The New York Times op-ed piece last week by columnist Vladimir V. Putin -- hang on, he's president of Russia, Ronald Reagan's former "evil empire," isn't he? -- has provoked, as it should have, considerable discussion among Washington and other American panjandra.
For Americans to learn from it what is worth learning first requires that one accept the premise that it is possible to learn something useful from someone who might not have one's best interests in mind. Mr. Putin falls squarely into that category.
On the other hand, it is possible to imagine that certain changes in the behavior of the United States in regard to foreign affairs might be to the advantage of both Russia and the United States. That is exactly what Americans should look for in Mr. Putin's very public counsel at this point in a worldwide drama with worldwide implications that centers on Syria.
It is also the case that it is not to the advantage of Russia for the United States through its own collapse to no longer be able to keep some of its client states or potential victims in order. The United States is experiencing the same disadvantage in expecting Russia to continue to be able to extract reasonable behavior from one of its clients, Syria, in terms of trying to head off an attack on it by the United States, which would require a Russian response against the United States, a threat to overall world peace, by getting Syria to agree to give up its chemical weapons.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 created a no longer bipolar world. The United States was left as the sole superpower, a role it showed itself to be ill-suited for until China started moving up on it and Russia, under Mr. Putin, constituted the old bear coming out of hibernation.
The United States can't be an effective superpower because it is a democracy. When its people get tired of spending a disproportionate amount of money and losing American lives in pursuit of running the lives of people of other countries, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Rwanda, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria, they will eventually fold America's hand and get up from the table, as they were getting ready to do via Congress last week. President Barack Obama was out of touch with the American public and its putative representatives, with some members of Congress ready to impeach him if he went ahead with an attack on Syria.
The Russians don't like to deal with shaky American presidents, no more than the United States liked to deal with a sclerotic Leonid Brezhnev, a teetering Mikhail Gorbachev or a drunken Boris Yeltsin in the Soviet Union and then Russia. One of the Russians' problems in dealing with Mr. Obama is that they don't think he is in charge. They prefer Secretary of State John F. Kerry to his predecessor, Hillary R. Clinton, because Mr. Kerry isn't running for anything.
Before looking at what could be good advice in Mr. Putin's op-ed, let's get the "pot calling the kettle black" piece out of the way. Mr. Putin says the United States should not be messing around unilaterally, militarily, in the affairs of various countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. One might ask where he puts Russia's own invasion of tiny, neighboring Georgia in 2008? Since we are speaking of Syria, what about Russia's continuing role in pouring arms, some of them quite sophisticated, into that country as it proceeds in its third year of a ferocious civil war, estimated now to have killed some 120,000 people and put millions more on the run?
If Mr. Putin and Russia are interested in seeing peace and quiet prevail around the world, how do they square that with continuing to fuel Syria's armed forces, as opposed to cutting them off and trying to bring them to the negotiating table? One could also expound on Mr. Putin's intolerant, heavy-handed approach to human rights and internal political opposition.
On the other hand, the United States continues not to label the Egyptian army's coup d'etat of July 3, deposing elected president Mohammed Morsi, a coup d'etat, thus enabling America to continue to provide military aid to an Egyptian government controlled by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is busy arresting political opponents and shutting down Egyptian media outlets.
The kernel of sharp observation and good advice in Mr. Putin's article is that the United States has made a first-class mess of the countries in which it has intervened, namely Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and thus should shut down that policy as unwise -- a failure, in fact.
What occurred on 9/11 justified the initial U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to push al-Qaida out and to punish the Taliban, and it had Russia's support. Now, in spite of all our money, loss of life and valiant efforts, Afghanistan post-U.S. involvement is likely to be an even bigger mess than it was when the Soviet Union pulled out in 1989. Afghanistan is a lesson of which Russia and Mr. Putin have direct experience.
The United States also invaded Iraq in 2003 and occupied it for eight years on false premises -- a claim that Iraq possessed nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida. After U.S. attempts to re-engineer its governing structure, Iraq is now descending into violence and chaos. Although Libya's Moammar Gadhafi was a cruel buffoon, Libya after America, France and the United Kingdom helped rebels get rid of him has also fallen into chaos, including decimation of the oil production that Libya lives on.
Mr. Putin says, based on the destruction of orderly society that America carried out in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, that the United States should change its approach, that it should work through the United Nations and other forms of international cooperation and stay out of Syria. That sounds right to me. It also seems as though that may be what we are doing.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1976).