Every time I taught P.S. 102 at Portland State University, we studied the effect of the electronic media on American politics. And every time we studied that, we discovered that “bias” was everywhere. Everyone who cared enough about an issue to write about it or lobby for it or to fund campaigns favorable to it turned out to be “biased.”
Very shortly after we reached that point, someone would ask me where to go to get unbiased news. I always said there wasn’t any such thing, and proposed my own solution to the dilemma. Round up a substantial array of biased sources, read them all, take them all seriously, and draw a conclusion rooted in your own values.
It’s a pretty expensive solution to the problem and I suspect very few students actually followed it, but if they had, and if they had run across President Putin’s op ed piece in the New York Times, (which you can see here) and had brought it to me to see, I would have said, “See. It works.” This is a really marvelous speech. Having written my share of speeches, I can tell you I would have been proud to have written this one. It does exactly what Putin wanted to do and it paints his opponents into a corner.
Just look at these few elements.
No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.
The U. S. is invited to bring significant international conflicts to the Security Council of the United Nations, where they can be vetoed. The alternative—THE alternative—is unilateral action, which will ruin the U. N.
Or how about this one?
No matter how targeted the strikes or how sophisticated the weapons, civilian casualties are inevitable, including the elderly and children, whom the strikes are meant to protect.
The most powerful part of President Obama’s speech was that we need to do whatever is necessary to prevent the death of so many children. President Putin points out that dead is dead. The children who die of poison gas and those who die as collateral damage to drone strikes are laid out on the ground side by side.
Or this one?
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. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.
Here Putin’s argument is more subtle. There is the factual question: who actually used the Sarin gas? Then there is the danger to Israel—that is not a name plucked out of the hat—which we exacerbate by falling for the ploy the rebels used to get us to intervene.
But, to my mind, the most interesting by far, was his final point.
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. 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.
He is saying that the nations of the world differ in many ways—size, wealth, form of government, policy commitments—but all are morally equal. Let’s imagine a caricature political universe where there is a “free world,” a Communist world, and an unaffiliated and mostly poor, “third world.” In Putin’s proposal, all the nations that make up these three worlds are equal. We are all equal because God created us all equal. The United States as a leader of “the free world” is precisely like the Soviet Union, which dominates the police states that make up their empire. Don’t let the starkness of this cartoon view distract you. If there were such a world, the U. S. and the Soviet Union would be morally equivalent. Furthermore, the Soviet Union and Latvia, which was not even allowed to speak its own language under Soviet occupation, would be moral equals as well.
There is, in short, no moral basis for distinguishing one nation from another. I think that is preposterous.
Here is what Obama actually said.
America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. 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.
So “doing the right thing” is what makes America different; it is why we are not just any old nation. We are willing to do these things—with modest effort and risk—and we are able to do these things, so we should. “We” in all these instances is the U. S. In other world, unilateral action or a coalition cobbled together by the U. S. are “we.” The United Nations is not “we” and nations that are committed to intervening through the agency of the U. N. are simply not extraordinary.
I think that is preposterous as well.
As is often the case, I hesitate between two courses of action. Very often, even the short-term effects of these actions cannot be foreseen and the long-term effects cannot even be guessed at. On the other hand, it is also important that we pay attention to how we justify our proposed actions and inactions and I think that the accounts offered by Presidents Putin and Obama are not adequate.
 Putin’s phrasing is religious, rather than merely moral, but he just wanted to throw Thomas Jefferson back at us. It is interesting that he interpreted “equality” as Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence, and not as Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address.
 I know that phrasing is offensive, but ask yourself if it is different from “exceptional.” I don’t think so. I think the view of the Americans Obama is pandering to in this reference is precisely that the world is full of ordinary nations and then there is us. I don’t think Obama actually believes that himself, but he is not acting as a self while he is in office.