What did Vladimir Putin get from the United States for saving President Obama from himself during the Syrian chemical weapons “crisis”? Only criticism and ridicule from a reflexive anti-Russian American news media.
For example, Fox News Channel, often a proponent of high-testosterone American responses to almost any international crisis, kept poking fun at Putin’s personal machismo by cycling film of him flipping opponents at a judo session with a photo of him hunting shirtless with a high-powered rifle. Other more mainstream media scolded Putin for his recent “in-your-face” op-ed in the New York Times, with special indignation in response to the Russian president’s criticism of U.S. “exceptionalism.” More universally, pundits either stated or implied that the Russian leader loved to intentionally tweak the Americans out of pique or that he couldn’t be trusted.
This outpouring of American ire was astounding in that it came as Russia effectively pressured Syria, its only remaining Middle Eastern ally, to promise to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy, by 2014, all of its sizable chemical weapons stockpile.
When someone is trying to help you, it is usually considered bad form, in addition to being stupid, to kick sand in the person’s face. Why does the US media pick on Russia? Although Putin has certainly made Russia more authoritarian, the US government regularly supports despots as long as they play ball with American aims—for example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt as they abuse and repress their own people. Yet hypocritically, the United States criticizes the Russians for supporting the authoritarian Syrian regime. The real rub is that the current Russian leader, unlike his predecessor, the drunk buffoon Boris Yeltsin, refuses to be an American lackey and endure post-Cold War US insults. Perhaps the American media should spend less time haughtily defending American exceptionalism and more time realizing that just because some countries disagree with American policy on certain issues, they are not necessarily out to get the United States.
America is exceptional but not for the reason its own media believes and for that same reason that Putin is appropriately criticizing. The American media, and President Obama, seem to believe that the United States is the “indispensable nation,” which really means that only the United States can use its military to police international crises to save the world from anarchy, chaos, and the forces of darkness. Yet the world found some way to get along before the United States was born in the late 18th century. In fact, America is unique because of its superior political system, which establishes limits to government power over the citizen by a diffusion of authority among several federal branches and state governments and provides respect for the rights of the individual. Yet, the US media constantly infers American virtue abroad from American virtue at home. Yet democracies and republics are not always benign abroad—for example, the British and French Empires—and autocracies are not always aggressive abroad—for example, Burma. Furthermore, in terms of number of military interventions, America, not the Soviet Union nor Russia, has been the most aggressive nation in the post-World War II world, despite US criticism of the USSR for its “empire.” And Russia has been less interventionist abroad that the Soviet Union.
Moreover, the arrogance of the superpower outlook leads to criticism of any country that might disagree with an important US policy. But special rancor is reserved for Russia, a former Cold War rival that US policymakers dragged through the mud during the 1990s. After all, little criticism was directed toward Germany, Britain, and other European nations, who refused to support a planned US military strike on Syria, while Putin and Russia have been denigrated while saving American bacon after Obama’s foolish “red line” bravado. In fact, in addition to Syrian chemical weapons, Russia has cooperated with the United States on crucial issues. For example, it has reached a nuclear arms control agreement with the United States, has allowed the United States to use Russian territory to provide vital supplies for American fighting forces in Afghanistan, and has supported economic sanctions on Iran. And who would seriously believe that if the United States captured a valuable intelligence source on Russia—such as Edward Snowden is for Russia on the United States—that it would hand him or her back to the Russians?
Finally, exactly where has Putin been dishonest with the United States? In reality, the United States may have the poorer record on honesty. Russia was sold a United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya—which authorized a no fly zone only to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s threats—but was then humiliated by a full-blown, American-led Western air campaign to topple the dictator. Even more important, as the Soviet bloc fell and the Cold War ended, in order to get Soviet agreement for a reunited Germany, then-Secretary of State James Baker promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the NATO alliance would not be expanded. That adversarial alliance now sits on Russia’s borders.
Instead of being outraged by Putin’s very reasonable letter to the American people on Syria, perhaps the American media should instead encourage the US government to finally engage in some introspection based on that letter. The president was very right to say that Syria should not be a proxy contest between Russia and the United States. Instead, the United States should abandon its own macho, militaristic “exceptionalism” and adopt a foreign policy that meddles less in the internal affairs of other countries. The settlement with Russia over Syrian chemical weapons is a good place to start.