(The Root) — What does the U.S. have in common with Blanche DuBois, the crazed heroine of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire? They both depend on the kindness of strangers.

We depend on China and other nations to subsidize our huge deficits, allowing us to mount costly forays into the Middle East while not raising taxes. Without the trillions these countries have loaned us, the government would grind to a halt.

And now we're depending on Russian President Vladimir Putin to extricate us from the potential disaster in Syria that President Barack Obama nearly stumbled into because of a careless choice of words. We just have to hope that Putin is serious about his proposal for securing and destroying Syria's vast supplies of chemical weapons.


And to make matters worse, we've conceded the moral high ground. Now, to much of the world, it's Russia that looks like a high-minded advocate for finding peaceful solutions to international crises, and the U.S. that looks like an unpredictable gunslinger. Obviously relishing his new image, the flamboyant Putin is playing his role to the hilt.

How infuriating it must be for Obama to read the sanctimonious lecture that Putin delivered Thursday morning on the op-ed page of the New York Times. How galling our president must find it to be reminded about the need to respect international law by a despot who routinely jails dissidents for so-called hooliganism and presides over one of the world's most corrupt economies.

How annoyed Obama must be by the Russian boss's puckish refutation of the moral case for American exceptionalism that Obama made in his speech on Tuesday night. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation," wrote Putin, with a face as straight as Secretary of State John Kerry's. (Has he been using Botox?) "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."

Who comes up with this stuff? Cornel West and Tavis Smiley? Spare me the sermon. Having made the proposal, Putin now has to make sure it succeeds. And if Obama's Russian rival scores some propaganda points in the process, that's the price Obama must pay for his inept handling of the crisis.


It was he, after all, who declared last August that "we have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

And it was his administration, after all, that threatened to launch a military strike against Syria's Bashar al-Assad regime after poison gas was apparently used to slaughter 1,400 people in a Damascus suburb in August. It is also Obama who has been trying to walk back that threat ever since it became clear that neither Congress nor the American people nor some of our staunchest allies favor military intervention.


If Obama's plan had come up for a vote in Congress, it would almost certainly have been defeated. If he had nevertheless proceeded with military action, he would have been impeached. Either way, he would have been humiliated.

No wonder he tried to blur his original statement by declaring, "First of all, I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line." That didn't quite make it to "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" territory, but it still was a bit of a whopper. It was pretty clear to everyone that the administration had do idea where to turn.


And so, seeing a chance to make himself look good, Putin threw the foundering Obama a lifeline. And Obama, having no other realistic choice, is using it to reel himself back from the brink of a looming disaster. It's at best a face-saving compromise, not an ideal solution. If it works, Obama will owe Putin big time. But it's probably the best we can do, because we can't go it alone and must depend on the kindness of strangers.

Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.


is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter