From elementary school onward, I was taught to attack the argument a person makes, not the person making the argument. The reaction to Vladimir Putin's article in the New York Times makes it seem as if many weren't taught this lesson.
Immediately after Putin's article was published on Wednesday evening, it began to be attacked by mainstream media sources, political representatives, and the general public. It is fine to disagree with someone and critique their argument, especially when the topic is as polarizing as Putin's. Yet this is not what many of Putin's critics are doing. Instead of attacking his arguments, they are attacking him, his country, and his ability to make the arguments he has. This is problematic for numerous reasons.
First, attacking Putin instead of considering his arguments is just a way to ignore and avoid the arguments he made. Putin brought up numerous important points in his article, which anyone with a basic understanding of U.S. foreign policy or history can understand. Here are just a few of these arguments in an article filled with them.
But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.
Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.
I carefully studied [Obama's] 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.
Ignoring these arguments is a way to avoid legitimate American mistakes. It is also incredibly immature, and is the equivalent of closing your eyes and plugging your ears when faced with a potential truth you don't like.
Second, many of Putin's critics seem to have taken up the view that you need to be morally superior to America to criticize America. This is entirely untrue. For example, America's destructive record in the Middle East didn't disappear or become irrelevant when Osama Bin Laden was the one pointing it out. In fact, you should listen especially close when what some consider to be the forces of evil in the world are criticizing your behaviour. The critiques these figures offer may not always be valid, but many of Putin's are. For example, Putin claims that due to America's foreign policy,
"Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan 'you're either with us or against us.'"
This sort of claim is valid regardless of Putin's own flaws. Jesus was wrong when he taught that only those who haven't sinned should throw stones at those publicly convicted of doing so. World leaders don't need to be pure to throw stones. If they were, no stones would ever be thrown, and very few public critiques or condemnations would be made. America deserves to have a stone throw at it, and Putin has done just that in a manner which millions will see. Of course, Putin's stone is not alone as it merely joins an international volley from all corners of the globe by figures worried about America's plans for Syria.
Third, most of those who criticized Putin are either extremely naive, or willfully ignorant. You don't need to be on a higher moral level to attack America, but it's clear that America has no step up on Russia. Barack Obama and his predecessors belong in the same moral swamp as Putin, and to think otherwise is to ignore the sludge which has drained from the Obama administration daily since 2008, and from America as a whole for much longer. Of course it's great that the West can be so critical of Putin, as there are numerous things about his record to criticize. I would only ask that they be as critical of Obama and America.
Fourth, and most importantly, the 'us' vs. 'other' mentality needs to be abandoned. The 'us vs. 'other' mentality makes commenters feel as though they need to choose a side, with Putin, or with what he criticizes, instead of pointing out the flaws in both. The 'us' vs. 'other' mentality makes Putin's readers cry out for his supposed hypocrisy to be replaced by the American brand of hypocrisy which usually fills the New York Times' pages, instead of calling for the truth. Finally, the 'us' vs. 'other' mentality taken to its logical conclusion renders America's atrocities as somehow more humane than Russia's and it's allies simply because they are America's.
Although the 'us' vs. 'them' mentality can be persistent for even the most critical analysts among us, it's important to always push back against it. In this case, a great first step would be to re-read Putin's article and pretend he didn't write it. Or, more simply, think about the childhood lesson calling for attacks on argument instead of character. This is an essential starting point for a productive discourse on Syria.
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