used judoic diplomatic skill and judoic political leverage to exploit the corner Obama had painted himself into. Putin’s op-ed attempts to strike a chord among the war weary American public and their elected leaders by reminding them that “Afghanistan is reeling” and that Libya, which scandalously cost the lives of an American ambassador and three others, “is divided into tribes and clans” while “… in Iraq the civil war continues with dozens killed each day.” He alludes to al-Qaeda, which has infiltrated the Syrian insurgency, discredits the Syrian uprising as a democracy movement, and hints that Israel’s always-on conflict with the Palestinians could be destabilized. And then the pièce de résistance: “In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.” Well done, Vlad!

The op-ed comes across as a well-reasoned argument to give peace a chance. Hard to argue with that. But at what price? Assad’s use of chemical weapons is a violation of international law, the same law that Putin argues would be violated by an unprovoked American attack on Syria. Curious double standard there.

The US will have to agree not to strike independent of a UN authorization, which hangs a boat anchor around our neck. Assad will in return give up chemical weapons, or at least access to them, but otherwise suffers no international consequence for using them or for killing 100,000 of his people. Giving up his chemical weapons, if Assad ever does that, is like ordering a killer to surrender his murder weapon to the authorities but not arresting him for the murder. The op-ed is deceptively clever in its argument.

Meanwhile, don’t be swayed by a Trojan Horse wearing sheep’s clothing. Even as Vlad’s thought piece appeared in the New York Times, he was announcing to the world that Russia would be supplying a nuclear reactor to Iran complete with a picket fence of anti-aircraft missiles. What are we to think of this? But of course! Putin plans to be the major actor in the Middle East. Playing to the folks back home and for the eyes of the Middle East, Putin stood up to the bad ole US. He “saved” Syria from the legacy of American adventurism – which Obama broadcast in his first term apology tours as an American sin. And Putin invited Iran and its nuclear future to get under Russia’s protective blanket.

Obama’s presidential incompetence and the bumbling fecklessness of two Secretaries of State have led this region closer to a nightmare scenario that could ultimately pressure Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey to align themselves with America or its enemies in a fight for regional dominance that could mushroom into world dominance. If you believe in the literal meaning of John’s vision in Revelation 16:16 “Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon,” this could be it. Armageddon is a corruption of Har Megiddon (Mount Meggido) that overlooks the Jezreel Valley  located in Israel and  surrounded by the Palestinian West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon – the hot spot of the Middle East.

On the heels of the op-ed publication, reporters rushed to get statements from Washington’s political class, curiously concluding that anyone would care. Most politicians were publicly put off by a foreign dignitary criticizing US policy directly to the American public. Who knows if their private thoughts jibe with public comments they’ve made in the past that sound strangely Putin-like. The White House blew the op-ed off as “irrelevant.” Obama said he was more interested in “getting the policy right” than in winning “style points,” whatever that means.

Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is key to Middle East affairs oversight, said the op-ed made him want to “vomit.” Interesting moralizing from a man who last year short-changed two underage prostitutes providing him room service in a Dominican Republic resort.

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) denounced Putin’s argument as did Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who called Putin’s op-ed “an insult to the intelligence of every American.” An insult to the intelligence of every American? More than half of those intelligent Americans voted to reelect Obama.

Putin’s op-ed closes with a nice subliminal flourish: “We must work together to keep this hope alive.” Ah, the audacity of the hopeful man.

Putin won this round of face-off handily. He got everything he wanted. We got nothing.

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