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Friday, December 2, 2016

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! 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 Senators 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, I 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.”

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