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.

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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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