We were schooled by Russian leader Vladimir Putin last week, and not just because of President Obama's stuttered response to Syria. The American public, and our elected representatives, have been openly debating our "very limited" military intervention against Bashar al-Assad's regime, and the world has been watching our debates with exceptional interest.
A few weeks ago I arrived in Greece just as reports began circulating that chemical weapons were used in Syria. For perspective, the only thing standing between Greece and Syria is Turkey, a country that earlier this year had a "zero problems" policy with Syria, which included visa-less travel, free-trade and infrastructure integration. The distance between Greece and Syria is about 1,500 miles by land – approximately the same distance from Palm Beach to Boston.
From the other side of the world, I watched as our nation publically televised we are war-wearied; licking our wounds from the loss of life, money and overall strategic capital spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, chasing weapons of mass destruction we never found. We reported 90 percent of US citizens were against any military action pretty much anywhere in the Middle East, especially against Syria. Our only united state of mind was anti-intervention, even though we still needed to publically disagree to agree.
Proven use of chemical weapons, violations of international law streaming directly to us on YouTube videos, didn't penetrate the parody we've come to expect as every argument we have becomes a partisan political opportunity to take potshots at each other's political parties. Obama's staunchest critics don't want US intervention, and neither do many of his allies, but it didn't stop us from arguing openly about Obama's fumbled red line policy or Congress' deep divides.
For years the United States has assumed the role of "world police," yet reports from Greece asserted the American public has yielded to an "era of isolationism." Americans don't want "boots on the ground" is the sound bite heard around the world. The US maintains the strongest military, but intends to make the smallest effort to pursue those who break international laws. The era of the US as a vital superpower, with Europe central to decision-making processes, appears to be coming to a close.
And now Russia has emerged as the great mediator in what may be remembered as the dumbest disarmament deal in history. It's a deal brokered by Vladimir Putin; the leader of the very government that insisted earlier this month that the US had no evidence the Syrians had chemical weapons. It's a deal few people believe is even realistic, and it hasn't just changed the way the world looks at the US president. It's changed the way the world is looking at Americans in general.
Alexis Papachelas, a Greek journalist wrote, "The United States is pulling away from international developments and shying from further involvement while Europe has allowed itself to drift over the sidelines of developments and Russia is displaying an aggressive self-confidence that does not appear to be based on any kind of plan or vision for the future."
When I returned home the most articulate responses I could get on the subject were, "we don't need another Afghanistan or Iraq; we don't have support of other countries; and it isn't our responsibility." Few people understood Russia is one of five countries in the United Nations with veto power over international intervention, is an ally of the Syrian president, and that no one else will act because no one else really can without the US.
Putin's op-ed in the New York Times last week was obnoxious, mocked our ideals of America as exceptional, and defended Russia's right to use it's veto to block the United Nations from any action in Syria. But the most outrageous point of his letter was it was meant, "to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders." Putin placed himself in a strong role on the international stage and he did so knowing he'd be catapulted by our popular opinion to push his plan.
We can hang this entire debacle on President Obama if we want, but it's time to take responsibility for the reckless way we, the public, use every situation to wage war on one another while the world is watching.
Tony Plakas is the CEO of Compass Community Center and can be reached at TonyPlakas@post.harvard.edu or you can follow him on Twitter @TonyPlakas.