Putin's Letter to America

It is indeed strange for America and the world to receive a message on the value of both caution and international law from Russian President Vladimir Putin. After all, if there is anything Russia is known for, it is taking decisive and strong action, irrespective of international law. Any country on the receiving end of a Russian energy pipeline knows this all too well. And Georgia, which sought to build a competitive pipeline, learned this by staring down the muzzles of Russian tanks and being the victims of military brutality.

But before we dismiss Putin's hypocrisy, there is much we can learn from his New York Times opinion piece. Even if Putin would never follow the advice he is willing to give to America, there is too much truth in it to ignore. The world has turned upside down. President Obama speaks of UN "hocus pocus," and Putin speaks of the value of international law.

In the end, of course, it is about using appropriate symbols for a nation's interest. But international law now sustains Putin's interests, while ignoring it buttresses Obama's. Who is the bigger hypocrite?

Putin is quite right when he says that violating international law and bypassing the United Nations undermines the international system. Yes, international law is often practiced in the breach and when it is, the international community suffers for it.

I once lectured at the United Nations in Geneva (UNOG) and spoke to a group of international lawyers. I asked them about what I perceived as the futility of their careers. Much to my surprise, they did not see them as futile at all. Their response was that incrementally, little by little, getting an incident here, and a case there resolved through the mechanisms of the international community builds a foundation for the triumph of law over anarchy. It might take two centuries, they said, but one had to start someplace and build toward the future.

A strike by the United States against Syria, without the consent of the international community, undermines that process and gravely so because it is a manifestation that might makes right. International law then becomes something that weak nations must obey, and strong nations can violate with impunity. Obama, the lawyer, should know better. Obama should have also known better than to want to strike before the UN inspectors had delivered their findings.

Our statements that only Assad has chemical weapons ring hollow. After all, were we not assured that Saddam Hussein had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, that the North Vietnamese fired on two of our ships on August 4, 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin, that in 1960, there was a Soviet missile gap, and that the Bay of Pigs was a democratic uprising? Need I go on? Yes, there was a missile gap -- in our favor. The second Gulf of Tonkin attack never occurred, and only the diehards are still looking for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The Bay of Pigs was so ridiculous as to not warrant comment.

As for Assad's chemical weapons, long before the most recent incident, the Russians had already brought evidence to the UN alleging that chemical weapons were being used in Syria -- but by the militias. Putin repeats this allegation in his open letter to the American public. Before it is dismissed, we should hear from the UN inspectors. What is the rush to launch missiles that will inevitably result in killing innocent people? We could conceivably end up killing more people with our missiles than were killed by poison gas. Consider the photos the day after an American missile strike showing the inevitable dead children. Obama could not possibly regain the moral high ground when those children die in the face of pleas by the international community and the pope not to strike.

A number of military experts maintain that Obama could not strike the chemical weapons, but instead he would have to strike Syrian military command and control centers. This would degrade Assad's military and change the nature of the war in favor the Jihadis, which arguably is Obama's real intent.

The Saudis, the Emirates, and even the Israelis fear the extension of the Shi'a Crescent emanating from Tehran. That is why the Saudis and the Emirates are supporting the Jihadis in Syria, and even Israel perceives a win by the militants as a lesser threat than Assad remaining in power as an Iranian client.

Of course, nothing happens in the Middle East that does not ultimately involve energy. The Russians want the pipeline coming out of Qatar to terminate in the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia holds leases, rather than somewhere in NATO-aligned Turkey. The same is true of the new pipelines coming out of Iraq and Iran. America wants these pipelines to end in Turkey and the Russians want them to end in an Assad-controlled Syria.

One could say that is the basis of the conflict. Everything else is distraction.

Nonetheless, if America is to be different from Russia, it is necessary to pursue its interests the right way, not through a wholesale disrespect of the international community. American "exceptionalism" means nothing if it only serves as a justification for the ruthless pursuit of American interests.

As Vladimir Putin ironically lectures us on international law, it certainly looks like Obama has embraced American exceptionalism as a rationale for imperialism. Obama recklessly brought us to the brink of war, and Putin, picking up on an offhand comment by John Kerry forged it into a face-saving policy.

Still, the real issue is energy. How many of our young men and women and innocents abroad will die for the perverse Obama environmental base that never saw an oil well that should be drilled, a pipeline that should be built, or a fuel that should be burned? The Middle East is only important because of energy. If we can exploit our own resources more efficiently, we have the ability to ignore the quagmire that is the Middle East and the political cesspool created by the disastrous transfer of wealth from one part of the globe to the other. In the meantime, there is no war in Syria that requires our attention or is vital to our interests. Let's follow Putin's lead, hypocritical or not; it is time for diplomacy, not for missiles.