By Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb - 09/13/13 09:50 AM EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the United States in the op-ed pages of Thursday’s New York Times was a revenge of sorts on President Obama. [WATCH VIDEO]
Putin blasted notions of American “exceptionalism” and directly criticized Obama’s proposed military strikes on Syria, arguing they risked widening that country’s civil war.
The op-ed was the latest salvo in an open feud between Obama and Putin — one in which the Russian appeared this week to take an upper hand when a last-second diplomatic proposal from Russia led Obama to ask Congress to call off votes authorizing strikes against Syria.
The op-ed in the Times signaled Putin’s confidence, with the pre-eminent U.S. newspaper giving Putin a global stage to offer his views on the United States and the world.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained in a CNN interview Thursday that the Obama administration this week had put Putin "in a position of almost unprecedented influence in these affairs.”
“I suspect he’s enjoying himself right now,” Ian Bremmer, the president of political risk consultancy the Eurasia Group, said in a conference call Wednesday reported by the Times.
Obama and Putin have openly feuded for months, with Putin giving safe harbor to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and Obama canceling a Moscow summit in return.
In another shot at Putin, Obama visited gay rights activists during a trip to Russia for the G-20 summit earlier this month to call attention to a new Putin-backed law in Russia banning gay “propaganda.” The law has sparked calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Obama also cast Putin as a slouching schoolboy to the media, even as he insisted that their relationship is better than the optics suggest. The Kremlin was reportedly furious with the public remark, though Putin later downplayed it.
Putin and Obama have tangled for more than a year on Syria, but Russia offered the American leader a political lifeline of sorts when it urged Syria to give up its chemical weapons to international control.
Syria’s rapid agreement led Obama to ask Congress to put off votes on a military strike against Syria — a strike is exceedingly unpopular in the United States.
In fact, whip counts by The Hill and other media organizations suggested Obama would lose Senate and House votes on authorizing force against Syria. By making those votes unnecessary, Putin helped Obama avoid a defeat that would have cut into his clout in Washington.
But the move may have benefitted Putin more, allowing him to ride to the rescue and be seen as a powerful player in the Middle East who prevented a wider war.
Lawmakers have misgivings about Putin’s influence going forward with Syria.
“To put us in the loving hands of Vladimir Putin doesn't make me terribly comfortable,” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), a high-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs panel, told The Hill. “And I think that's where we are right now.”
Some saw the op-ed as further proof of Obama's mishandling of the Syrian crisis.
“It's a sorry state when he have to take our leadership from Mr. Putin,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill. “I'm not ready to concede our exceptionalism to him.”
The White House fired back Thursday at Putin, though perhaps its criticism was muted given the fact the U.S. must depend on Russia to push Syria to meet its commitments on chemical weapons.
“I think it's worth also pointing out that there's a great irony that in the placement of an op-ed like this because it reflects the truly exceptional tradition in this country of freedom of expression,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “And that is not a tradition shared in Russia, by Russia. And it is a fact freedom of expression has been on the decrease over the past dozen or so years in Russia.”
Lawmakers reacted much more strongly to the Russian president's aggressive criticism.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said the piece made him want to “vomit,” while Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters he was “insulted.”
“All I can say is, getting a lecture from Putin means nothing to me,” Senate Foreign Relations panel member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told The Hill. “This is a man who treats his people terribly; he wants to make gay lifestyle a crime; he has no regard human rights and civil rights. So I didn’t read it, and I don’t intend to.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight panel, said the op-ed was aimed squarely at the American public and lawmakers squeamish about using military force in Syria. He urged Obama not to get “distracted.”
“What [Putin] is trying to say is, don't put the pressure on us by saying you're going to use force,” Cummings told The Hill. “And the problem with that is that it is the threat of force … that has brought us to the point where we are now.”