Friday, September 06, 2013

The Reluctant Imperialist

In Beau Wilimon's brilliant American adaptation of the British mini-series House of Cards, Democratic majority whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, muses on the notion of "trickle-down diplomacy" as his foreign policy mission statement before being passed up for the position of Secretary of State.  Although never really explained, one can assume it implies, like the economic policies of the Reagan Administration it steals from, that whatever benefits those at the top of the pecking order on the world stage, creates a net-positive global ripple effect.  It makes for good television, but in the real world, the notion is utter hogwash.  Trickle-down economics makes for good domestic policy, having tripled revenues to the treasury and boosting millions of Americans into the middle class, but as foreign policy, it's doubtful that easing sanctions on say, North Korea, would prevent Cuba from throwing blacks, gays, or people who think breakfast for dinner is just dandy into its dreadful work camps and prisons in an effort to persuade the United States into reversing its travel restrictions on the island dictatorship.  However, if we take it to mean America's actions on the world stage set the climate for how other nations act, well, Underwood might have been on to something.

The fictional Underwood loves sound bites like "disorganized labor" when dueling with unruly teacher's unions.  The fictional...I mean, President Obama is also a fan of sound bites.  They're what propelled him to the highest office in the land in 2008.  How else on earth could a relatively unknown and unvetted Senator from Illinois best a respected war hero with 30 years of experience reaching across the aisle and a reputation for having a fierce independent streak?  During the 2008 campaign, those of us with brain activity were horrified that platitudes as vapid as "Yes We Can" and as convoluted as "We're the Ones We've Been Waiting For" suddenly passed for soaring oratory.  It was fast food politics: quick and cheap, leaving you bloated, yet still wanting more.  Senator McCain was steak and baby potatoes, while Obama was a Chalupa, and who's got the time to marinate a steak when you can have a cool, pimped out taco in a few minutes (I could really go for a Chalupa right now, but my heart is saying "KFC". My gut is saying Jenny Craig)?

People will argue that the tingly-legged media was derelict in it's duty, neglecting to properly vet the boy wonder; that even the most perfunctory look under the nearest rock would have revealed Obama's radical past and bizarre anti-colonialist grievances.  That may be true, but those of us actually listening had grave misgivings about candidate Obama as far back as the Democratic primaries, when he expressed a willingness to meet with the leaders of brutal Middle Eastern theocracies and Latin American dictators without conditions, while rattling the sabre at long-time or strategic allies.  Validation of these fears came as early as his inaugural address, when he expressed his desire to placate countries like Iran by offering "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

It's this type of global naivet√© that has led us down the long road to Syria (there's a whiplash-inducing segway!)  As we sit on the eve of war, or selective air strikes, or a stern finger wagging, or sending a Chinook helicopter with the naked corpse of Ted Kennedy suspended by a stretchy rope to moon Bashir Assad, the most powerful nation in the world is now into day 16 of vacillating between any number of options against Syria while displaying the worst poker face at the table.

I'm at a loss as to why the President feels so compelled to act.  The brutal Assad regime has been doing what it does best in Syria on an escalating basis for the past 2 years.  Is it because Assad has crossed Obama's "red line", which the President has lied about even mentioning?  It's not like it's the first time he's broken a promise: see legislative transparency with the 5 Days of Sunlight act, or closing Guantanamo bay, or ending income taxation of seniors making less than $50,000 per year, or passing the Employee Free Choice Act, or only lifting the payroll tax cap on earnings above $250,000, or allowing workers to claim more in unpaid wages and benefits in bankruptcy court, or allowing seniors to buy their prescription medication at lower prices from other countries, etc., etc.  It's not like the guy is averse to lying.  It's almost his second language.

I'm not averse to military intervention.  Had the President acted more decisively after the Assad regime massacred rebel factions with sarin gas, I would have supported U.S. action.  I looked on with hope during the Arab spring, a spring that has now turned into winter.  Egypt was a mistake, but it was a noble mistake.

Now the President is attempting "trickle down diplomacy", but the only thing trickling is international support for action.  It's like Obama is at the Olive Garden and deciding what to do in Syria is the Never Ending Pasta Bowl.  There are so many options to choose from, but he can't make up his mind, so he keeps filling up on bread while everyone else at the table gets increasingly annoyed.  First he resolved he would act, but he didn't want to act unilaterally, so he waited to take the pulse of the world.  Britain said to bloody hell with you; Canada supports action, but won't offer military support; The French said "non", like they say to work and regular bathing.  Israel was initially impatient for the President to act, but is now almost tepid, after the  Administration's waffling and telegraphing of seemingly every detail of the strike.  In Tel Aviv, it's become la rigueur to mock the President's lack of action by quoting the famous line from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: "When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don't talk." 

Now the situation has become, as someone once said, "less than optimal".  Today the Vatican is reporting a Catholic priest was beheaded by opposition forces in June.  This comes on the heels of another viral video showing a rebel fighter dismembering and eating the heart of a slain Syrian soldier, raising a very legitimate concern over whether a post invasion Syria will go from brutal dictatorship to a barbaric Al Qaida theocracy (it's also spawned a resurgence of the crooner classic "I left my heart in Ali Ahkmed").

Now the President takes his case to Congress, where it is unclear whether he can secure the sufficient votes required to act with congressional approval.  Should the measure fail to pass, I have no doubt President Obama will be more than happy to, once again, blame an "obstructionist Congress" for his inept leadership.

Whatever the outcome, American credibility has been the first casualty of war.  The arab world smells weakness, while  our friend's and allies smell incompetence, indecisiveness and the true color of this administration: yellow.

To truly understand the President's motivations when it comes to matters of foreign policy, one only has to ask why the first black President always seems to make his weakest speeches on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  The answer is that Obama does not view the African-American struggle through the lens of the civil rights movement; Rather, he sees it through the lens of colonialism in far-away Kenya, and supposed Western imperialism in his own back yard.  I can only imagine the kabuki theatre of wonky academic moral pretzel-twisting that goes through his mind when he considers the post-WW1 French mandate history of Syria.  The reluctant imperialist taking up arms against a country with a quasi-colonialist past - that has to be an all new level of liberal self loathing.

In House of Cards, the calculating Frank Underwood makes a clever observation about the liberals that swim in the Democratic waters he inhabits. Perhaps it can serve as a useful insight into the President's constant vacillations.

"I have often found that bleeding hearts have an ironic fear of their own blood."



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