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Robinson: Is America an exceptional nation? You bet it is

  • In this photo taken on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, a visitor photographs the artwork entitled "Travesty" by Konstantin Altunin at an exhibition at the Muzei Vlasti in St. Petersburg, Russia. Four controversial paintings satirizing Russian politicians were removed from the exhibition on Tuesday, and the artist of the works fled Russia to ask for asylum abroad. (AP Photo/Yelena Palm, Interpress)

As I read Vladimir Putin's sanctimonious op-ed article about U.S. policy in Syria, I imagined the Russian president sitting at the keyboard in a lovely pink negligee.

You will recall that when a satirical painting of Putin in lingerie went on display last month in St. Petersburg, police seized the offending artwork and shut down the exhibit. The artist, Konstantin Altunin, fled the country and is seeking asylum in France. No doubt he wanted to avoid the fate of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, three of whose members were arrested and sentenced to years in prison for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral.

So when Putin tries to lecture "the American people and their political leaders" from a position of moral superiority, no one on earth can take him seriously. And as for Syria, the sinister and barbarous government of dictator Bashar al-Assad would not last one week without the military hardware that Russia generously provides. Putin thus has the blood of tens of thousands of innocent civilians on his hands.

Putin's piece in the New York Times does raise an interesting question, however: Has President Barack Obama, the patient seeker of multilateral solutions, now embraced the idea of American exceptionalism?

"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," Putin wrote.

(Once again, I couldn't avoid that truly exceptional image with the negligee.)

I, too, was struck by this passage at the end of Obama's speech:

"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. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth."

If this sounds like a big change in Obama's worldview, you've been paying too much attention to the right-wing echo chamber — and not enough to what Obama actually says and does.

It is an article of faith among Obama's critics that he believes the United States is just a regular country, no better or worse than others, and that, accordingly, he seeks to abdicate any leadership role in the world. Where do these critics get such an idea? From their own fevered imaginations, mostly.


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