Readings Into Putin

The reaction to Putin’s essay in the New York Times shows how preconceptions can overwhelm reality. Because so many op-ed writers and politicians knew what Putin really meant, they didn’t pay much attention to what he actually said. Seeing Putin as an enemy, they failed to notice the obvious. If Putin really was the enemy they think he is, he would be delighted to see the USA mired in an incoherent military intervention – “limited”, “shot across the bow”, “unbelievably small” but not “pinpricks” – with a vacillating leadership, opposed by two-thirds of its population, probably its legislature and most of the world and with no allies to speak of. Something that could only weaken the USA. On the contrary, he extracted the USA from this future.

The themes in his essay are ones with which Putin-watchers are familiar, the central one being “The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus”. In short, there is a set of international norms and rules to govern the use of armed force that have more-or-less worked for years. It is gravely weakened when “influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization”.

Who could deny that? Whatever one may think of the effectiveness of the UN, so long as one does not renounce it altogether – and Washington has not – then Putin is correct. Moscow has, of course, a strong self interest in preserving the UNSC but that does not make Putin’s defence of it stupid or wrong.

Putin believes that a US strike on Syria: “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism”; Moscow is a proponent of the status quo; things can get worse. He reminds us that the overthrow of Khadafy spread trouble into Mali; they did get worse. He maintains that the fighting in Syria has nothing much to do with “democracy”. He reiterates for the nth time that Moscow is “not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.” And that Moscow has many times called for talks without preconditions and blocked Washington’s demand that Assad must go first (how can you expect to have talks if the victor is pre-assigned)?

Some have taken contemptuous disagreement with his belief that it was not Assad that used poison gas. These people should speak more carefully: German intelligence is apparently doubtful, US intelligence is hardly certain either. Putin’s belief is not, therefore, outrageous.

So, familiar themes: the UNSC must be upheld (note that he nowhere suggests that it is perfect, just that it is all the world has today); intervention in a horrible civil war is not likely to make anyone happy and the USA’s behaviour is making it be seen as a bully. Altogether his remarks are unremarkable. Or would be, had they come from the Dalai Lama, the Pope, or, come to think of it, Senator Obama a few years ago. But, because people know that Putin is an enemy, a dictator, a hypocrite, they know that what he is saying is… well, let us consider an incoherent piece in The New Yorker: despite the fact that Putin repeats points “made in good faith by American and Europe opponents of air strikes” it’s only “mendacity” and “hypocrisy”. So, even when Putin speaks the truth, he’s lying. Finally this curious retort: “‘American exceptionalism’ was Moscow’s idea. So quit complaining, Vladimir.”

But what seems to have made some Americans want to vomit was this paragraph: “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…”. Or that he questions “American exceptionalism”. But just what is “American exceptionalism” in this context? Washington can bomb anyone it wants? we must all go along with it when it does? the US is never wrong? only the US can criticise others ? what? And, anyway, how dare a thug like Putin lecture us!

The brutal truth is that the USA, in the person of its leaders, has looked ineffectual, confused, weak and alone. It was not Putin who did this. Putin in fact saved it from greater folly and that is hard to forgive. A real enemy would take delight in watching that train wreck develop. Instead Putin has given Obama a way out: perhaps not a “friend” but a concerned neighbour that would have to live with the results.

Even if the writers don’t get it, most of their readers seem to. The most recent three comments on The New Yorker piece at this time of writing are contrary to the author’s line: 1 “Is there any of you with enough humility to say the words THANK YOU to a world leader. Putin needs to receive a gift from the UNITED STATES.” 2 “Americans have had their nose put out of joint and received a lesson in -wait for it — rationality after the hysterical incoherence that has gripped the polity.” 3 “What is curious to me is what our own propaganda and actions looks like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to those countries when a President Bush lectures them? Or Obama?”

On the original NYT piece, the top three pick comments are: “Say what you will about the Russians and Mr. Putin in particular. This reaching out is unprecedented. Surly our country and our leaders cannot ignore this gesture from the Russian government.” The second one is rather scornful of Putin but the third is not: “Aside from the obviously specious claim that it was the rebels who used the gas, much of this post is thought provoking and has a tone of reasonableness that I find disturbing to my prejudices. What a crazy world we are living in when Russia sounds more sane and responsible than our own government on a serious international crisis”.

This disconnect shows a gap between Americans and their opinioneers and gives another example how pre-conceptions determine observation. And did we not see this before when the authorities ignored Moscow’s warnings about the Tsarnaev brothers? If you believe Putin is a thug then he has nothing to tell you and you don’t have to listen.

But it seems that few readers were fooled: opposition to involvement in the Syrian war was and is overwhelming; few supported Obama and his strikes; many are grateful to Putin for stopping another open-ended military operation.

As Putin pointed out, these “humanitarian interventions” not only are more complicated than expected (vide Somalia, Kosovo, Libya) but have unanticipated consequences. Whatever deficiencies the UN system has, it is better in most cases to operate within its creaky framework. Finally, Putin has a point: consider that Somalia had general UN support, Kosovo was agreed to by most of NATO, Libya by some of NATO and the putative Syria intervention by hardly anybody. It is becoming “commonplace”.