Exceptionalism Around Putin’s Op-ed


Read on the 

Russian President Vladimir Putin just wrote an op-ed piece on the New York Times and it has left readers flustered, enraged, impressed or groping for comebacks & rebuttals. This post is a look at the reaction to the Putin article.

Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the NY Times has made him the most talked-about Russian President on the Internet (photo: snd.com)
In the brief and focused piece, Putin talked about the Syrian rebels’ use of chemical weapons, role of diplomacy in avoiding wars, the role and relevance of the UN and mutual respect among the peoples of the world. But why has it turned so many heads and angered – even offended – so many readers?

I think it is because, despite the hypocrisies in President Putin’s writing, he makes sense – simple, common sense. He appears to cut through all the fog and word-spinning we are used to hearing from politicians – certainly from our own President – and gets to the kernel of the matter. (September1940, Stamford CT)

Portraying Putin in ridiculous poses has been a longstanding strategy for undermining his leadership. He wasn't the first and won't be the last (photo: huffpost)
Portraying Putin in ridiculous poses has been a longstanding undermining strategy. He wasn’t the first premiere to be turned into a clown either (photo: huffpost)

In addition to what has been called a ‘diplomatic win‘ by Putin on the Syrian issue – Russia’s vital role in the Syrian conflict lends weight to the article. But it’s Putin’s moral highground – from where he appeals to rationality and international legal frameworks – that has irked most. That it was published at a critical juncture – just when the USA is reconsidering military strikes – and that it was succinct in its composition and logic, has left many a reader at a loss regarding how to react to it.  Also, let’s not forget that it’s somewhat unprecedented to see a powerful country’s premiere being published in a leading US newspaper.

In fact, a blogpost quickly appeared on the NY Times, which purported to explore the story behind the Putin op-ed article in The Times. Quoting a Times reader, it asked, “Did he [Putin] call up the editorial page editor and say, hey, how would you like 800 words on you, us and Syria, I’ll have it in by Wednesday night deadline, no sweat, I’ll take your usual freelance rates?” Bypassing all the issues raised in the article, the vital question quickly became how exactly a Russian president gets published on The NY Times. Andrew Rosenthal (editor, editorial page, NY Times) explained that The Times prints a lot of articles that are contrary to its own views and that there can be no ideological Litmus Test. All opinions (especially, the Russian President’s) are equally interesting. The Times meant the USA no harm. Rosenthal admitted to receiving a lot of flak for his decision. Apparently, one of his readers described himself as “horrified” and said that The Times was “aiding and abetting a long-term foe of the United States.”

Many other important questions have emerged. ‘Why write in an American newspaper/NY Times?’, ‘Did Putin write it himself?’, ‘was he paid usual freelance rates?’ or ‘what is the name of his PR firm?’ are just some examples. Many skeptically questioned if a Russian newspaper would print an Obama article. Some ruefully wished that Obama would write an op-ed – at the very least, a reply. Amidst the misdirection, one reader points out that while the article is titled ‘A Plea for Caution From Russia’ – it appears as ‘What Putin Has to Say to Americans About Syria’ as a tab or link. It’s almost like a precautionary notice that this isn’t Russia – but Putin – and he’s got a speech prepared. I feel it may be interesting to examine some other random comments on the article.


“I’m sickened by the fact that we live in a time when a foreign leader has the ear of the American people” wrote David Voss of Richmond. I daresay that it is precisely this attitude of not wanting to listen – that has eaten away at the popularity of the USA. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, quipped, “One gets the sense that the vodka and caviar are flowing rather heavily in the Kremlin these days.” Isn’t that a comeback befitting of such an important post!

“How dare he lecture the USA on morals?” asked a Miami reader. (S)he continued to explain that Putin has a dismal human rights record and it was sad to see the article getting such positive responses. Dylan Morrissey (CA) brought up the feeble ending his argument, “we must not forget that God created us equal.” In all aspects, (s)he writes, this statement is ridiculous. “We? Can Putin really refer to himself and Americans collectively as ‘we’ when he bars Americans from adopting Russian children? Does he truly believe that ‘God created us equals’ when he actively promotes the persecution of gays?” More accusations related to the KGB, Goebbels, arming terrorists, aiding Iran abound on the site. Of course, criticism of Putin should’ve been a measure of last resort – since ad hominem (i.e. argument toward the man) attacks usually imply that the argument itself is irrefutable. Yet it’s the most common reaction on the Internet.

Attacking the Straw Man is a logical fallacy that sets up it’s own premise and refutes that – instead of addressing the real argument. For example, this obviously-upset reader writes:

The sophistry of the argument presented by Putin is appalling. He claims that a U.S. strike would weaken the legitimacy of the United Nations, while Russia stands ready to use its veto power to shield the Syrian government against any U.N. resolution. (Daniel Cuhat, Cedar Falls)

There’s no attempt to refute the argument that a (unilateral) US strike would hurt the legitimacy of the UN. Instead, a new premise ‘a veto diminishes the legitimacy of the UN’ is presented and Russia’s vetoes presented as evidence. The reader hasn’t refuted anything, only put forward a new premise of his choosing. Apart from these, there are innumerable non sequiturs like Nancy Imperiale’s “President Putin is threatening nuclear war if the U.S. attacks Syria. Reading this any other way is romanticizing it.” That conclusion just doesn’t follow.


Putin’s last paragraph said that American Exceptionalism, based on its policies, was an extremely dangerous idea and that Americans were no more (or no less) special than all other people in the world. Most of those who not bothered by unilateral wars or constant bypassing of international laws by the US – were devastated upon being called mediocre. It’s my prediction that just like Snowden was the residue of the PRISM uproar – Proof of Exceptionalism will become the center of this debate.

But Obama was essentially saying Americans are better than other people in ways that matter here. For example, probably we care about children who’ve been gassed to death more than people in other countries care. (Thinker, California)

This could be an argumentum ex silentio (argument based on ignorance) i.e. I know of no people who care for children more than Americans. Therefore, Americans must care most for children. Another one is an Existential Fallacy – the assumption that Americans care more about children is a universal fact. In fact, it is not a fact at all – but an opinion. And a pretty bigoted too.


Apart from the ad hominem attacks, assaults on straw-men, conjunction fallacies and plain bigotry – a vast number of (mostly US) readers have asserted one of three things: a) regardless of what Putin had to say, I support the printing of his views, b) say what you will of Russia/Russians, I think Mr. Putin is right on this time and c) reaching out to Americans at such a juncture is quite unprecedented and intelligent. Obsessed as I am with the country, I’ve been known to harbor a lot of anti-American views. But Americans’ utmost dedication to ‘defending one’s right to say it’ is unparalleled and I sincerely admire that culture. I hope it’s something we, Bangladeshis, can cultivate.

Self-reflection is another recurrent theme – as reflected by the stream of comments on the article itself and other related content. In a moderately volatile situation, it’s hard to keep calm and judge something based purely on its merit (and not the surrounding propaganda). Consider the following comment:

Putin’s claim that the originators of the gas attack likely were Syrian rebels requires the same evidence of proof as Obama’s claim the attack was made by the Syrian government. “Trust me, I know” isn’t sufficient. (JFX, Chicago)

I can’t imagine how much discipline it must require to maintain such rationality at a time when everyone is jumping on the bandwagon (rationalized by a type of argumentum ad Populum) and when the likes of Fox News and CNN are constantly broadcasting YouTube videos that they can’t independently verify. Since when does unverified content constitute ‘news’? YouTube is a social media! Playing YouTube videos – speaking rationally – is no better than reading out Facebook statuses as news reports. But at a time when US media conglomerates are conveniently redefining what constitutes news, it’s fascinating to read these comments:

I don’t trust Putin, but I think he is exploiting a weakness that the US needs to correct, namely, that we are far too mired in self-delusional, campaign-style spin — even on the international stage, e.g. that we’d be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, that President Obama’s Syria strategy was a high-level chess game and played out exactly the way he planned. (AR, Chicago)

Let’s not just blindly trash Putin. He is probably no saint on many issues, but his Op Ed piece was right on the mark. Accepting the truth doesn’t mean we don’t love our President or our country. (PlanetEuropa, NC)

It was Aristotle who wrote “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. Apart from the emotionally-charged, suspicious or abusive reactions, I’ve seen a convergence of educated minds around the topic. The general consensus on focusing on the message instead of bashing the messenger is quite astounding – especially given historical US-Russia relations. Any people or person – American or otherwise – who can contemplate an idea without prejudice or preconceived bias, with sincerity and reason …is quite exceptional.


  1. Great analysis Adnan.

    I guess Aristotle was kinda prejudiced towards education. He did invent gymnasium schools after all.

    If you ask me a lot of ‘education’, formal or otherwise, is about shutting down your critical thinking capacity and indoctrinating you into the mindset of the educator. I don’t think there is anything innate about the inability to consider viewpoints incompatible with your own.

    • Hey Cabrogal – thanks a lot.

      It’s an interesting point you raised about indoctrination and cookie-cutter style education systems. I feel I agree that these seriously hamper critical thinking.

      What I can’t make up my mind about is the last part: I mean – no thought process is innate, right? Parents, siblings, TV, friends, books – and of course, formal education – influence how we think. And I’d suppose …with time, we develop what Hitler called Weltanschauung – a worldview, an integrated understanding of life. After that, it just seems to be accumulation of facts and knowledge that reinforces that worldview. That’s not ideal – but it seems to be how most people function.

      True education, I feel, should help us retain the ability to entertain thoughts/ideas – consider them rationally – before accepting/rejecting them. Regardless of whether it reinforces or weakens our Weltanschauung. An example is that I, myself, reject any anti-Islamic writing as propaganda or plain mistruths and will often avoid examining the evidence based on merit. So, I appreciate people who can be dispassionate in their examination of new claims or viewpoints.

      Would you say the same applies to you? Or are you able to consider ANY point of view regardless of how it can be reconciled with your philosophy?

      • Or are you able to consider ANY point of view regardless of how it can be reconciled with your philosophy?

        Nope. But that’s certainly the kind of radical nihilism I aspire to.

        I’m inclined to think that though children seem to have an inherent tendency towards socialisation I don’t think rejectionist notions towards POV incompatible with that socialisation is inherent. I think it’s a learned response (to punishment).

        OTOH it seems quite likely to me that certain modes of thought do tend to progressively exclude others. So, for example, if you constantly think in Manichean black and white terms you will become less able to even perceive, much less consider, anything which doesn’t fit within that framework. Again I would say that the ruts themselves are not innate though perhaps the tendency to dig them are.

  2. Thanks again for shedding light on the complex machinations of our planet….our newspapers certainly don’t, least where I come from…Rupert Murdoch owns most of them and now our government. : ) trees

    • Hey Trees – thanks a lot for reading.

      I am going to be the first to admit that this is not the most neutral of posts. But I wanted to view things from a non-American point of view. And I absolutely agree with you in that the Corporate Media has lost its way. Mainstream media has forgotten to challenge the validity / morality of established narratives and now only traverses the narrow corridors of accepted opinions. That just creates an echo chamber where all we (Easterners or Westerners) hear – is ourselves.

      What are your views on a possible strike? How do you see the threat of strike against Syria – esp. when compared to support of Israel which used white phosphorus in Gaza? To what extent do you think a single country can dictate who is the ‘axis of evil’ and who, the so-called Allies?

      • I hope there isn’t a strike….its not their business to be sorting out other countries conflicts, especially not with violence. No problem with mediation …at what point in history did usa decide to become BIG BROTHER. As for israel…it seems they have always been in bed together…I dont really understand why the connections are as strong as they are other than it would have originated sometime during the post war period of ww2 plus Money! ‘axis of evil’….as a young woman I was vehemently opposed to the UsA’s involment in Vietnam and again could see no real reason why they needed to engage ( other than money and economics) and so history has moved on from there. The pessimistic me thinks that we have moved into a quite dysfunctional period of human history and how that wwill end is anyone’s guess? The optimist believes that there are enough people who care about the welfare of our planet that good sense will prevail. Inshallah, Om, Peace be with you…Trees

        • After a long day, there’s nothing like coming back to kind, beautiful and serene words. Thanks for that lovely comment; it really made my day.

          There is an expression in my language, Bangla, that goes, “may flowers and sandalwood anoint your face”. Saying that is supposed to cancel out a jinx and make your words come true. I, too, hope it doesn’t come to more bloodshed, on whichever side. I resent how some powerful countries are always raring to rattle sabers and cross swords. It’s strange how institutions built by humans can reduce the value of human-lives to nothing. Where, I wonder, did we go wrong?

          The dysfunction you speak of may have sprung from the new arrangements just after WW2. But it really carved up the world into two (and now, one) polarity. The post-Soviet imbalance of power has really set free a frankenstein in the forms of unedifying education, unbridled greed and unjust wars. I feel that taking liberalization to the extreme is natural, human tendency. But nurturing institutions that promote moral, honest behavior is a grave responsibility and an uphill task. Perhaps Morality is what we have sacrificed in our lives, schools, corporations and parliaments.

          Thank you for ending on an optimistic note. The Universe really needed some positivity.

          • I wish I could contribute some positivity but I’m afraid it’s in short supply where I live.

            It’s strange how institutions built by humans can reduce the value of human-lives to nothing.

            Not when you think about what they are.

            You could say our body is an ‘institution’ built by our cells but it routinely sacrifices them by the thousands in order to maintain itself.

            Our institutions may be composed, in part, of us but they are meta-organisms that ‘live’ and evolve in an entirely different environment (e.g. the market). In struggling against the other meta-organisms that compete for their ecological niche they are more than willing to sacrifice large numbers of the ‘cells’ that constitute them.

            Individual people – or groups of them – no more control the institutions than any collection of cells you care to point at control you. If a cell (say a CEO) is unwilling to do whatever it takes to maintain the organism in its environment (the market) it will be replaced by one that will. Failing that, the institution itself will shrink, retreat or die and be replaced by one more fit to survive (and quite possibly more ruthless).

            They’re not actually evil, just utterly alien with completely different priorities to ours.

            If they are to be controlled it must be by changing the eco-system in which they exist not by trying to reform them from within. But they have been evolving in that ecosystem for centuries now and are quite capable of mounting a powerful defence of it.

  3. Okay fine – I’ll resort to commenting on my own post (I had always feared this day would come. But we may need a bit more space). This is not so much a reply as it is a train-of-thought.

    I was talking about countries acting with impunity in attacking others. With ‘institutions’ – I was referring to ‘countries’ or ‘nation states’ – viewing them as (legally organized) social institutions that we have devised to shape collective behavior and uphold social contracts (perhaps ‘composed of’ rather than ‘built by’ humans – would’ve been a better description). And social institutions typically have the corresponding culture’s Morality built into it.

    For example, a culture that accepts Homosexuality, has a corresponding social institution (e.g. marriage) that embodies that Moral stance. I would argue that unlike biological or legal institutions – social institutions embrace and treasure morality. And since Value of Human Life forms a very basic part of universal morals – I would typically expect it to be enshrined in the concept of the nation state. Of course, what set social institutions apart may be ‘Nepotism’ where the Nation cleverly attaches varying degrees of importance to citizens and non-citizens – perhaps a new, twisted moral dimension introduced from culture). These are reflections of human priorities alright.

    So, while the Cell’s pursuit of Life and Renewal is relentless – the same can’t be said for social institutions. The latter merely evolves through a series of haphazard trends as and when they occur. This evolution isn’t necessarily geared towards Survival either. Take for example, the rising proportion of the Nuclear to the Single-Parent family: it has weakened social bonds. A biological Cell would’ve ejected the foreign thoughts/activities (in a somewhat conservative manner). But social institutions evolve without the urgency of biochemical reactions – and can accommodate a slightly self-destructive force.

    So, essentially, what I’m asking is whether man-made, social institutions are subject to the same laws that govern cells or organs. If not, why doesn’t a sense of Morality reshape the institution to reflect the opposition to discriminating between citizens and non-citizens?

    • Firstly I’d like to clarify that I was not speaking of legal institutions such as marriage but ‘social’ institutions (if you like) such as countries, corporations, religions etc.

      And by the morality of an institution I am speaking of how the institution as a whole responds to similar entities outside it not how it is internally organised (the discrimination my immune system exercises against foreign proteins is not a function of my morality, the discrimination I exercise against other people is).

      I would suggest that the way countries interact with each other is not influenced meaningfully by any morality that may be reflected in it’s citizens or internal laws, but by realpolitik. The US is doubtless relatively humane and ruled by law internally, but is essentially as much a rogue state as any despotism on the world stage.

      It may be possible to incorporate, say, the principles of ahimsa into a country’s constitution but it will simply not be reflected in its behaviour towards other countries no matter how much the population as a whole subscribes to it. Not for long at least.

      You may have noticed that Obama is going through the motions of meeting his constitutional requirement for Congressional authorisation before striking Syria – only the second time a US president has done so since WWII. Every US president since then has breached the constitution at least once (maybe not Carter?) without the slightest outcry from opposing politicians or the media. The reason Obama is going through the motions now is because it is not in the US interest to strike Syria, not because he suddenly started caring about the constitution or human rights or anything else.

      That’s because social institutions do not interact with each other according to the preferences of their human members but in accordance with the rules of their own survival. They may have a ‘morality’ (a country that constantly broke alliances and treaties would probably be under a survival handicap for example) but it is not a human one and cannot be expected to directly benefit humans.

      Human morality itself is nothing more than a pragmatic adjustment of behavioural tendencies that allow individuals to survive within the group. Religious ethics etc are an effect, not a cause of that pragmatism. But religions don’t act towards one another with the ethical precepts they impose upon their followers. Even Jain kingdoms had standing armies.

      • I see where you’re coming from and agree with much of it (esp. about Realpolitik). When I said,

        It’s strange how institutions built by humans can reduce the value of human-lives to nothing.

        I was speaking of countries as a socially-organized institution, sanctioned by human law. As you know, an ‘institution’ is essentially a set of (formal / informal) rules that restricts human behavior for the greater good. When such behavior is limited by law / constitution – it’s a legal institution. When it occurs due to social norms / traditions / values – it’s a social institution (most, no doubt, are hybrids). Either way, these are man-made.

        To take an example: making polygamy illegal – strengthens the institution of marriage in a legal way. Frowning upon adultery – strengthens it in a social way. But both are geared towards restricting similar behavior (i.e. promiscuity). I see a prevalent opinion against promiscuity as a moral stance by the constituents of the institution.

        Likewise, if we look at choice of leaders: rallying for a leader who’s from my district / ethnic group is a social way of influencing choice of leaders. Putting a restriction on non-nationals (e.g. non-Bangladeshis / non-Americans) from becoming the president – is a legal approach. They both keep outsiders from becoming leaders. And that, to me, reflects a tribal, moral view that tribesmen will be more sympathetic to collective problems (due to that leader’s own morality).

        I would argue that social institutions were originally intended to (among other things) reflect the morality of their human members. When we wanted to discourage men deserting their families – we made ‘providing for one’s own’ a thing of honor. The law installed ‘alimony’ – a disincentive. I will agree with you in that readjustment of behavior helps the individual survive within the group. But I will also contend that the mainstream calibration is a function of that family/tribe/nation’s morality.

        My reading of Pragmatism is limited to Wikipedia – so I can’t really comment on the last part. I just feel that the moral thing to do and the pragmatic approach, are often the same i.e. being moral (in the conventional sense) is a pragmatic thing to do. So in my examples above, encouraging monogamy (maintains social fabric), choosing tribal leader (promotes sympathetic rule), discouraging men from leaving behind families (strengthens basic social unit) are all pragmatic things do to. So, it baffles me when ‘universal value of life’ isn’t reflected on the Nation State’s behavior. Perhaps it is, as you say, Realpolitik. But it just doesn’t seem right.

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