On September 11, 2013, The New York Times published an op-ed by Vladimir Putin arguing against unilateral American military intervention in Syria without the blessing of the United Nations Security Council.
Many have taken issue with parts of the op-ed. Putin’s moralistic advocacy for international law can easily be seen as hypocritical—he defended military intervention in Chechnya in 1999 regardless of U.N. support. Furthermore, his claim that “there is every reason to believe [chemical weaponry] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons” borders on a conspiracy theory. American intelligence seems to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that chemical weapons were used by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Most importantly, Putin and Russia’s long-standing relationship with the Assad family suggests major bias in the article. Russia’s political and military support for Assad cannot be ignored when reading the article in today’s political context.
But despite the hypocrisy and conflict of interest, Putin’s article can still have intellectual merit. When we write papers here as underclassmen, we have less credibility than the tenured professors whose scholarship we take on, but does that mean we should stop writing? No. Quality arguments matter regardless of who writes them.
That is not to say the argument and the arguer should be fully separated—to place any views in context, the biases, political situation, and biography of the writer cannot be ignored. But examining the author with the argument, much like examining the novelist with the novel, yields a different understanding of, and oftentimes demeans, the author’s ideas.
But it can be useful to view the arguments separate from the author in order to assess their validity to the debate at hand. Regardless of the hypocrisy, bias, or credentials of the author, arguments maintain relevance and should be assessed on their own merits, not the merits of their author.
The article first argues, “A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.” The argument understands that U.S. intervention breeds extremism, extremism often directed back at the United States. Understanding the regional dynamics, the article continues that military intervention could destabilize the region, presumably by destabilizing the Assad regime. Given sectarian conflict in Lebanon and Iraq, both of which neighbor Syria, the argument is a valid one. The article displays a more nuanced approach to the regional issues than the American moralistic advocacy for military intervention.
In a fairly direct attack on U.S. military policy in the Middle East, the article continues to cite the American military failures in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq—U.S. intervention seems to help rather than hurt those countries, hurt rather than help those countries, the article correctly argues.
The article finally addresses President Obama’s American exceptionalism in rhetoric that shouldn’t be paraphrased:
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.
Moral and religious, political and sociological, the article rousingly expresses a common view, one surely shared by people from around the world. It is an argument based on equality, something America supposedly believes in.
Of course, Putin’s record on equality, notably on gay rights, is weak, and his bashing of American exceptionalism comes in the context of strategic competition between the United States and Russia. But by removing the discussion of Putin and discussing his ideas, the article’s claims become simpler and more agreeable to people around the world, including many in America opposed to American military involvement in the Middle East. These arguments are vital to the global Middle East policy debate, and focusing too much on Putin’s biases ignores the importance of his case.
By separating Putin from his arguments, we have an opportunity to better understand opposing viewpoints to intervention in Syria. Despite what Putin said, American exceptionalism has its merits—compared to Russia, for example, we are more tolerant, more just, and more free. But to become an even greater nation, we must approach the arguments of our antagonists and enemies with an eye toward understanding, not towards counterargument and discrediting.