"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, writing in the New York Times on 11 September
Many Americans were offended by Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent op-ed in the New York Times, particularly his comment about President Obama's reference to American exceptionalism in trying to rally public support for air strikes on Syria.
I agreed with many of Putin's points and was not offended by his comment on President Obama's reference to American exceptionalism. I found it noteworthy, for example, that Putin entitled his op-ed "A Plea for Caution From Russia." For me, his use of the word "Plea" imparted the impression that he was trying to present himself not as someone moralizing but as a deeply concerned observer.
Putin's first two sentences were also noteworthy: "Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies."
Certainly a failure to understand each other exists between our societies and it is important to both to overcome this failure. It seemed clear this was what Putin was trying to do with his op-ed after President Obama canceled a planned private meeting with him at the Group of 20 nations summit in Russia during the first week of September.
To the degree Americans were offended by Putin's remarks, it was because the two sides were coming from different reference points.
In his Address to the Nation, President Obama was simply trying to win support for air strikes on Syria to stop the Assad government's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.
But Putin comes from Russia which lost 20 million people in WWII, an experience that is burned into the mind of every Russian young and old and shapes their view of the world and interpretation of events and words.
I suspect that when Putin heard President Obama exhorting the American people to strike the Assad regime in Syria because we are the world's only remaining superpower, Putin heard echoes of another great orator telling the German people that they were exceptional, that "Might makes Right," and that Germany had to attack Russia to save the world from the evil of Bolshevism.
That thought didn't strike me listening to President Obama's Address to the Nation. In retrospect, I can, however, see how Obama's oratory may have caused Putin discomfort.
But in issuing his warning about it being extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, Putin may also have had in mind Soviet history. For Soviets certainly saw themselves and Soviet society as exceptional and superior to all others. As a young man studying Russian in the Soviet Union in 1963 and 1965, I was struck by how much America and the Soviet Union seemed to be mirror images of each other in their sense of patriotism, uniqueness and internationalism. Many Russians still cherish Soviet values. One sees their banners at protests against Putin.
The Soviets' sense of exceptionalism led them to occupy Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. It also led the Soviet Union to expend huge amounts on its military and in foreign aid competing with America for international influence. Trying to show the world that it was a superpower led the Soviet Union to economic collapse and terrible suffering.
Russia obviously has its own interests in Syria, but I do think that in writing his op-ed, Putin meant well. Russia learned a bitter lesson in overextending itself in Afghanistan and warned us beforehand of the dangers in invading Iraq.
So I'll give Putin a little leeway on his concern about President Obama using the term "exceptionalism" and President Obama leeway for his use of the term. Neither one seemed to realize how his words might come across to others.
As Putin observed, there is insufficient communication between our societies. We need to correct this. As demonstrated by the Boston Marathon bombing, Russia and America need to work together more closely against international terrorism.
Dennis Lamb, from Chelsea, retired from the CIA in 2002 after serving 30 years in its Directorate of Operations as a case officer and intelligence analyst. (The thoughts outlined above represent his personal views and not the views of his former employer.) Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org