Putin, Obama, and American exceptionalism

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…

47 thoughts on “Putin, Obama, and American exceptionalism

  1. Doug Ross

    “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.””

    How would we stop children from being gassed to death? There is no way for the U.S. to stop that process without a Pentagon estimated 75,000 troops on the ground. And NOBODY except warmongers like McCain and Graham want to do that. If there is one good thing that came out of this debacle its that those two lone wolves were effectively neutered.

    We might delay the process for a bit – or not – with the token action Obama proposed but nothing else. Men, women, and children will continue to be killed within Syria. This was and is about saving face for Obama, not saving lives. If he was really interested in saving lives, we have the resources to do plenty in that area throughout the world, not just in a country connected to Israel and oil.

  2. juan Caruso

    “And NOBODY except warmongers like McCain and Graham want to do that.” My theory is that neither of the two senators are actual warmongers. Far from hawks, both are much more dangerous in their actual principles and dubious motives. The pair, falsely cast by mainstream media as maverick’ and ‘moderate’ Republicans, respectively, are all about protecting the Obama persona, status quo politics (slimey).

    The Republichan party, senatorially speaking, has become a minority wing of the Democratich party. Graham is their point man for dealing with the Military-Industrial Complex, since few Dems would both qualify for or relsih that honor.

    The senior citizen and combat veteran, McCain, is assigned to monitor flimsy Lindsey so he never engages in unconscionable deals with lobbyists for scandalous personal gain, while brokering campaign contributions and bundling efforts. Even Dems don’t seem to trust flimsy Lindsey, upon whom Netflix’s “House of Cards” character was based. While Gaffney is not Seneca, the series left little to our imaginations.

  3. Phillip

    Just for the record, the US is not “the” country “where a foreign leader whose interests are clearly opposed to those of this nation can get an oped published” etc. etc. It’s “a” country where that can happen.

    Having the power to act for good is one thing. Having the wisdom to know what is the “good” thing to do in a given situation is another. Deciding unilaterally what is a “good” or “wise” action in global affairs is in itself hardly an example of “upholding basic civilizing principles.”

    1. Mark Stewart

      But sometimes, such action is/will be seen to be “good” and “wise”. Sometimes, the status quo and the ambivalent acceptance that follows is the tyranny.

      I would agree that it is more about wisdom. And probably also righteousness; spelled with a lower case “r”.

    2. Brad Warthen

      Historically, it’s THE country, dating to passage of the 1st Amendment. It’s great that other countries have followed suit, but it started with s. the Alien and Sedition Act notwithstanding…

  4. Phillip

    You’re absolutely right, being a pioneer in terms of enshrining the right to free speech is something of which we Americans can be extremely proud, along with such democratic innovations as allocating the power to declare war not with the Executive but with the Congress, and various civil liberties that are enshrined in our Bill of Rights. Of course, not everybody defends or embraces each of those those examples of American global leadership (if not exceptionalism) with the same enthusiasm…

    But since so many (perhaps now most?) other countries “have followed suit,” I think it’s fair to say that our values are therefore no longer exceptional. So what’s left that makes us “exceptional”?—just the power. If we have more power than other nations but no particular monopoly on values that we might consider “good,” then our moral obligation is to use that power not on our own (except in self-defense) but in the service of (and the leading component of) international mechanisms, multi-national efforts that are sanctioned by international agreement. This is the only path we can take that will ensure that history will view America as indeed “exceptional,” the first dominant global power in world history that sought to advance global peace and security by enhancing the power and responsibility of those international institutions and mechanisms and which chose to act only in accordance with international law and agreements on the world stage. There’s no other path available to a country that seeks to claim the moral high ground the way we do. And we have done much to turn the world in that direction, dating back to our role in the very founding of the United Nations, in spite of the terrible errors and violations of “basic civilizing principles” we have committed as a nation far too often since the Second World War.

    If we don’t choose that path, but rather proclaim that the entire world is our “beat” (to go back to that world-policeman analogy), then our legacy will be not much different from past superpowers that claimed to be bringing the world “civilizing influences.”

  5. Brad Warthen

    And a world in which we could turn to a body of countries with the same liberal values as ours, and seek consensus from those countries before acting, would be a very fine place.

    But the United Nations will likely never be that body. When nations run by people who do not share our values have a permanent veto on action, it’s like the beat cop having to get permission from the local mob boss before doing anything.

    NATO can occasionally be that body — in Afghanistan, in the Balkans — but there are limitations to that.

    1. bud

      When nations run by people who do not share our values have a permanent veto on action.

      And what values would those be? Is there any nation on earth that has spelled out a national “value” that is ok with gassing children? Of course not. But sometimes that type of action gets justified as an expediant – a means to a greater end. Every “value” held dear to Americans has been violated with the ‘greater end’ card played.

  6. Brad Warthen

    And I would ask you to list some of “the terrible errors and violations of ‘basic civilizing principles’ we have committed as a nation far too often since the Second World War,” because I am unaware of any. But then we’d just be arguing all day.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, but that’s just one. It’s not something we’ve done “far too often.” Unless you count once as “far too often,” which I admit is an argument with some points on its side…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But that doesn’t qualify, Doug. Phillip writes of “the terrible errors and violations of ‘basic civilizing principles’ we have committed AS A NATION.”

      Set aside the fact that the little girl in the photo was burned in a South Vietnamese, not American, attack.

      The fact is, if you cite atrocities committed by individual Americans, such as My Lai, you are still not talking about anything we have committed AS A NATION. Phillip’s words can only refer to deliberate policy decisions by the nation’s duly constituted, legal authorities. Otherwise, it’s not us acting AS A NATION.

      Yes, I realize that for people of pacifistic beliefs, any time a nation engages in war, it is culpable for every bad thing that happens in war. But if you take the position that we must NEVER engage in war — because terrible things always happen in war — then you lose me. And you lose the argument, if that’s all you’ve got. Because “never waging war” is not one of the “basic civilizing principles” for which this nation stands.

      1. Mark Stewart

        We didn’t intercede in Rwanda. Or even try.

        I would say the same about Cambodia, but that wasn’t for a lack of “involvement”.

        China? All the way from 1950 to recently in Tibet?

        I’m stalling out here…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Mark, you sound like as big a warmonger as me.

          I, too, believe that our greatest sins have been ones of omission — the failures to act, as in Rwanda.

          We started to do the right thing in Somalia, then pulled out.

          Then there’s the time that we encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, and they did, and we stood by while he brutally crushed them…

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, too late in the Balkans, Tibet, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Armenia, Eastern Europe during the Cold War, especially Romania, Darfur…you name it in Africa….

    2. bud

      Really? Seriously? Are you kidding? Come on Brad I will just have to pass on that silly comment. Others will find plenty of examples I’m sure.

  7. Phillip

    There’s no question the veto power on the Security Council has made multilateral action more difficult on many occasions, and there’s no question that Russian vetoes have been vexing, and the structure needs to be reformed. However, it’s worth noting that since 1972, the nation exercising the veto power on its own more frequently than any other nation is the US, for example on this relatively recent vote where we were the only country out of 15 members of the Security Council opposing this particular resolution. So the impediment to international cooperation that is the annoying veto function of the Sec.Council cuts both ways. The UN may not be what we want it to be (although we all tend to focus on the headline-grabbing doings of the Security Council and not on the daily good work the UN does through its various agencies around the globe) but the only recourse is to continually work to make it function better and more effectively. Dismantling it and starting over is not the answer. All you’d end up with is the dismantling part. And I would fear it would then take a Third World War for the world to get the impetus to try to restart another UN.

    And I think maybe you’re just trying to be a little provocative in saying you’re “unaware of any” violations of international norms, I don’t really think you believe that we’re THAT perfect. Of course we’re not arguing equivalency here, or suggesting that our mistakes make us ineligible to play a role of leadership in the world. But just to take this decade alone, at this very moment we drop drones on targets in Pakistan and count all “military-age males” in the vicinity of the strike as legitimate targets when we have no idea if that is so; and of course as recently as a few years ago “we violated fundamental commitments that the United States of America made when we signed the Geneva Conventions” (I’m quoting John McCain) and nobody was really held to account for this. Our support for “democracy” has come in fits and starts and really historically has only really applied when it was convenient for us.

    None of that means we can’t condemn the true crimes of an Assad nor try to lead the international community towards helpful action against such criminals, IF a truly constructive approach can be widely agreed upon. But whether or not we are “exceptional” in our military capacity to do (we hope) good, our record since World War II hardly qualifies us as being uniquely virtuous among the 90 or so liberal democracies of the world, or the 145 or so countries that are counted as either “free” or “partly free” in Freedom House’s most recent survey. And much of the civilized world in those free countries, people that hold the same values we do, perceives it to be a little self-serving of the world’s largest superpower to spend enormous sums of its money and resources ensuring its overwhelming military dominance only to claim that it is then that very military dominance that makes it uniquely able to act for good in the world.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      At this point, we can all start chasing our tails…

      If you are the only one of these “90 or so liberal democracies” with the power to act in the face of tyranny, how could you possibly justify giving up that power — so that there would be NO liberal democracy empowered to act?

      That would be morally unconscionable. So I have to say that anyone who “perceives it to be a little self-serving of the world’s largest superpower to spend enormous sums of its money and resources ensuring its overwhelming military dominance” is not thinking very clearly.

      We simply do not have the RIGHT to weaken ourselves to the point that we cannot act effectively.

      I’m quite concerned as it is, with the sequester. Here’s an argument I saw the other day, saying that we shouldn’t try to do anything in Syria if military spending cuts aren’t restored. And indeed, that’s something worth considering. An attack on Assad could have such drastic repercussions as, say, the Iranians trying to close the Strait of Hormuz. We have to be able to act defensively on a wide variety of fronts (some we can’t foresee). I’m not sure how much cutbacks have diminished our ability to do that.

      I firmly believe that the whole world is better off with an American military big enough to handle multiple crises effectively — big enough that the whole world KNOWS we can do that, which can head off a lot of trouble, precluding the need for us to act.

      I don’t know that the military we now have fits that description.

  8. Doug Ross

    Napalm was invented in the U.S. and has been used by our military to kill and maim thousands of people.. many of them innocent women and children. I consider it equivalent to a chemical weapon.

      1. Doug Ross

        Theoretically you could use gunpowder in a very targeted manner to achieve a specific result against a target.

        Dropping napalm across wide swaths of area that include women and children isn’t any different than using gas on the those same people.

    1. Juan Caruso

      Agree with that, Doug, and don’t forget the ‘Agent Orange’ dumped all over their foliage.

      Also, recall the Anniston, Alabama U.S. Army’s chemical weapon storage site. About 7% of the nation’s original chemical weapons were stored there since 1963. The Army only began disposing VX nerve agent in 2006. By 2010, it had incinerated 75% of the depot’s total stockpile including all 437 tons of GB (sarin) and all VX nerve agent on site. On September 22, 2011, the last mustard gas shells were neutralized. The 7% stored in Alabam was staggering for nearby residents and school children who drilled for Army alarms miles away:

      299,727 mustard filled mortars and 187,548 mustard gallons
      219,374 VX agent munitions and 196,925 US gallons of VX[7]
      142,428 GB munitions and 96,078 US gallons of GB

      Based on prevailing wind “roses”, how many Georgians and SC residents could be at risk from radioactive storage at the Savannah river site after a targeted terror explosion? We need to move stuff plus the expended “high level” fuel rods to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository where it was supposed to be years ago, before you can lament your own grandchildren.

      The vaunted “government” makes great plans, spends fabulous monies, and while rarely holding itself accountable for significant waste, fraud and abuse, never ever holds itself accountable for its pathetically entrenched poor management.

      Know anyone who has spent a small fortune adding solar panels to their roof, largely at taxpayer (energy credits) and rate payer (utility sellbacks) expense. These unsuspecting schmucks are due to spend more of their own bucks due to installation shortcomings and homeowner insurance. Wait and see!

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Also, that wasn’t “since the Second World War.” We used napalm in WWII.

      That’s an important qualification in Phillips’ statement. Because if you want to look at morally questionable behavior on the grand scale, there’s nothing SINCE the war as dramatic as, say, the firebombing of cities…

      1. Doug Ross

        So then we weren’t that exceptional during the time of the greatest generation of this country (allegedly)… any government that would use such weapons can’t be exceptional.

      2. bud

        Agent Orange, cluster bombs, spent uranium artillery shells, napalm, furnishing Saddam poison gas. Now that this chemical weapons issue is out in the open let’s try to limit the use of these nasty things in the one place where we have complete control – the US military.

  9. Bryan Caskey

    Y’all are adorable. Name one time in the history of mankind when a weapon of war was created that was then subsequently totally eradicated from use.

    Time’s up.

    The answer: Never.

    1. Doug Ross

      Not much catapult use these days.

      But really, if you invent something like napalm and then drop it on another group of humans, you have to be pretty sadistic.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes and no. For instance… napalm is essentially the same stuff used in flamethrowers in WWII, right?

        Well, flamethrowers are pretty horrific weapons. When the burning fuel didn’t stick to those it was used against, it asphyxiated them by burning the oxygen out of the air and generating carbon monoxide.

        But what were the marines supposed to do in situations in which the Japanese holed up in bunkers and caves, determined to keep shooting and keep killing marines as long as they were still alive? Flamethrowers were a very effective means of killing the enemy in those situations.

        What was the right thing to do? Was a marine who used flame in that situation “sadistic?”

        1. Doug Ross

          Nice try. Using a flamethrower against a specific target is nothing close to dropping napalm on a wide area. Please defend that tactic.

          1. Mark Stewart

            I guess the difference is in the targets. Are you equating use of napalm in jungle areas against combatants – or against convoys of Saddam’s Kuwait soldiers/looters – to attacking dense urban neighborhoods with chemical weapons?

            Maybe the better analogy is the practice of placing, and then (for whatever reason) abandoning minefields to collaterally kill and maim an area’s future inhabitants. Though I am not sure that the US has been a country to do much of that itself.

          2. Bryan Caskey

            Maybe there are a ton of bad guys in the “wide area”, they have a unit of my forces pinned down, and are moving in to kill them all. A napalm air strike from close air support might be a good idea. There are a great deal of factors that go into whether a strike against a wide area is justified. It’s difficult to have absolutes in war.

            Having said that, I get your point. Weapons that are lethal over a wide area have a higher probability of killing people that you do not intend to kill, and that’s bad. Weapons that target as narrowly as possible are preferred over those that kill over a wide area.

            However, the death of noncombatants is one of the things that makes war so terrible. No matter how surgical you are, civilian deaths are something that will always be a possibility.

          3. Doug Ross

            Well, we can go back to why we were in Vietnam in the first place. They were not a threat to the U.S. Thus. every decision made after that initial decision to go in was suspect.

            Could you push the button that dropped napalm on an area where you were sure there were women and children?

            I think part of the problem is we’ve been lucky enough to not experience a war on our mainland in 150 years and seven decades since Pearl Harbor. (No 9/11 was not part of a war). Can you imagine if an enemy of the U.S. invaded and started dropping napalm on many square miles of South Carolina, killing and maiming thousands? We’d be calling those attacks barbaric.

          4. Mark Stewart


            If it makes you feel, or think, any differently, every person who was in the office of the company I worked at on 9/11 (thankfully at a different NYC location) died that morning in Tower 1. Almost worse, my wife had to sit and watch hundreds of people jump to their deaths from her office just blocks away.

            My perspective differs from yours, clearly.

          5. Doug Ross

            It was also an act that targeted innocent people. How is that different from napalming Vietnam and accepting significant collateral damage to innocent people?

          6. Bryan Caskey

            In one instance, civilians are the primary (and only) target. In the other instance, civilians are not the target at all; they just happen to be there.

            The difference is of who you *want* to kill. Now, that’s probably cold comfort to the civilians that we killed. They’re still just as dead.

      2. bud

        Haven’t used nukes in 68 years and counting. No doubt they will eventually be used but to suggest it’s not in the interest of the world to keep trying to limit the worst of weapons is of not help.

  10. Ralph Hightower

    I am torn with air-strikes against Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile. al-Qaeda is fighting with the rebels to topple Assad. If, by chance, we manage to topple Assad with our air strikes, then we’ll have to put “boots on the ground” to get rid of al-Qaeda.

    The US supported bin Laden when al-Qaeda was fighting the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Look where that got us.

    Putin talks about us fighting together in WWII to defeat Hitler and also mentions the Cold War of Mutually Assured Destruction.

    The US is a partner with Russia, Canada, and European nations in building, maintaining, and running the International Space Station. The US provided the majority of the money to build the Space Station. From the beginning, Russia has provided the “life boats” for the Space Station. Since the Space Shuttle has been retired, Russia realizes the opportunity to jack up the per-seat price for launches to the Space Station.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “Putin talks about us fighting together in WWII to defeat Hitler and also mentions the Cold War of Mutually Assured Destruction.”

      Those Russians are a sentimental lot. They love talking about the good old days…

  11. Phillip

    No country has a greater nostalgia and determination to relive both WWII and the Cold War than the US, which has pretty much manifested that nostalgia in its foreign policy (and domestic policy in terms of things like the NSA) since 9/11. Almost everything that comes out of Lindsey Graham’s mouth (and he’s just a convenient example) is an attempt to inflate every global concern to the level of threat faced by the world from the Axis Powers or the Soviet Union at the height of its power.

  12. Bart


    I enjoy reading your comments and sometimes I do agree with some points, others I do not. On this one, I cannot agree with your observation that we are anxious to relive WWII again under any circumstance. Maybe you meant to relay the point that we recall WWII and the “greatest generation” as the men and women who served during the war with nostalgia for what so many of us consider being a dedication and willingness to sacrifice as they did along with a nation united in a cause and determination to rid the world of Hitler and German and Japanese aggression.. Maybe we recall the events that led up to WWII had beginnings that were innocuous in origin but grew into a brutal and devastating war that drew every nation on earth into it. Maybe the prelude to war and during the war that cost the Jewish people millions of lives simply because they were Jews is a history lesson we believe should remain alive in the consciousness of everyone. Maybe we recall that in the death camps of Nazi Germany, atrocities were taking place that no civilized people could understand or tolerate. When we forget that major events generally have small beginnings and the small events are not recognized for the potential harm they can evolve into, then if history has taught us anything, it will repeat itself.

    As for the Cold War, it may have ended on the surface but elements of it have remained with us but not as much in the public eye as before. Spying has never ceased with the exception of a major decrease in spying activity during some administrations time in power. We need to recognize the evolution of sophisticated intelligence gathering by all countries possessing the technology to monitor communications. Because the availability to listen to or monitor every electronic conversation, voice or internet, made by any individual who is in possession of a cell phone or access to the internet provides access to not only to evil intent but to our private conversations as well. The lesson learned was that we were very blind in the intelligence world for a period of time but the application of a solution after 9/11 went well beyond what our culture would approve of.

    Maybe some reactions are overboard and stronger than a peaceful person such as you find disturbing but if no one reacts in a strong manner and if the events that caused the reaction are not addressed, the world may find itself in another global conflict. The reality is that the Syrian civil war and the use of chemical weapons by both sides (my personal belief) did deserve a strong reaction from the world community, not just a few nations, the US in particular. Action should have been taken but not by the US, it should have been by the majority of the civilized nations if indeed their belief that chemical weapons are an international crime and should be punished.

    I don’t think it is as you describe, it is a few trying to let us know just dangerous a place the world can be and unfortunately, all too often really is.


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