Obama vs. Putin: The Battle for Interpretive Dominance

By: J. Scott Smith

On September 10, 2013, President Barack Obama addressed the nation in a 15 minute speech outlining the necessity to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accountable for chemical weapons he purportedly used against civilians in Syria. Obama’s speech was a two-fold response to the reluctance of the American people and the International community to support targeted strikes against the Assad regime.  Currently, President Obama finds himself without the United States’ most reliable ally Great Britain, whose parliamentary government voted against supporting military action in Syria.  Bypassing an ill-fated attempt to pass a resolution through the United Nations (China and Russia would certainly veto any proposed UN-led military action against Syria), Obama would have to take unilateral military action against Syria, which would be a violation of international law.

Just as the nation readied itself for a Congressional vote on military action in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin purportedly struck a deal with Assad’s government to hand over its chemical weapons to international authorities. In response, President Obama promised to delay military action in Syria to give Putin’s plan for removing chemical weapons from Syria a chance to succeed.  Putin’s injection of himself into the Syrian question further escalated the rivalry between Obama and Putin to Cold War-esque status.  Their showdown for interpretive dominance can be seen between President Obama’s aforementioned speech on Syria and Putin’s op-ed piece in the New York Times.

The Obama vs. Putin matchup cannot be understated; they are two of the most powerful leaders in the world and both appear to distrust the other.  I can see the marquee now: Barack “the Drone Strike King” Obama versus Vladimir “the Russian Chuck Norris” Putin. The differences in opinion on Syria between these two leaders is steep and their conjecture on what will happen if military action is or isn’t taken is telling of their motives. Below is a round-by-round comparison of five of the major differences in arguments between Obama and Putin.

Round 1: Who Used Chemical Weapons?

Obama and Putin agree that chemical weapons were used in Syria, but disagree on who used them. I believe Obama is more adamant in his charge that Assad’s regime used them, but Obama is hindered by America’s previous false assertion that Saddam Hussein stockpiled Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), which was a primary justification for the Iraq invasion.


Moreover, we know the Assad regime was responsible. In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighborhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces. Shortly after those rockets landed, the gas spread, and hospitals filled with the dying and the wounded. We know senior figures in Assad’s military machine reviewed the results of the attack. And the regime increased their shelling of the same neighborhoods in the days that followed. We’ve also studied samples of blood and hair from people at the site that tested positive for sarin.


No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

Round 1 Score: 10-9 Obama. Between Russia being Syria’s primary military arms supplier and Human Rights Watch issuing their report that there is strong evidence to suggest that Assad used chemical weapons, I believe Obama wins this round against Putin.


Round 2: Slippery Slope to a Greater Middle East Conflict?


My answer is simple. I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad’s capabilities.

Others have asked whether it’s worth acting if we don’t take out Assad. As some members of Congress have said, there’s no point in simply doing a “pinprick” strike in Syria.

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.


The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.

Round 2 Score: 9-9 (Draw). Neither fighter gets a 10 in this round, which can only happen in boxing when the referee deducts a point from a fighter for a foul.   Obama and Putin could both be penalized for their remarks because they’re both completely speculative.  Obama does not have direct evidence that striking Assad will stop other dictators from using chemical weapons; he only hopes it will.  Similarly, Putin’s claim that a U.S. strike against Syria would “unleash a new wave of terrorism” is completely unfounded.


Round 3: What do the People of Syria Want?


Many of you have asked a broader question: Why should we get involved at all in a place that’s so complicated and where, as one person wrote to me, those who come after Assad may be enemies of human rights?

It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists. But al-Qaeda will only draw strength in a more chaotic Syria if people there see the world doing nothing to prevent innocent civilians from being gassed to death. The majority of the Syrian people — and the Syrian opposition we work with — just want to live in peace, with dignity and freedom. And the day after any military action, we would redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism.


Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

Round 3 Score: 10-9 Putin. The more I learn about Syrian opposition fighting forces, the less convinced I am that they share similar democratic values with the United States.  The UN reported that both sides in the Syrian civil war have committed “grave crimes in violation of international law.”  Obama should focus his argument on punishing Assad’s regime for using chemical weapons rather than taking sides in the Syrian civil war.


Round 4: America’s Role in the World


My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements. It has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world’s a better place because we have borne them.

And so to my friends on the right, I ask you to reconcile your commitment to America’s military might with a failure to act when a cause is so plainly just.


It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

Round 4 Score: 10-9 Putin. This was a fairly easy round for Putin; the United States’ recent military conflicts in the Middle East are clear strikes against Obama.  Moreover, Putin is asserting that U.S. unilateral action has hurt U.S. credibility in the international community and has been wholly ineffective.


Round 5: American Exceptionalism?


Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.


My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

Round 5 Score: 10-9 Obama. Seeing ourselves as exceptional is exactly how the United States became exceptional.  We didn’t land a man on the moon by thinking we were average. A nation is only as great as its people and without believing that you’re capable of exceptional things, how do you ever hope to achieve them?  Maybe that’s something Russia’s Chuck Norris can work on back at home.

Final Card: Draw. I know you probably feel scammed that I didn’t pick a winner, but doesn’t that make it feel like a real boxing match?  Most importantly, this fight isn’t over yet.  Obama will have to hold Putin accountable for his diplomatic plan, making sure that U.N. inspectors investigate and report the removal of all chemical weapons from Syria.  And maybe a draw is exactly what we’re looking for after all.  Both sides could potentially claim victory. It might sound something like this:

(Hypothetical) Obama to Americans: My threats of military action forced Putin to take diplomatic actions to remove the chemical weapons in Syria peacefully and thus kept America safe. 

(Hypothetical) Putin to Assad:  I stopped Obama from bombing your regime and thus prevented the opposition from gaining an upper-hand in the civil war.

Oh the Cold War stalemate, how I’ve missed you so. 

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J. Scott Smith is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri. He is a co-editor of Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration.