Political Hay

Putin Exposes the Secrets of American Liberalism

Liberals just hate it when someone uses their own arguments against them.

By 9.13.13

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Members of the Washington establishment were quick to denounce Vladimir Putin's op ed article in Thursday’s New York Times questioning the legitimacy and legality of a U.S. attack on Syria. The White House quickly dismissed his column as "irrelevant" and a sideshow to the real issues at stake. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said that Putin's column made him want to "vomit." Several other members of Congress, including Sen. McCain and Rep. Boehner, have denounced the column. Pundits have also weighed in against Mr. Putin's intervention into the American debate over Syria. Many tweeters and "texters" have criticized the Times for daring to publish a column by the Russian President that is critical of President Obama and U.S. policy abroad.

There is an unspoken sub-text at play here: what President Putin said in his column is pretty much what American liberals and leftists have been saying about the United States since the 1960s. From the standpoint of American liberals, there is nothing the least bit new or controversial in anything Mr. Putin wrote in his column. He is merely hoisting President Obama and his liberal friends by their own ideological petard. 

Putin made three general points:

First, it is contrary to international law for a member of the United Nations to attack another country without approval from the U.N. Security Council. A U.S. attack on Syria, he writes, would undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations and encourage other countries to resort to armed force to settle international differences. As he writes, "Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression."

Second, the major powers should avoid armed intervention into internal conflicts and civil wars in other countries. Such interventions are likewise illegitimate under international law. They are also ineffective and typically result only in an escalation in the level of violence.

Third, the United States is not an "exceptional" nation, or no more exceptional than any other nation is, and this belief promotes a sense that the United States is not bound by conventional rule of international conduct. Since Americans believe they are exceptional, he suggests, they believe they can make their own rules. As he writes, "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."

Where have we heard Mr. Putin's principles before? They are in fact basic articles of faith among American liberals who have been saying for decades that the U.S. should not use military force without United Nations authorization, we should not intervene in civil wars abroad, and the idea of American exceptionalism is a myth used to cover up crimes against women and minorities at home and the poor and oppressed abroad. 

Barack Obama at one time or another has expressed support for all three of Mr. Putin's principles. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he said that the intervention in Iraq was illegal because it was not authorized by the United Nations. In 2009, when asked about American exceptionalism, President Obama said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." In other words, we are all exceptional alike, just as Mr. Putin said. 

Today, as the debate goes on, every major college and university in the nation is offering courses in multiculturalism and American studies that attack the concept of American exceptionalism as an exercise in national hubris. The idea that America is an exceptional nation developed soon after the Revolution when members of the founding generation pointed out that the United States was the first nation to be created anew on the basis of the universal principles of liberty and equality. It was "the first new nation," and a model for others to follow and to emulate. Yet on American campuses today this idea is denounced as a fraud because, despite the rhetoric, the nation's governing classes have condoned slavery, racial bigotry, and ethnic prejudice. The academic field of American studies devoted to a systematic attack on the ideal of American exceptionalism as a justification for white privilege and American power abroad. They prefer the ideal of diversity to that of a culture of "exceptionalism." Liberals and leftists attacked the Iraq war because they denied that the United States had the right or the capacity to export its institutions abroad. This has been an article of faith among liberals and leftists since the era of the Vietnam war. 

It would be a good thing if American liberals, in their zeal to defend a liberal president, would in fact shelve for good their doctrines about diversity, multiculturalism, and American imperialism. But their attacks on Mr. Putin will undoubtedly prove to be but a momentary lapse in their ideological campaign to re-make the United States into a multi-cultural utopia. At some point in the future, probably when a Republican next occupies the White House, they will dust off Mr. Putin's principles and put them into play once more.

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About the Author

James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of Camelot and the Cultural Rev­olution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books).