I’ve thought about this half the night and all this morning, and still can’t figure out why Vladimir Putin chose to combine his potentially salvific private diplomacy aimed at preventing a U.S. military strike on Syria via concessions on chemical weapons with the rather public act of a New York Times op-ed that is guaranteed to annoy every opinion-leading faction in U.S. politics.
I mean, seriously: no one, but no one, is going to buy Putin’s unsupported assertion that it’s the Syrian rebels who used chemical weapons, particularly when the Russian president is talking about Assad giving up his chemical weapons as the key to defusing the crisis in his very next breath.
It’s also more than a little bizarre to see Putin excoriating Obama for unilateralism at a time when the U.S. president has rather conspicuously put aside plans for a military strike in order to pursue a Russian-led diplomatic initiative through the U.N. Security Council. And Putin’s hardly boosting his stock with American conservatives by labeling Obama a foreign policy chip off W.’s block, and a champion of “American exceptionalism,” or by treating preservation of U.N. authority as self-evidently essential to world peace and stability. On top of all that, Putin’s public rebuke of Obama is not consistent with conservatives’ preferred interpretation of current events as a tale of Putin and Assad manipulating the American president by false assurances of reasonableness and even friendship.
Whatever Putin’s motives are, and however inappropriate and counterproductive his arguments may be, the White House is reportedly happy to get his proposals on the record in public, per Jake Tapper:
“That’s all irrelevant,” the White House official said in response [to the strange things in Putin’s op-ed]. “He put this proposal forward and he’s now invested in it. That’s good. That’s the best possible reaction. He’s fully invested in Syria’s CW disarmament and that’s potentially better than a military strike – which would deter and degrade but wouldn’t get rid of all the chemical weapons. He now owns this. He has fully asserted ownership of it and he needs to deliver.”
So from Obama’s point of view, Putin’s plea to Americans and his arguments for his diplomatic intervention are the equivalent of dicta in a judicial opinion: excess verbiage unnecessary to the decision being made and thus “irrelevant.” It’s still strange.
Years ago, the late North Korean tyrant Kim Il Sung used to periodically place huge page-length ads in the Times reprinting his latest address to the Toilers of the East on tractor production or some such item of transcendent global importance, apparently to help maintain the domestic illusion that the proletariat of the U.S. and the whole world looked to him constantly for advice and instruction. I hope Putin isn’t taking to the pages of the Times to promote a similar domestic fantasy. But in the end, the White House is right: if Putin helps get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, we can all agree to disagree about what it means in the big scheme of things.