“Some of you may feel that the cormorant does not play an important part in the life of the school, but I would remind you that it was presented to us by the corporation of the Town of Sudbury to commemorate Empire Day, when we try to remember the names of all those from the Sudbury area who so gallantly gave their lives to keep China British.” — from Monty Python’s, “The Meaning of Life”
When it comes to foreign policy, everybody’s a drama critic. Particularly on cable TV, the world outside U.S. borders is presented as an ongoing melodrama on moralistic themes.
Since melodrama requires conflict, there’s a built-in bias toward “crisis” narrative. Foreign countries, indeed entire continents, can vanish from the American imagination for decades, only to emerge as the putative flashpoints of history. (Syria! The Ukraine! Nigeria!) Something must be done, or all is lost.
If they agree on nothing else, politicians and pundits who derive great self-importance from pronouncing on world affairs share a bias toward the appearance of action, often in military form.
It follows that a president whose nickname is “No-drama Obama” has been getting very mixed foreign policy reviews. What’s more, it’s not only the “Bombs-Away” caucus led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham complaining.
“President Obama is being pummeled at home and abroad for his international leadership,” editorializes The New York Times. “The world sometimes seems as if it is flying apart, with Mr. Obama unable to fix it.”
Partly, it’s a matter of style. The president’s ostensible allies at The Times can’t stand Obama’s “maddeningly bland demeanor,” lamenting that the president’s lack of ideological zeal leaves him “too resigned to the obstacles that prevent the United States from being able to control world events as easily as it may once have done.”
Read that last bit again. Try to imagine editors waving it into print. Previous to World War II, Americans pretty much left ruling the world to those plucky lads of Sudbury and their brethren among European colonial powers who gallantly gave their lives to keep China British, Vietnam French, Indonesia Dutch, etc.
But post-war Pax Americana notwithstanding, I’m unable to think of a time since 1945 when the U.S. controlled world events “as easily” as it does today. From the Berlin Air Lift of 1948 through the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003, you name me a president; I’ll name you a foreign policy debacle: Budapest, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Prague, Vietnam, Iranian hostages, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf War, Serbia, 9/11, Afghanistan …
President Obama, not so much. Indeed, for an awful lot of his critics, crisis avoidance seems to be the big problem. He’s making it look too easy, and that scares people. The Times again: Not the reality, “but the perception — of weakness, dithering, inaction, there are many names for it — has indisputably had a negative effect on Mr. Obama’s global standing.”
The Washington Post’s Fareed Zakaria nails it: Many of Obama’s “critics want the moral and political satisfaction of a great global struggle. We all accuse Vladimir Putin of Cold War nostalgia, but Washington’s elites — politicians and intellectuals — miss the old days as well. They wish for the world in which the United States was utterly dominant over its friends, its foes were to be shunned entirely and the challenges were stark, moral and vital.”
In another way of putting it, for purely theatrical purposes they’d be happier with a posturing ideologue like George W. Bush, of whom comedian Stephen Colbert observed, “No matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”
Even Zakaria wishes that President Obama brought more flair and passion to his role as what used to be called Leader of the Free World. Still, his larger point strikes me as unexceptionable: Having inherited two ill-advised, poorly prosecuted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has all but finished the job of ending both without plunging into another. As of 2014, the U.S. will finally heed President Dwight Eisenhower’s advice to stay out of land wars in Asia.
Maybe he’s not Mr. Excitement, but Obama’s made no big mistakes.
Should the president have talked about a “red line” in Syria if he wasn’t willing to use force? No, but better to look feckless than go to war to save face. The Syrian factions deserve each other; neither is our friend.
In the Ukraine, the big American mistake was appearing to take sides in an area of little strategic importance to the U.S. but crucial to Russia. For all the overheated Hitler/Putin talk, a Russian invasion appears increasingly less likely. As for Crimea, those Russian soldiers were already there.
A deal on Iranian nuclear weapons, meanwhile, could be an international game-changer on a Nixon-goes-to-China scale.
Many human beings, alas, do prefer melodrama.
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”. You can email Lyons at email@example.com.