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Milbank: 'Exceptional' means different, not better
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON — Dear President Putin,

Thank you so much for your letter to the American people! I am an American person, and when I learned on Thursday from the official Russian news agency, the New York Times, that you wanted "to speak directly to the American people," I thought: How sweet!

I know I speak for many American people when I congratulate you on your English. It was flawless, with none of those dropped articles that plague so many of your countrymen. Please don't be offended, but I have to ask: Did Edward Snowden help you with your letter?

It's not just your English that impressed me. Your geopolitical points were smart — da bomb, as we American people like to say. (This is not the kind that would be used in Syria.) You were so thoughtful to bring up those memories of our days long ago as allies, and your references to "mutual trust" and "shared success" make me think that maybe we could be friends again. Your favorable mentions of Israel and the pope remind me that we have so much in common.

Although some of us think it's a good idea to have the U.S. military strike Syria, most of the American people agree with you that it would be a bad one. (President Obama, you may have heard, is on both sides of the issue.) Your arguments against attack were creative, which is why it's such a shame that, at the very end, you kind of stepped in it. When you told us that Americans are not "exceptional" — well, that hurts all of us American people.

I was surprised by this lapse because I think you really "get" Americans. When we saw photos of you shirtless in Siberia, you brought to mind one of our most celebrated American lawmakers, Anthony Weiner. When we watched you navigate around Russian laws to stay in power, you brought to mind another quintessentially American figure, Rod Blagojevich. The Harley-Davidson, the black clothing, the mistress half your age — you are practically American yourself.

This makes your crack about "American exceptionalism" all the more perplexing. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional," you wrote. "We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal." (Thank you for the considerate mention of God, by the way; American people respond well to that.) But I'm guessing what went wrong here is your translators let you down when they defined exceptional for you as "luchshyy" (better) rather than "razlichnyy" (different).

Americans do not believe they are better than other peoples. If you doubt this, you need only look at Congress. If we really thought we were superior, is there any chance we would choose them to represent us? There are exceptions — we think we are better than Canadians, for example, but please don't tell them, because they're awfully nice — but generally we accept that all countries have their strengths. We know, for example, that Russians are better than us at producing delicacies such as caviar and dioxin. (Kidding!)

When we say we are exceptional, what we really are saying is we are different. With few exceptions, we are all strangers to our land; our families came from all corners of the world and brought all of its colors, religions and languages. We believe this mixing, together with our free society, has produced generations of creative energy and ingenuity, from the Declaration of Independence to Facebook, from Thomas Jefferson to Miley Cyrus. There is no other country quite like that.

Americans aren't better than others, but our American experience is unique — exceptional — and it has created the world's most powerful economy and military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world. When you question American exceptionalism, you will find little support from any of us, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, doves or hawks.

I hope you won't take this criticism badly, because I offer it in friendship. I was in Slovenia that day in 2001 when President George W. Bush looked into your soul and liked what he saw. And had your ancestors not chased my ancestors out of Eastern Europe, I would not be here today, participating in the American experiment.

Anyway, it was such a pleasure to get your letter. Please write again soon. I think this is the beginning of an exceptional friendship.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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