The media didn’t waste time lining up US leaders to trash Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent op-ed in The New York Times. There was the expected outrage that such a “dictator” and “tyrant” had the gall to lecture the United States of America. Bill O’Reilly referred to Putin as “a criminal monster.” Charles Krauthammer kept it real and called Putin “a KGB thug.”
My favorite Putin slam was from New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez put it this way: “When I read [the Putin op-ed] I felt like I wanted to vomit.”
That’s great. But the thought of Senator Menendez sometimes makes me want to vomit. I bet these days if the urge to vomit was given as a poll response to the mention of The United States Congress in general and Senator Menendez in particular, the urge to vomit would score very high.
I don’t mean to pick on Senator Menendez, but there is the scandal involving a too cozy relationship with a rich donor and allegations that while on a junket to the Dominican Republic the bachelor senator allegedly hired underage prostitutes. I certainly don’t care if Senator Menendez gets laid while junketing in the Caribbean. It’s his hypocrisy that makes me want to vomit. On the matter of prostitutes, Menendez took a righteous posture last year when secret servicemen on a presidential trip to Cartegena, Colombia were caught paying for sex. Menendez called loudly for the men to be fired, which they were.
When it comes to Syria and Russia and the use of chemical weapons against civilians, the matter of hypocrisy rises to a more profound level. The moral high ground all these Putin-bashers claim does not exist. Mention the words Vietnam, napalm, white phosphorus, agent orange, carpet bombing, cluster bombs, shock & awe and depleted uranium and the moral outrage begins to evaporate into crocodile tears meant to stir up more bloody war.
The only hope for a good outcome in the Syrian imbroglio is if everyone concedes there’s plenty of historic evil to go around. One can certainly argue who’s more evil than the other, but that line of argument only ends like the scene in Dr. Strangelove on the redphone between the US president and the Soviet premier about US bombers headed toward Russia.
“I’m sorry, too, Dmitri … I’m very sorry … All right, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well … I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are.”
Calling people bad names should be relegated to the sandbox. What’s needed now in the Middle East is calm, honest, mature discussions of national interests with the real-politic aim of lessening violence rather than escalating it.
By threatening to bomb and set off more violence in Syria, the US president argues, he flushed out the Russian president’s peace feeler, a deal that seems to hang on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in exchange for an end to the US military goal of regime change. That is, Assad stays in Syria if he gives up chemical weapons, which amounts to a major concession from both sides.
Many Americans wished from the January 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama that he would be an assertive leader willing to fight for progressive domestic change and international peace. It has not been the case. But it’s better late than never to establish serious negotiations as a trump for the United States’ macho predilection for aerial bombing. The John McCain pro-bombing lobby likes to agonize over how “weak” and “amateur” the President of the United States looks following Putin’s Times op-ed. The charge is that Obama let Putin “play him” — or the President of the United States allowed himself to become the Russian president’s “bitch.”
This kind of glib, manhood-slamming criticism is to be expected. In Latin America, the right would run a TV ad of a fist crushing two eggs. In fact, the more ludicrous the critiques get the more it seems arguable that Barack Obama has, belatedly, actually moved himself to the left in what amounts to the US republic’s struggle with US imperialism.
Fox News’ Judge Jeanine Pirro nailed it when it comes to gonad-ripping criticism. She recently lectured Obama on what it is to be a leader:
“Leaders are direct, clear and concise,” she intoned. “Leaders don’t dither or vacillate, get boxed into corners or play games. They make the hard decisions.” She cited Ronald Reagan, an ex-actor in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, as a leader who knew how to make the really hard decisions. She did not mention George W. Bush, but no doubt he was also fantastic at making the hard decisions.
Pirro’s point is that making the “hard decisions” without “vacillating” or “dithering” is always best. The problem of bad information or garbage in, garbage out doesn’t bother her. This is where bomb-lovers and hanging-judges like Pirro get it wrong. Now that it’s ten years too late to do anything about it, it’s clear the Iraq War was a hard decision that would have benefited from some significant vacillation and dithering. Vacillation and dithering by world leaders inclined to bomb and kill people by the thousands can be a good thing for the citizenry of the world.
Like any difficult, real-world negotiation, the one President Obama has landed in — thanks to Vladimir Putin — is a huddle of people who may make each other vomit. In their darkest moods, they may harbor psychological desires to make the other guy evaporate under a bombing raid. As Jean Paul Sartre suggested: “Hell is other people.” And when you forego bombing for negotiation you are forced to dither with those other people.
I’ve been quite critical of Barack Obama for cozying up to the military, for being led by the nose by a powerful militarist cabal rather than being the commander-in-chief doing the leading. I’ve also been critical of the post-Vietnam War John Kerry for selling out the antiwar movement as he clamored up the ladder of Washington power.
But Obama’s dithering and Kerry’s vacillations with his Russian counterpart feel like something different for a change. Time will tell. Trust and verify.
This is how Putin ended his op-ed: “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’s pretty clear Putin got some Washington DC-savvy help on the piece. The closing mention of “the Lord’s blessings” is a nice touch, don’t you think?
Putin knows the American people have had enough of war. And he’s right in slamming “American exceptionalism” as a noxious myth that drives the American inclination to bomb people to solve problems. What the myth tells Americans is other people just don’t deserve to live as much as we do. This writer and many other Americans have criticized the Myth of American Exceptionalism for years as the prime ideological narrative driving this nation down a path to future ruin. While myths may be immune to legislation, they do evolve as realities change.
If it takes a narcissistic thug like Vladimir Putin to lend traction to such a powerfully true argument against US hubris and bombing, then let’s hear it for shirtless macho buffoons on horseback. Critics of the current US/Russian/Syrian negotiations seem to resent that Putin has gained in stature from the episode. What these critics need to grasp is that this is so only because US imperial militarism is past-due having its wings clipped.
The fact is US imperial hubris has become so notorious, especially in the Middle East, it allows Vladimir Putin to look good.