If you have trouble understanding the meaning of the Yiddish word chutzpah, loosely translated as nerve or gall, Russian President Vladimir Putin's open letter to the American people in today's New York Times serves as a compelling example. The letter, among other things, disputes the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, the effectiveness of America's military posturing, and American values. But what would one expect from a former KGB apparatchik whose nation's government is responsible for some of the worst atrocities and human rights violations of the last century, including its steadfast alliance with the murderous Assad thugocracy? While no Springsteen, I have to concur with fellow New Jerseyan Senator Robert Menendez on Putin's prose: "It made me want to vomit." In this case actions on both sides, the underlying American military presence near Syria, and the Syrian's potential actions to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, admit their possession of such weapons and then destroy them are more telling than rhetoric.
The Rebels Did It, Really
Still, Putin's statements today are revealing. First, despite overwhelming evidence, Putin still argues:
"But there is every reason to believe it [poison gas] 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."
No matter that Russia has been a key partner in Syria's production of a Costco-sized inventory of the world's most dangerous chemical weapons believed to include sarin, tabun, mustard gas and phosgene. Moreover, everyone from France, the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, former inspectors, and anyone with a dose of common sense believes that the Syrian military executed this horrendous cowardly nocturnal attack that killed over 1400 civilians, including over 400 children:
Based on the available evidence, Human Rights Watch finds that Syrian government forces were almost certainly responsible for the August 21 attacks, and that a weapons-grade nerve agent was delivered during the attack using specially designed rocket delivery systems. The scale and coordinated nature of the two attacks; against opposition-held areas; the presence of government-controlled potential launching sites within range of the targets; the pattern of other recent alleged chemical weapon attacks against opposition-held areas using the same 330mm rocket delivery system; and the documented possession of the 140mm and 330mm rocket systems able to deliver chemical weapons in the government arsenal -- all point towards Syrian government responsibility for the attacks.
Force Doesn't Work, Except for Us
Putin also opines, "But force has proved ineffective and pointless." This coming from a fellow whose leaders and military enforced a vicious and violent form of tyranny and oppression over European religious, political and economic rights for over half a century.
Putin's overall point is correct, however. The execution of force or articulation of threat is overused and should be the least preferred option in our world, particularly for a superpower. However, for thugs like Bashir al-Assad, Adolph Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic, and even our own Governor Orval Faubus, a presidential message in a camouflaged colored envelope helped set things straight. As President Theodore Roosevelt explained, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Today, in Geneva Secretary of State Kerry did just that, stating "only the credible use of force" set in motion the diplomatic efforts we are now seeing. And despite his protestations to the contrary it brought Putin's posterior and that of its murderous ally to the bargaining table. If Mr. Putin engages positively through a peaceful diplomatic solution to really eliminating chemical weapons from Syria, more power to him. But, I'm with President Obama on this:
"Meanwhile, I've ordered our military to maintain their current posture to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails."
Some Nations Are Less Exceptional, Mr. Putin, Maybe Even Yours
Lastly, President Obama stated:
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.
To which Putin argued:
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.
Really? Let's just say, Mr. Putin, while we are all indeed created equal, and America has had its share of mistakes, Russia over the last century has been, how shall I say, less exceptional. As someone whose grandmother fled your country's brutal persecution, let's just say thanks for the memories, we won't be moving back!
But I'll tell you one thing, few have a better grasp of both our flaws and our aspirations than the peace oriented African-American son of a single mom and foreign father with a name like Barack Hussein Obama. The ball is in your court, Mr. Putin and we're all happy to watch from the decks of the Fifth fleet as Russia and Syria redefine their commitment to eliminating the scourge of chemical weapons of mass destruction which tortured innocent babies to death in their sleep last month. Since there are some other "less exceptional" tyrants out there who are looking at what we do, let's also give them the opportunity to pause before using the world's most horrendous chemical weapons against civilians. As Mr. Kerry rightly maintained today, the use of force remains firmly on the table, even as the preferred route of negotiations proceed.