Russian President Vladimir Putin used his recent emergence as an international peacekeeper and diplomat in the Syrian crisis to throw a challenge in President Obama’s face, using the most prominent and well-respected platform on the United States’ media landscape: the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.
In an essay published by the Times on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Putin—whose relationship with Obama has been tense and distrustful to begin with—attempted to poise himself as the great negotiator, saving innocent lives in Syria by heading off an American military attack pushed by President Obama. Putin openly countered the narrative Obama established in his speech to the nation on Tuesday night and appealed directly to the American people by raising the specter of increased resentment and terroristic incursions against the U.S. if Obama hits Syria. Indeed, in a flourish of extreme hyperbole, Putin said an American strike could upset the balance of the entire globe.
“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders,” Putin wrote. “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.”
Since the news broke that Syria would consider a proposal floated by Secretary of State John Kerry, that it turn over its chemical arsenal to the international community with plans for it eventually to be destroyed, commentators in the U.S. and abroad are busy trying to dissect the meaning of it all. This proposal could avert an American military strike, but does it make Obama look weak, like he’s allowing Putin to take over the mantle as leader of the free world? If Obama backs off from a military strike to let Russia lead negotiations over Syria’s chemical stockpile, will this render him powerless? Was this part of Obama’s grand scheme all along, to use the threat of a military strike to bend Syria to the will of the U.S. without having to drop any bombs? Was it a slip of the tongue that led Kerry to verbalize the offer to Syria, or was it part of a long-range plan crafted by the president?
In his Op-ed, Putin directly challenged the points Obama made in his speech to the nation on Tuesday, when Obama said Syria had to be punished for a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people, killing more than 1,400.
“The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk,” Obama told the American people. “On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.”
“Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong,” Obama said. “But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
But Putin had a different take.
“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,” Putin wrote. “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.”
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said when he first read Putin’s editorial while eating dinner, “I almost wanted to vomit.”
“I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests, and what is not,” Menendez told CNN. “It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is.”
Putin made a direct appeal to the fears of the American public—and a direct challenge to Obama in his attempts to sway the public.
“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,” Putin wrote. “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.”
In statements to CNN, a White House official attempted to put a positive spin on the Putin essay, saying it meant that the Russian president was taking ownership of the Syrian crisis.
“That’s all irrelevant,” the White House official said in response to Putin’s challenge to Obama. “He put this proposal forward and he’s now invested in it. That’s good. That’s the best possible reaction. He’s fully invested in Syria’s CW [chemical weapons] disarmament and that’s potentially better than a military strike – which would deter and degrade but wouldn’t get rid of all the chemical weapons. He now owns this. He has fully asserted ownership of it and he needs to deliver.”