09/13/2013 06:58 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

American Exceptionalism Has Its Exceptions

Vladimir Putin, who has had mostly unhelpful scowls and harsh criticisms of the U.S. since his return to the Presidency last year, has suddenly shifted to a hearts-and-flowers mode, perhaps under the influence of his New York public relations company, Ketchum, which delivered his op-ed message to "the American people and their political leaders," published by the New York Times on September 12. Putin, seemingly incongruously, declared that "my working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this."

Why such a change of tone? I think there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the threat of the use of American force in Syria, which might compel the Russian military, clearly outmatched, to respond in one way or another. Secondly, to get Russia off the back foot vis-à-vis the Sunni Muslim world - Sunnis constituting 85 per cent of the world's Muslim population. According to the Wall Street Journal of September 13, the government-sponsored "Russia Beyond the Headlines" stated on its website in Moscow on 9 September that Russia's position on Syria is the main issue hurting its image in countries including Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. (The latter two are Sunni as are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the countries across North Africa).

In one stroke, advocating the sequestering of Syrian chemical weapons, "peacemaker" Putin may be on the way to rehabilitating himself with the Sunni Muslim world. One thing is certain. He did not launching this initiative as a favor to President Obama. Putin is a staunch Russian chauvinist and an admirer of the previous Soviet regime. He is not a friend of the U.S.

In his letter, President Putin made an observation of surprising pertinence, picking up on a phrase in President Putin's speech to the nation on September 10: "I would rather disagree with a case [President Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States policy is 'what makes America different. It 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...Their policies differ too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessing we must not forget that God created us equal."

In the context of Putin's above remark, and to keep the current crisis over Syria in historical perspective, we should note that American exceptionalism has its exceptions. As stated by the authors of "Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979-1988," "For much of the war, particularly in its final phases, Washington turned a blind eye to Iraq's massive use of chemical weapons." This included the gassing of some 5,000 civilians (the Kurdish population in Halabja, Iraq in March 1988) and more strategically significant, the gassing of thousands of Iranian troops in the spring of 1988, which led to Iraq gaining the ascendancy in the fighting and was a major cause in Iran's in effect suing for a cease fire that summer.