Putin gave Obama a lesson in how to whistle a different tune regarding international relations. What's left to be seen is whether Obama actually learned anything.
News stories in the run up to the UN meeting suggested it was Obama who was going to teach Putin a thing or two.
For instance, on September 27, The Hill quoted White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes:
"Our focus is going to be on the fact that there has to be a cost for a nation like Russia that is violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."
Not just Obama, but a plethora of American politicians in general have been incensed by Russia's alleged intervention in Ukraine and the destructive impact it is said to have produced.
Not only was Ukraine's territorial integrity in the news, but Syria's too. On September 23, Breitbart ran the headline, "Turkey Warns: Russia's Invasion of Syria 'Very Dangerous'."
It looked like Putin was being viewed as the world's Invader-in-Chief. The Daily Telegraph (Australia) reported, "Russia has been seizing opportunities in Syria, but what's Vladimir Putin's real motive?" There's been a long-running but never substantiated allegation that a crazed Putin is bent on territorial expansion. Several American politicians contend he's trying to reestablish the old Soviet empire. "Syria is the next arena on Vladimir Putin's comeback tour," claimed a Reuters story.
But on the Russian side there was more emphasis on finding a solution to the chaos in Syria and Iraq. "We are taking specific steps, and doing it publicly," Putin said according to the Sputnik news agency.
The Russian approach elicited some international skepticism, however. Does Putin have a hidden agenda? "By claiming a new role in Syria, [Putin] may hope to lift Russia from the Ukrainian morass" is how an AP report put it.
Tension grew as national leaders from around the world began arriving in New York to observe the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly. Finally on the fateful day of September 28, presidents Obama and Putin let loose on each other, offering criticism and advice.
There are a number of quotes that stood out to me:
"Instead of bringing about reforms, aggressive intervention [has] rashly destroyed government institutions and the local way of life." Russia should stay out of Ukraine, right?
And another quote stated that pushing for changes in other countries has in the past "often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress."
Some may have been pleased that Obama was finally getting tough with Putin. But these quotes are not from Obama's speech. They were utterances of Putin when he spoke.
In the first quote Putin was bemoaning the military interventions of United States that left failed or dysfunctional nations in their wake. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, for instance. The second quote is Putin's view of how past intrusions by the Soviet Union had similar disastrous effects.
So, what sounded like Obama's finger wagging at Putin was really Putin himself speaking and pointing to the foolishness of strategies like American military interventionism.
There were other instances of paradoxical sounding statements. For example there was the ominous reference that "dangerous currents risk pulling us back into a darker, more distorted world." Was this Putin crying out against Obama's sense of manifest destiny, that America has a duty to keep the globe under control? No, this was Obama talking about the value of international cooperation.
I've got to admit that there were times during Obama's speech that I thought perhaps Putin's speech had been loaded into Obama's teleprompter by mistake. So many of his judgmental criticisms of Russia could reasonably have been applied to the United States by Putin.
But do you see what this means? The two presidents actually agree a great deal on what the major problems are in the world. They see eye to eye on many issues. The disagreement arises when it comes to placing the blame.
Before the GA the White House was beating the drum about the Ukrainian crisis, whereas the Kremlin pegged Syria as more important. How did this play out in the actual speeches?
According to official transcripts, Obama's speech consisted of 4759 words. Putin's was much more concise with only 2940 words. Obama's claim to be loaded for bear over Ukraine didn't pan out in terms of how many times he mentioned it. There were only seven references by my count. Syria got one additional mention, for a total of eight. And Putin? He referred to Syria six times, three times for Ukraine.
My personal impression is that Obama blustered on with lots of generalities and stated fabricated analyses as facts. Putin got more to the point. He didn't dance around with his words.
Many of Putin's allegations can be substantiated with facts. And he suggested a practical course of action for achieving a realistic resolution of the problem in Syria.
Putin indeed provided Obama with a better and more constructive tune to whistle. Let's see what happens next.
Will Obama catch on, or will it turn out that he's just plain tone deaf?
William Dunkerley is author of Ukraine in the Crosshairs (2014 Omnicom Press) and Litvinenko Murder Case Solved (2015 Omnicom Press). He is a media business analyst with extensive experience in Russia and other post-communist countries, and principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants.
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