Putin Touches an ‘Exceptional’ Nerve

Official Washington is in full outrage mode over a New York Times opinion article by Russian President Vladimir Putin who dared question the idea that the U.S. has a special indeed “exceptional” right to intervene militarily anywhere it wishes around the world, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar notes.

By Paul R. Pillar

Vladimir Putin’s op-ed about U.S. policy toward Syria unsurprisingly did not go down well with many American readers, principally because it was coming from Putin. They undoubtedly see an issue of whether Putin has the moral and political standing to be so preachy with Americans.

As Steven Lee Myers reminds us in the New York Times, when Putin took back the presidency a year ago he “moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices” and since then has “promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, and kept providing arms to the Syrian government.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin taking the presidential oath at his third inauguration ceremony on May 7, 2012. (Russian government photo)

Speaker of the House John Boehner said he felt “insulted” by Putin’s piece, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said that upon reading it he “almost wanted to vomit.”

Okay, we don’t like to be lectured to, about anything, by the ex-KGB man who is boss of Russia. But put aside the author’s resumé and think about the substance of the article. There are, to be sure, some grounds on which to criticize it.

Notwithstanding weaknesses in the Obama administration’s intelligence case about the chemical weapons incident, Putin expresses too much confidence in the alternative hypothesis that Syrian rebels and not government forces used the weapons. He perhaps is also a little far-reaching in spinning out some of the more dire scenarios that could result from a U.S. military strike.

But much of the rest of what Putin is saying makes sense, and it would behoove Americans to think about it. He talked about the costs, which the United States would share, of doing end-runs around the United Nations Security Council on matters on which the council ought to be involved. He restated the principles of international law regarding use of military force and self-defense. He observed that in a world in which there is less respect for law and more reliance on force, there would be more people seeking to protect themselves by acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

He noted how any military attack would claim some innocent victims and would constitute an escalation of the Syrian war. He observed that this war is not a struggle for democracy but instead a religiously-infused contest in which there are intolerant extremists on the rebel side. He pointed out how past U.S. reliance on brute force fosters negative attitudes toward the United States, and how it has failed to impart stability in the places it has been used in recent years.

The part of Putin’s piece that Americans perhaps found more irritating than any other was his final comment about American exceptionalism. Americans get especially upset about this sort of comment because it sounds to them like an affront to the very nature of America and not just particular American policies. Probably an extra annoyance was Putin’s final line invoking religion, especially coming from someone who used to work on behalf of godless communism.

But what Putin actually said here involved one of his most valid and valuable points. He said that encouraging exceptionalist thinking is dangerous because countries differ from each other on all sorts of dimensions, and there is no basis for saying that any one country’s differences sets it apart in a way that does not apply to any other countries. He was not impugning the motivation of exceptionalist thinking in the United States or anywhere else, he specifically said “whatever the motivation”, but instead was pointing out undesirable consequences of such thinking.

This closing part of Putin’s article was a direct response to the closing portion of President Obama’s speech on Syria on Tuesday. Even the final God-invoking line was a reflection of the Obama speech. Given that a “God bless” closing has become obligatory in speeches by U.S. presidents, why can’t a Russian president invoke divinity at the end of his public statements, too?

What the U.S. president said about exceptionalism in that final part of his speech was shaky enough that it shouldn’t need a Putin to expose the weakness of it. President Obama said that when “we can stop children from being gassed to death”, never mind for the moment that a U.S. military attack would not be stopping any such thing, “we should act.”

President Obama said, “That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.” Really? After all that has been said and felt through the years about an exceptional America, evoking a sense that this country represents a higher plane of basic goodness, what it comes down to is the will and wherewithal to fire off a bunch of Tomahawk missiles?

Exceptionalist thinking has more extensive and fundamental drawbacks than what is represented in this one paragraph in Obama’s speech. Three years ago I enumerated some of those drawbacks. They include such things as an inability to understand the causes of anti-Americanism, an overestimation of the inclination of other countries to follow a U.S. lead, and a failure to understand the limitations of what the United States can accomplish overseas. These and other drawbacks are apparent in much discussion about the current Syrian problem.

It would be fortunate if this problem, and the embarrassment of having to rely on Putin to help get the U.S. fat out of this particular fire, had the compensating advantage of getting more Americans to think seriously about the downside of exceptionalist thinking. That is not likely to happen, even if the message were coming from a messenger less disagreeable than Vladimir Putin.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

6 comments for “Putin Touches an ‘Exceptional’ Nerve

  1. Hillary
    September 14, 2013 at 08:38

    Unfortunately American Politicians have united with the Evangelicals and other Christians in promoting the American people as divinely chosen to lead the world to a Divine Destiny.
    American “self love” , belief in it’s “exceptionalism” and the pride and Patriotic fervor that it creates seems a basis for the present American warlike domination of other countries.
    As ”Sinclair Lewis said
    “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

  2. gregorylkruse
    September 13, 2013 at 14:28

    Putin’s Op Ed seems quite lucid and thoughtful, and of course it is exceptional as an occurrence in itself. But the writings and speeches of political figures, especially highly placed ones, cannot be taken at face value. Russians know what propaganda is too. What Putin and Obama will not talk about is the motives for their words and actions, and what constituencies they may be acting in the interests of. These are hardball players as one could gather even if the information that Kerry is consulting with Henry Kissinger was the only fact known.

  3. Ian Faus
    September 13, 2013 at 12:04

    Brilliant article. Very well said and I think this piece should be published in more mainstream broadsheets so that more Americans can read it.

    Putin is no saint and everybody knows this but he is not alone in calling America to stand down from an unilateral strike that would have dubious results.

    • incontinent reader
      September 13, 2013 at 12:58


  4. Satish Chandra
    September 13, 2013 at 11:52


    (Aug 27, 2013) If India’s nuclear forces explode India’s nuclear warheads emplaced in Washington and New York during the American attack on Syria without acknowledging they did it, no one will know whether Russia, China, North Korea or Pakistan did it. If the U.S. does identify India as the source and wants to retaliate (against what?), there is the standing warning that additional U.S. cities will be destroyed in case of any retaliation. This is a great opportunity to destroy the enemy even if the U.S. does not attack Syria — though any day is a great day for destroying the enemy United States and India need not wait for an “opportunity”.

    (Sep 2 ‘13) If it is France, not the United States, which attacks Syria, Washington and New York should be destroyed as during an attack by the United States; destroying the United States is for its crimes against India, not Syria, including the suppression of India’s legitimate ruler with the help of 24-hour satellite surveillance for the past 36 years. IndiasLegitimateRulerSatishChandraDOTblogspotDOTcom

    (Sep 9 ‘13) If Syria does disarm itself, of chemical weapons or anything else, to get rid of American threats — since the paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 above American threats have been empty threats meant to make it appear that it had not surrendered though the U.S. and all its allies had backed off and surrendered within 24 hours or less of my saying what I said in the paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 — such disarming should be taken as the same as the attack the U.S. was threatening and India should proceed with the destruction of Washington and New York and should proceed with the destruction of Washington and New York no matter what the U.S. does or says regarding Syria or anything else.

    (Sept 11 ‘13) Russia’s asking Syria to disarm itself of chemical weapons to avoid an American attack was in support of the United States’ empty threats of attack because the U.S. had surrendered after the paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 above and everything after that was pretense meant to save face; it was also a stab in the back of Syria because by asking Syria to unnecessarily disarm, Russia was collaborating with Syria’s enemy. Putin says he had agreed with Obama during the G-20 to have Syria disarm itself of chemical weapons. A former senior CIA officer had called Yeltsin “a creature of CIA support”. This is even more so for Putin who is managed by the CIA on a minute-by-minute basis and has hundreds of billions of dollars in his foreign bank accounts from kickbacks from the loot of Russia’s natural resources by Americans and others. Iran expressed approval of the plan to disarm Syria hoping it will escape an American attack. After I pointed out in the paragraph dated September 9 ‘13 above that the U.S. and allies had surrendered after my paragraph dated August 27 ‘13 and there is no threat of attack, Syria has said it will unveil its chemical arms but not surrender them. The Russian stab in Syria’s back has a lesson for India which just lost a Russian-built submarine to microwave signals from U.S. satellites — that today’s Russia cooperates with the United States in ‘screwing’ countries like India (well, the KGB assassinated Shastri at the CIA‘s request as I have described so it is not totally new). When I recently reiterated that all terrorist and separatist groups in the subcontinent are sponsored and controlled by the CIA via RAW and similar entities in Pakistan, etc. — during Yeltsin’s time 15 years ago I chided Russian intelligence agencies for emulating RAW and staging an attack by ‘separatists’ on an apartment building in Moscow that killed hundreds — the unspeakably filthy Home Minister said he has agreed with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation on a joint operation to catch Dawood from Pakistan. Now with Russia cooperating with the U.S. in ‘screwing’ India, India’s so-called government will switch to buying American defence equipment (on which Putin will get a cut from the Americans). This reaffirms the necessity for India’s nuclear forces to destroy RAW headquarters, South Block and North Block as well.

    (Sep 12 ‘13) There were headlines in some Arab media on September 11 ‘13 saying Syria will unveil its chemical arms, not surrender them. There was a similar headline about plans for Syria to “unveil” its chemical arms over an AFP report in the Hindustan Times today (Sep 12 ‘13). It seems these headlines may have been placed by the CIA to mislead me. There is an Interfax story today that the Syrian president told Russian television that he agreed to give up chemical arms because Putin asked him to, not because of American threats; earlier reports had said Putin asked him to give up chemical arms to avoid American attacks. Russia and the United States are part of the same team engaging in a ‘good cop – bad cop’ routine and both are enemies of countries like India. When a Syrian nuclear reactor was bombed and destroyed by Israel a few years ago, Syria did not even admit such a bombing occurred. Such is the behavior of the oppressed. The American media today are trumpeting the CIA supplying arms to those fighting the Syrian government just as the CIA arms and supports separatist groups in India. Without nuclear weapons to use against countries that do, you are in the deepest slavery to the latter. The oppressed have been bludgeoned into accepting this slavery. The Indian public is totally unaware of the horrendous crimes of the Americans against India, because of CIA control of the media. Under CIA’s orders, the Indian media a thousand times every day announce that the CIA-sponsored Modi’s anointment as prime ministerial candidate is “imminent” to keep the “momentum” from lapsing. This will change with the nuclear destruction of Washington, New York and RAW and, later, the coast-to-coast destruction of the United States.

    Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries joining the United States in its aggression against Syria, instead of fighting their common enemy the United States, is due to the fact that Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are also oppressed, even more than Syria and trying to save themselves by joining the aggressor. It will be a temporary reprieve. Only India is in a position to destroy the United States. India is the sole superpower today; besides being able to destroy the United States, India can compel the United States to destroy any other country in the world. After destroying Washington and New York, for example, India can compel the United States to use its nuclear armed ICBMs to destroy Moscow and St. Petersburg or have two more of its own cities destroyed (Russia can only retaliate at the cost of having all of Russia destroyed by hundreds of American nuclear armed ICBMs). There is nothing that either the United States or Russia can do to prevent this. It will not be necessary, however, to destroy any Russian cities because the United States is the sole enemy; the enmity of others is derivative because they — such as Russia — are now vassals of the United States.

    (Sept 13 ‘13) India’s status as the sole superpower resides in the person of Satish Chandra. Russia still has thousands of nuclear warheads and, in principle, is a superpower but its rulers have been bribed and are controlled by the CIA. India’s rulers are also controlled by the CIA but, even if they were not, they have neither the knowledge nor intelligence nor courage nor character to make India a superpower. Only Satish Chandra does.

    Satish Chandra

    • mtracy9
      September 14, 2013 at 00:23

      Satish Chandra appears to be
      a disciple of cultist Glenn Beck.

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