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Vladimir Putin's comments on American exceptionalism, Syria cause a fuss

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 10:50 PM EDT, Thu September 12, 2013
  • Vladimir Putin argues against U.S. military action on NY Times opinion piece
  • Disputes idea of "American exceptionalism" raised by Barack Obama in speech
  • Sen. Menendez says op-ed almost made him sick, House Speaker John Boehner "insulted"
  • Obama ignores question about Putin piece; pushes diplomacy on Syria chem weapons

(CNN) -- If Vladimir Putin wanted to get America's attention, he's done a pretty good job.

The Russian president's opinion piece arguing against military intervention in Syria, published on The New York Times' website late Wednesday, set off a flurry of reactions -- some outraged, some impressed, and some just plain bemused.

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said the piece made him almost want to throw up, and House Speaker John Boehner said he was "insulted."

Putin said he wrote the article "to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders."

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But he appeared to have raised some hackles with the last paragraph in which he disputed the idea of American exceptionalism.

It was a reference to President Barack Obama's address on Tuesday night, in which he said that while America can't be a global cop, it ought to act when in certain situations.

"That's what makes us exceptional," Obama said. "With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth."

Putin's answer to that?

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," he wrote.

World reaction

He concluded with the line, "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

The White House shrugged off the fuss around Putin's jabs at Obama, describing them as "irrelevant."

Obama himself ignored a question about the op-ed on Thursday. His chief spokesman, Jay Carney, said that Putin has a right to his opinion, noting that America is an exceptional nation.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi questioned Putin's views on equality.

"What I found interesting was the closing -- when he says when we pray to God he judges us all - I don't know exactly what his words are but he says `we are all God's children.' I think that's great. I hope it applies to gays and lesbians in Russia as well," Pelosi said.

Putin signed a law earlier this year that bans public discussion of gay rights and relationships where children might hear it. Violators can be fined and, if they are foreigners, deported.

'Hey Putin'

There are others who took issue with Putin's view.

"Hey Putin, next time you wanna write a letter to convince America about something, how about you skip saying we're not exceptional? #rude," tweeted Sarah Rumpf, a political consultant in Texas.

Is the U.S. really No. 1?

Russia's wars

The Russian president also annoyed some people by warning against military action without U.N. Security Council approval.

"Man who launched military action in Georgia and Chechnya without UN say-so says wars without it are illegal?" tweeted the journalist John Podhoretz.

A report commissioned by the European Union said that Georgia illegally started the war with Russia in 2008 but that the Russian response, which involved occupying large parts of Georgian territory, also violated international law.

The two wars between Russian forces and separatists in Chechnya are widely considered to be internal conflicts.

Some Twitter users unearthed a previous op-ed that Putin wrote for the Times about the Chechen war in 1999.

Putin, then the prime minister of Russia, struck a different tone in which he sought to explain Russia's military action.

"No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes," he wrote. "It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger."

"Not a word on UN or Pope or Int'l law," Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer at The New Yorker, commented about the 1999 article. (Putin mentions the pope in his op-ed this week as being among those opposed to a U.S. strike against Syria.)

Senator's stomach turns

The overall tone of Putin's latest broadside was too much for Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said he read the article at dinner on Wednesday.

"I almost wanted to vomit," he said. "I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is."

But plenty of people seemed to think Putin had scored points against Obama.

"I think it's sad to see him acting with more common sense and humanity than Obama," said Ashton Blazer.

"Putin made a compelling, though disingenuous, case against military strikes. Its effectiveness shows how badly Pres Obama was outmaneuvered," tweeted Marc Lamont Hill.

Power plays

Others saw it in less subtle terms.

"#Putin diplomatically serves it to Pres. Obama in the last paragraph. Can't believe the #nytimes ran this," wrote Mary F. Mueller.

For some people, the tension between the two presidents has become a spectacle in its own right.

"Putin plays his next move on our very own NYTimes. This is almost getting as good as Breaking Bad," wrote Twitter user @MiketheEye.

Others said the tone of the article brought to mind some of the famous photos of Putin in macho poses.

"Putin wrote his Times op-ed on an Underwood, shirtless, with hunting knife nearby," joked Chris Regan.

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