An Attack On American Exceptionalism By An Unexceptional Russian

I have tried to defend the concept of American exceptionalism on liberal grounds, as we debate what to do about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. And now, published late on Wednesday night on The New York Times website, comes a strange op-ed by none other than Vladimir Putin, a weird and, well, creepy president of Russia, who, among other things, explicitly challenges the notion of American exceptionalism on a platform provided by America’s preeminent newspaper.

I won’t go into how Putin’s piece sounds so much like what a lot of liberal Democrats and libertarian-conservative Republicans, who oppose American strikes against Assad’s regime, are saying. I won’t go into that because I don’t for a minute take this God-loving former KGB officer turned authoritarian-peacenik seriously at this point. Time will tell how many choruses of Kumbaya Putin will sing before he either makes good on his peace-promoting proposals or he blames any failure on American recalcitrance and imperialism.

And I won’t now go into how insulting it is, for those who not only know some Russian history* but contemporary Russian policy,** for a Russian authoritarian to lecture Americans, via The New York Times, on how, “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” Yeah, right.

What I will briefly address is this statement by Putin:

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.

It is not, of course, “dangerous” for American folks to “see themselves as exceptional,” as long as at the core of that exceptionalism is the notion that we stand for the civilizing principle that all people ought to, if they want to, enjoy the blessings of liberty and representative government. And standing on that civilizing principle, as the unmistakable leaders of the free world, we should also stand ready to befriend, and in some cases defend, others around the world who also want to enjoy those blessings.

For a former KGB man to tell Americans, who live under a philosophical experiment of freedom and self-governance, that it is extremely dangerous for us to see our democratic experiment as exceptional, while Putin is attempting to squash freedom and real democracy in his own country—Google search “Pussy Riot” for confirmation or see an article in the New York Times on the last presidential election in Russia—is more than off-putting and offensive. It suggests an ulterior motive, which will likely become clear over time.

I hope I’m wrong about that. I hope that Obama and Kerry are able to work something out on the Syrian chemical conundrum, something positive and effective. But we should remember, even if a Russian leader wants us to forget, that if something peaceful and positive does come from our confrontation with Syria’s regime, it is because of the threat of American military power.

And that threat comes from a view of American exceptionalism that, in this case, includes making sure that thugs in strange places aren’t free to weaponize banned chemical compounds and use them to gas to death in their sleep innocent civilians, at least some of whom yearned to breathe the air of freedom.

[Bassam Khableh/Reuters]

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* From a paper published in 2005 by the Government Department of Wesleyan University:

Russia lacks nearly all the usual prerequisites for a successful transition to democracy. In its long
history there is no experience of democracy, nor cultivation of civil society, to draw on. Two
centuries of the Mongol yoke were followed by 500 years of the most oppressive autocratic rule
in Europe, followed by 75 years of Soviet totalitarianism: the most innovative and deep-rooted
system of authoritarian rule the world had ever seen.

** From a neo-conservative writer, James Kirchick:

Meanwhile, Russia continues to be marked by domestic authoritarianism and aggression beyond its borders. The harassment and murder of journalists and human rights advocates continues unabated. Press freedom has declined precipitously since Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to power 10 years ago. Baton-wielding riot police regularly break up peaceful demonstrations.

12 Comments

  1. Putin is a “weird and creepy guy” for sure. His Wikipedia biography depicts just what I would expect of a man who excelled as a KGB officer, aggressive, egotistical, and machiavellian (meaning, ” . . . cunning, scheming and unscrupulous, esp. in politics or in advancing one’s career.”) This is a dangerous man, one not to be trusted except that he will always act in his own interest.

    Lecturing America on morality is a clever play because our skirts are not clean. The Iraq War was a colossal blunder in which we did use massive force against a nation that had formerly been an ally, and all we accomplished was to piss off both sides in a long-simmering religious dispute and turn Iraq into an ally of Iran. And in Afghanistan we turned the pursuit of OBL into yet another intervention between warring tribes that was unnecessary and counter-productive. The Afghan War is probably the best recruiting propaganda that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has. Ouch.

    The United States has a long and mixed history of trying to impose our own model of democracy on other nations. Vietnam of course was a principal failure but South Korea and Japan ought to be counted successes. We can also take credit for restoring Germany after WWII. But those are all in the past now. Seems to me we do more harm than good by getting between enemies. It’s like trying to break up dog fights and getting bitten for the effort.

    Rachel Maddow last night previewed an upcoming 60 Minutes segment featuring the recently retired #2 man at the CIA who is saying that we shouldn’t want either side to prevail in the Syrian civil war. Assad is a Russian puppet and the rebels are dominated both politically and offensively by al Qaeda. The best outcome, he said, is a negotiated cease-fire and stalemate. (How’s that for Machiavellian?) Sounds right to me.

    I say, let’s not get our shorts in a knot here over Putin’s antics. I think no-drama Obama and Kerry are playing it right so far. What’s needed now is for Congress (OMG) to understand that the president needs to be given authority to use force if Russia and Syria fail to deliver on the chemical weapons deal. Without that, Putin will cavort all over the political landscape, laughing all the way.

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    • I agree that Obama and Kerry, given a very bad hand, are playing it the best they can, despite all the irresponsible and nutty criticism and especially despite being undercut by some thoughtless and vindictive Republicans in Congress and out.

      I’m not sure that the rebels are “dominated” by al Qaeda, Jim. I’m just not sure what to think. I’ve read so much that says al Qaeda is not that big a factor, except in the north and parts of the east of the country. I don’t know and I’m not sure anyone knows for sure, which, as you suggest, is why we should not be in a hurry to jump in with both feet.

      Good comments, my friend.

      Duane

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      • Duane, when I said,

        . . . the rebels are “dominated” by al Qaeda . . .

        I was basing it on two sources. One is Richard Engel of NBC who is an experienced hand in the Middle East and the other is this CIA guy I mentioned who was there for some 30 years. Engel said the other night that not only is al Qaeda flooding in from the surrounding nations but they are better trained and far better motivated (i.e. religiously motivated) than the others. For what it’s worth – I agree that nothing in this mess is certain.

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        • I’ve heard the excellent Richard Engel say the same thing, even though I have detected some bias in his reporting over the years. I just know that our own Secretary of State has made the opposite case, albeit, as far as I know, he has yet to officially and directly base his claim on U.S. intelligence sources. Wish we knew for sure, although we do know for sure that al Qaeda’s involvement is growing day by day. At this point, I’m not sure it matters whether it comprises 20, 40, or 60 percent of the rebel forces. We know what such involvement, at those significant levels, leads to.

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  2. Duane,

    I’m no fan of Putin, but he’s got to be congratulated for his coup; replacing the U.S. as the peaceful problem solver for the Syrian chemical weapons issue. Putin came riding in on his white horse, shirtless of course, galloping past Obama and Kerry and leaving them in his dust. I mean why didn’t we make that proposal first? Well I think I know — we shoot first and ask questions later. Compared to other civilization nations, that is one of the attributes of exceptionalism that our country prizes. Fire, aim, ready.

    And Putin’s Op-Ed was, well, exceptional. I can’t remember another Russian/Soviet Union leader who has addressed the American people through an editorial in an American Newspaper. This was truly a “truth-to-power” moment. Putin has exposed the raw underbelly of our foreign policy — arrogant, hegemonic, shortsighted, hypocritical. Plus, we have the biggest dick on the planet. And with over 900 military bases in almost every country, we make sure everybody knows it. It’s no wonder that our moral duty to the world has become subordinated by the military industrial complex.

    Now this doesn’t mean I agree with Putin on all the points in his editorial and I see some major distortions in his arguments. But who among us disagree with Putin when he says, “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” Yes, Mr. President and Mr. Secretary of State, when are we going to stop using the language of force?

    So this was quite a victory for Putin. He made Obama and Kerry look foolish, along with Congress and even the American people who continually put up these clowns. I just hope they wake up and smell the coffee before they run off and create yet another catastrophe in the Middle East. Syria is not America’s problem. It is the world’s problem.

    Herb

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  3. Sedate Me

     /  September 13, 2013

    I don’t for a minute take this God-loving former KGB officer turned authoritarian-peacenik seriously at this point.

    You better. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself eating a polonium sandwich real fast.

    Putin is a disco-era KGB spy turned quasi-dictator of a major nuclear nation, a nation controlled by the KGB and the mafia. Modern Russia is the Soviet Union with all the positive elements taken out. (But now with extra homophobia!)

    That’s why it’s so concerning that I agree with Putin on something. I think that this whole “American Exceptional-ism” thing is a dangerous notion.

    It’s not just that I can point to countless historical examples to indicate the opposite. (Dirty wars, hostile unwarranted invasions, torture, drones etc, etc, etc) It’s the very notion of national exceptional-ism that is dangerous. Does anybody remember the last nation that walked goose stepped around telling everyone how superior it and its people were? Look what happened once their public bought into it.

    The very concept of American Exceptional-ism implies that nobody else has high minded principles. It says “We are special. We are better than you. Everything we do -even the shitty stuff- is ultimately good because we did it.” Essentially, it’s the Nixon Defence. “If the President does something, then it’s not illegal.”

    Believing your own PR is a very dangerous thing. It not only sets you up to be seen as a hypocrite, it all but assures you that you’ll become one. It’s time America stops acting like it’s God’s representative on Earth and admits its only human.

    High minded principles are great, but mean nothing if you don’t live up to them. They mean even less if you don’t live up to them while claiming to the entire world that you do. America would be far better off all around if it stopped patting itself on the back, rolled up its sleeves and worked to practice what it preached. As it stands, the only people being fooled are the American people.

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    • Right, Sedate, but at least we’re consistent. Are you old enough to remember The Ugly American?

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    • Ah, you’re using the word “exceptional” as a synonym for “superior.” Well, I’m not using it that way. I’m using it in its first meaning: rare, an exception. America is rare and an exception because it was founded on a series of philosophical ideas. That’s the way Lincoln seemed to see our country, especially when he talked about the civil war testing whether our “nation, or any nation so conceived,” “in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” “can long endure.” America is exceptional in that sense among the nation’s of the world, and it is also exceptional in the sense that it has the power and (sometimes) moral willingness to defend those nations “so conceived,” or help those who long for such a national conception.

      I grant you that we have had our moral failings, plenty of them. And although those failings tarnish our exceptionalism, they don’t finally eradicate it as long as we continue to self-correct and to try to live up to our principles.

      Duane

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      • Sedate Me

         /  September 14, 2013

        Exceptional as in a measurement of the quality of self-professed values? Absolutely! Living up to them and avoiding the hypocrite trap it sets? Not so much, especially post Ugly American. (saw 15 minutes at 3:00AM once)

        But that still doesn’t change the overall monopolistic/superior sounding nature of the claim. Such values were never THAT rare to begin with. (The French could sue America for copyright violation as these values were stolen right out their mouths.) More importantly, when every person outside of America’s borders hears those words, they roll their eyes and/or think about setting fire to a US flag. It just doesn’t win friends and it builds expectations. If the walk don’t match the talk then…

        It’s a high minded principle that’s morphed into “We’re great because we’re us.” Conservatives have successfully co-opted the phrase and tacked on a “and we don’t need to change for nobody!” at the end, thus cock-blocking anything good that can come from using it.

        The real value, and the actual values behind the term, have been devalued. That’s a shame.

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        • I won’t disagree with you that conservatives have co-opted exceptionalism and turned it into a jingoistic doctrine that is permanently resistant to correction. In fact, that is my point, as I have tried to make clear in a couple of posts about what to do with Syria: The left should seize back the ideas of American exceptionalism and “peace through strength” and use them to do good, the kind of good that corresponds with our professed values, in the world.

          From your other recent comment, though, to me you seem to discount the fact that, despite the intense domestic overreaction that began with 9/11, the United States does have an interest in keeping pressure, military and otherwise, on religious fanatics who want to do us harm. And such pressure requires not just a strong military but a willingness to use it. I say you seem to discount that fact because when someone uses the phrase, “American Empire,” as you did in response to another post, I suspect that our attempts to preemptively counter terrorist threats in places like Yemen and Pakistan are part of what you mean by American Empire. Are they?

          Duane

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          • Sedate Me

             /  October 2, 2013

            Calling America an Empire is like saying “Rain is wet” , or “Being tortured hurts.” I’m not necessarily using the term Empire as a negative moral judgment, merely a statement of fact. Anybody who can’t see America is an Empire is just blind. Military superpower with bases around the world, check. Global economic presence, check. Colonies, check. Invading/controlling foreign nations for the benefit of the Empire, check. Spouting high minded rhetoric about improving the savages and/or countering the threat they pose to the pinnacle of civilization (aka us), check. At least the Brits weren’t in denial.

            But you’re right. I largely discount the threat to Americans posed by Koran thumping lunatics living in tents. Without their billionaire Saudi backers, (none of whom get killed) they’re just not a serious threat. They’re only a threat to their own people and governments. The reality is that the average gun-toting, all-American, lunatic, poses a FAR greater threat to Americans. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html Yet I don’t see any drone strikes on the homes of NRA members.

            I suspect that our attempts to preemptively counter terrorist threats in places like Yemen and Pakistan are part of what you mean by American Empire. Are they?

            Obviously. However, I reject the premise that drone strikes pre-emptively counter terrorist threats At BEST, drone strikes are extra-judicial killings of individuals alleged to be threats. The evidence, the process, the officials capable of issuing the orders, even the existence of the program itself, has been kept as far from the public as possible because we “can’t handle the truth”. As for pre-emptiveness, do we now live in Minority Report, where pre-crime is punishable by death? I guess so.

            From what little information escapes the control of The Empire and becomes available to its citizens, the vast majority killed by drones are not even targeted individuals, but those standing nearby. More importantly, the prevalence of “signature strikes” (some say a majority of strikes) transforms the process from targeting individuals to mass killings. http://www.propublica.org/article/drone-war-doctrine-we-know-nothing-about In signature strikes, they have no idea who any of the people they’re killing are. All that’s known is that they fit a “profile” which can be no more than being a group of military age males. They’re automatically declared “enemy combatants” . In short, the more accurate depiction of drone strikes is that they border on genocide because all adult Muslim males are considered dangerous enemies. It is open season on them.

            The true nature of the drone program is indistinguishable from the scene in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where an Empire uses its technological advantage to fire aimlessly at the savage enemy from a safe distance. http://www.shmoop.com/heart-of-darkness/madness-quotes-2.html Dehumanizing non-citizens and ignoring their basic rights is Empire 101. Today, America reserves the right to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime and considers the entire planet the front line. Everyone is a potential threat.

            But to what end? Is the Empire ANY safer? Would stopping the perpetual war machine make the US Empire any less safe? On the whole, I think (postWW2) US military action has done more to promote anti-American fanaticism than anything else. (Osama went from ally to enemy because of Gulf War 1.) The more the US bombs other nations and/or disregards their sovereignty, the more fertile the ground is for anti-American fanatics. Oddly enough, people tend to dislike foreign powers that kill their friends, family and neighbours, even if “by accident”.

            Violence begets violence. Other than invading and occupying a nation, there is no better way to get the population to hate you than by randomly exploding their fellow citizens. The more hate, the more likely some of them will do something to try to settle the score.

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