As I read Vlad’s op-ed in the New York Times, a Judy Collins tune kept replaying in my head: “Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer?”
The song — actually written by Stephen Sondheim, although it is Collins’s signature hit — is “Send in the Clowns,” and it seems an apt soundtrack for current events. As we’ve stalled in making a decision about how to handle Syria (two years and counting), Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been allowed to emerge as reasonable heads of state, talking down to the United States, lecturing us about our misplaced belief in exceptionalism and making demands that mock our president.
Putin hasn’t had this much fun since he rode shotgun in George W. Bush’s truck. Thanks to President Obama, the good times keep on rolling. We now have a catalogue of blunders we can attach to Putin-related (Putinesca?) “diplomacy,” a term that becomes more farcical by the day.
Recall that Bush, whose international outreach often included a ride around his Crawford, Tex., ranch, once said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. I have a photograph from the day in Texas that captures the two men grinning. Putin, it must be said, looks like he’s having the time of his life, and Bush looks, as he always did, confident and oblivious to the menace seated beside him.
Next we have Obama, who, in an intimate moment with then-outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, conveyed a message to incoming President Putin. Thinking the microphones were off, Obama asked for a little space until after his reelection, when he would have more wiggle room on missile defense.
“Wiggle room,” now there’s a foreign policy. As the “red line” has moved, then blurred, then moved again until now it is nearly invisible, Putin has approached the American people directly via the Times, while Assad issues orders to Washington: He’ll sign the chemical weapons agreement if the United States promises to bug off.
We can’t seem to get it quite right at the helm. Either we’re saddled with a cocksure “decidinator” who is feared for his lack of pause — or we’re stuck with an over-thinker so afraid of making the wrong decision that he paralyzes himself into a pose of ineptitude.
Both profiles can be equally dangerous, depending on the circumstances, though inarguably it is better to be feared than pitied. It is painful to watch as Obama is increasingly diminished by his inability to commit to a position that he has staked out.
Certitude isn’t always an admirable trait. In fact, in political discourse, it is most often annoying if not downright wrong. Life is not, as it turns out, black and white. Diplomacy is all about exploring the shades of gray. But it is also true that the president of the United States doesn’t get to suffer the usual flaws of human comport. He doesn’t get to promise grave consequences for unacceptable behavior and then, failing to follow through, act as though everyone else’s perception is somehow at fault.
“I didn’t set a red line,” Obama has said. “The world set a red line.”
This not only is false but it sounds petulant. The president’s speech to the nation Tuesday night struck a better tone, but it was consistently inconsistent in content. Obama conveyed the sense that he really doesn’t know what he intends to do — or why.
Recognizing this, Putin now has taken the high road, scolding the United States for its “commonplace” interventions in countries not its own.
“Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it,” Putin wrote — and we know that Putin cares deeply about the United States’ long-term interest. “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’”
And, it is “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”
Actually, Vlad, millions around the world do see the United States not only as a model of democracy but also as exceptional because, among other things, we let everybody talk. Even clowns. Sing it, Judy.
Whatever the outcome of these fire-hydrant gymnastics, a positive result (no U.S. military engagement and an enforceable chemical weapons agreement with Syria) probably will have been accidental. So be it and pass the champagne. But the larger lesson should not get lost in events: Never draw a line unless you are prepared to fight. Erasers make lousy weapons.