The First Draft of the Great Man Theory of History

The New York Times on Vladamir Putin, Barack Obama, and the Syria debate.
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The Syrian civil war rages on. Bashar al-Assad is committing atrocities. Various rebel groups are murdering innocents in their own right. The U.S. is stepping back from a military strike that could dramatically change the course of events, for better or worse. Russia is offering, whether in earnest or not, to help strip the regime of its chemical weapons. And The New York Times is leading its Web site with what it apparently deems to be the most important Syria article of the day. But the focus isn't on the impact recent diplomacy will have on the Syrian civil war, or the prospect of a chemical weapons deal actually working, or how this will affect the Syrian people, or U.S. negotiations with Iran, or our relationship with Russia, or norms surrounding chemical weapons.

The newspaper contributes important reporting on those subjects.

But this lead story, "As Obama Pauses, Putin Takes Center Stage," focuses on how recent events have affected Putin's perceived standing. It has elements of geopolitics as Gossip Girl: you're either hot, or you're not. Putin was so out of style. But guess which leader is now rumored to be eclipsing his American counterpart? Guess who seems to be relishing his role as statesman? And do you know who just may be enjoying himself? Nope, not Chuck Bass. It's Putin!

...suddenly Mr. Putin has eclipsed Mr. Obama as the world leader driving the agenda in the Syria crisis. He is offering a potential, if still highly uncertain, alternative to what he has vocally criticized as America's militarism and reasserted Russian interests in a region where it had been marginalized... Although circumstances could shift yet again, Mr. Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at Washington's expense. He has handed a diplomatic lifeline to his longtime ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, who not long ago appeared at risk of losing power and who President Obama twice said must step down. He has stopped Mr. Obama from going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, to assert American priorities unilaterally.

More generally, Russia has at least for now made itself indispensable in containing the conflict in Syria, which Mr. Putin has argued could ignite Islamic unrest around the region, even as far as Russia's own restive Muslim regions, if it is mismanaged. He has boxed Mr. Obama into treating Moscow as an essential partner for much of the next year, if Pentagon estimates of the time it will take to secure Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are accurate. "Putin probably had his best day as president in years yesterday," Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said in a conference call on Wednesday, "and I suspect he's enjoying himself right now."

In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times released on Wednesday, Mr. Putin laid down a strong challenge to Mr. Obama's vision of how to address the turmoil, arguing that a military strike risked "spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders" and would violate international law, undermining postwar stability. "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States," Mr. Putin wrote. "Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it."

When Mr. Putin returned to the presidency a year ago, he moved aggressively to stamp out a growing protest movement and silence competing and independent voices. He shored up his position at home but, as his government promoted nationalism with a hostile edge, passed antigay legislation, locked up illegal immigrants in a city camp, kept providing arms to the Syrian government and ultimately gave refuge to the leaker Mr. Snowden, Mr. Putin was increasingly seen in the West as a calloused, out-of-touch modern-day czar. Now he appears to be relishing a role as a statesman. His spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said in an interview that the Russian president was not seeking "ownership of the initiative," but wanted only to promote a political solution to head off a wider military conflict in the Middle East.    

Putin even published an op-ed in the Times. What's hotter than that? I can't even remember the last time Obama published an op-ed in the Times. Could Obama even get a reservation at Le Bernadin? It's increasingly perceived that Putin could, and that he would enjoy himself if he ate there.

Look, I don't mean to disrespect The New York Times or its Syria coverage. (Any newspaper that pays C.J. Chivers' salary is due dozens of passes for that tremendous service alone.) But it seems to me that the excerpted story is largely filled with speculation about transitory perceptions that the Times itself shapes as much as it reports on them. Why choose to go with that frame?

Doing so de-emphasizes the real world consequences of the course being taken, and elevates the personalities, pr rep, and inner thoughts and feelings of the leaders involved (even though they're unknowable). Maybe Putin is enjoying himself. Or maybe he finds all this terribly tedious and has heartburn. Even the substantive parts of the article include questionable assertions. Maybe Putin has achieved objectives "at Washington's expense," or maybe what's happened is in both Russian and American interests, or maybe Putin has helped save us from a historic blunder for his own selfish reasons, or maybe Obama orchestrated part or all of this. Or maybe neither leader intentionally orchestrated events so that they would come to this particular place. 

If Putin enjoys a surge of popularity in global opinion polls, or makes a breakthrough on some other initiative in part due to the perceptions surrounding a Syria deal, by all means I want to read about it. But the story here seems to be that elites who obsess about egos and pecking orders among world leaders suddenly perceive that Putin is on top right now, though it may not last. Doesn't leading a major newspaper with an article like that give world leaders an incentive to prioritize appearances over substance, insofar as the story prioritizes appearances over substance?

And there are so many equally plausible ways this story could be written.

  • By proceeding in a way that strokes Putin's ego, Obama has managed to achieve his original goal, emphasizing the norm against chemical weapons use, without waging an unpopular war, all the while gaining leverage at the U.N. that he previously lacked. The benefit? Most of what he wanted. The cost? Allowing Putin a turn in the international spotlight.
  • The optics of the deal are likely of no more than transitory importance. The substance of the deal has benefits for both Obama, who won't be waging an unpopular war without legislative support, and Putin, a supporter of the regime in Syria. The odds of chemical weapons actually being eliminated in the country? As yet, the truth is that no one knows for sure. The winner in this deal, if there is one, may not be clear until after many more months of jockeying.
  • Obama and Putin, two leaders who've both looked bad in different ways through the entire Syria debate, caught a lucky break this week, when Secretary of State John Kerry offered a proposal to avert war that wasn't quite in earnest, and Putin accepted not quite in earnest either. It served both leaders, and benefited their countries too, insofar as the small chance of a catastrophic war involving both was diminished. Putin, who wants to strengthen the U.N. as a counterweight to the U.S., and Obama, who wants to strengthen the U.N. because he believes America benefits from a strong system of international law, also managed to find a deal that elevated the role of the U.N., perhaps in a way that serves both ends.

I'm not saying those frames and interpretations are correct. I just made them up out of thin air, based on a decidedly non-expert understanding of events in Syria. Are they provably inferior to the Times version, with its "appears to" and "was increasingly seen" and "circumstances could shift again"?

I don't see how.

"As Obama Pauses, Putin Takes Center Stage."

Well, I say that Obama hasn't paused, that the "stage" metaphor is inapt, implying a common vantage point and focus that doesn't actually exist, and that foreign affairs analysis should assume less.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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