There are a number of things worth discussing in Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times today. One of my favorites is the part where this ex-KGB man invokes God in lecturing us about our exceptionalism:
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.
I guess someone at the Kremlin persuaded him that that’s how you speak to those simple, theistic folk in America.
Whatever. In any case, I am not deeply shocked that Putin does not believe in, or at least not approve of, American exceptionalism.
I’ll just say that there’s something deeply ironic about the guy whose tank treads so recently rolled over Georgia to be saying such things as, “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.”
And don’t get me started on this absurdity:
No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists…
“Every reason to believe” the rebels launched the chemical attacks? Uh, no, there isn’t. In fact, I don’t know of any reasons to believe it, unless you’re an Assad cheerleader and therefore really want to believe it. Yep, some of those rebels would do it if they could. But I’ve seen no credible arguments that any of them have the capability to do it. It’s not like we helped them. We’re just now finally getting around to supplying some of those small arms we promised months ago.
So “every reason?” No, not even close.
Let’s look at the rest of that statement. Which side has “powerful foreign patrons” who are actually actively engaged in supporting its war aims? The only side that describes is the Assad regime, which has been receiving substantial material support from both Russia and Iran. I’m not aware of the rebels having “powerful foreign patrons.” But if that’s a reference to us, then he tells yet another whopper with that bit about “who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” No, as everyone knows, the main reason we have NOT come down unequivocally on the side of the rebels, the way Putin has for Assad, is that we don’t want to risk siding with said fundamentalists.
Oh, but I said “don’t get me started.” Sorry; I seem to have started myself. I’ll stop now.
I mean, I’ll stop that, and turn to the reference to exceptionalism in the president’s speech the other night.
He really defined it oddly:
America is not the world’s policeman. [Wrong, but I've addressed that elsewhere.] Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. [Nor is any policeman able to right every wrong on his beat, making this a deeply flawed analogy, but again, I've discussed that elsewhere.] 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. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.
No, Mr. President, our exceptionalism is not a matter of simply making “our own children safer over the long run.” Pretty much all nations will take military action if the lives of their own children are threatened. In that respect, as you once inappropriately said, American exceptionalism is no different from “Greek exceptionalism.” You’re right in that collective security affects us all, and a crime against foreign children is ultimately a crime against our own. But America is exceptional in that it has the power to act against tyranny when it’s harming other people, and when our own interests are not directly or obviously involved.
You would have been right if you’d simply said, “when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death… I believe we should act.” That is exceptional. The qualifying phrase about our own children makes us unexceptional. See what I mean?
We are exceptional because, in the ongoing effort to uphold certain basic civilizing principles across the globe, America is what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called “the indispensable nation.” We have the power to act for good in ways that other nations cannot, and because we have that power, we have responsibilities that we cannot abdicate. Or, at least, should not abdicate.
It doesn’t have to be rationalized in such terms as, Hey, those could be our kids.
Of course, there are many other ways, Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama, in which this nation is exceptional: This is the country where a foreign leader whose interests are clearly opposed to those of this nation can get an oped published, in the leading national journal, trashing that same nation’s cherished ideas of itself, without any consequences to anyone. It’s always been like that here, and it has set us apart starkly from such nation’s as, just to throw one out, the Soviet Union. It’s also the country that believes the whole world should enjoy such a free flow of ideas, and is wiling — occasionally, at least — to stand up for that. Just FYI…