Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Comedy and Tragedy

When we were in County Kerry a few weeks ago, I noticed signs along the road touting the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival.

Inaugurated two years ago, this is an event I keep meaning to attend. It is held in the town of Waterville, a place where Chaplin and his family spent their holidays over many years. He eventually had to abandon it during the Troubles when, as a prominent Englishman, he no longer felt safe in Ireland. There is a statue of him in the town that prominently celebrates his connection to Waterville.

Three years in a row now I have missed the Chaplin festival. Other plans, duties and commitments always seem to get in the way, and I think of myself as too adult and responsible to bail on prior commitments.

So imagine how foolish I felt when I learned that the recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, managed to make it to the festival—even while the Security Council was having an emergency meeting on chemical gas attacks in Syria.

Power, who was born in Dublin and lived in Ireland until the age of 9, has a connection to Waterville. She has been a regular visitor for years along with her husband, legal scholar and sometime Obama adviser Cass Sunstein. In fact, the couple were married there. Sunstein was an invited speaker at this year’s Chaplin festival, and their visit had been long planned.

Those holiday plans made for some amusing comedy of another sort when Fox News decided to find out why a mere assistant was attending the emergency U.N. meeting in Power’s place. With the reflexive stonewalling that has become a trademark of Obama Administration spokespersons, nobody would give out any information—making the reporters even more determined to find out where she was. Eventually, it was learned that she was in, of all places, on the scenic Ring of Kerry.

Of course, this was all a pretty minor tempest in a teacup. With modern technology, people like Power are never really away from their jobs and, presumably, her assistant is a competent person. Besides, it’s not as though a meeting at the United Nations was really going to make a lot of difference to what was happening on the ground in Syria anyway.

But the kerfuffle provided an irresistible metaphor to those who feel that, when it comes to foreign policy in general and the Middle East in particular, the Obama Administration is just phoning it in.

But the administration isn’t just phoning it in anymore. Syria is front and center in news headlines in the U.S. and around the world. After two and half years of a civil war that has seen atrocities committed by more than one side—but the most horrific by the Assad regime—the U.S. government is giving every indication that it is going to react militarily—one of these days.

If the footage of victims of chemical weapons and other forms of violence were not so sickening, the ironies of the situation would actually be humorous. We have President Obama, who rose to power in large part on his consistent opposition to the U.S.’s involvement in Iraq, scrambling for backing of some kind military operation against Syria. Even more striking is Secretary of State John Kerry, who rose to prominence as a young soldier admonishing old men for sending young men off to an ill-advised war and is now an old man himself forcefully arguing that today’s young men should now get involved in a far-off land. This is the same John Kerry who voted against sending troops to liberate Kuwait back in 1991.

Syria is different than Iraq, we are told. The difference is that, by all accounts, this military action will be so brief and risk-free that it will not actually make any difference. But reports from the BBC today suggest that Republicans, whom Obama will need if he is to have the congressional backing he now wants, are insisting that any action has to be substantial. Senators McCain and Graham want it to be strong enough to shift the war in the rebels’ favor.

A lifelong Republican and a war veteran, my father always liked to point out that, in modern history, America’s involvement in foreign wars was almost always initiated by Democratic administrations: World War I (Woodrow Wilson), World War II (Franklin Roosevelt), Korea (Harry Truman), Vietnam (JFK/LBJ), Kosovo (Bill Clinton). The 20th century exceptions would be Grenada (Ronald Reagan) and the Gulf War (Bush 41)—both fairly brief affairs. In the 21st century, on the other hand, two rather long wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) were initiated by a Republican administration (Bush 43), which my father did not live to see.

Dad had an explanation for why, during his lifetime, Democrats were invariably in charge when these foreign wars began—despite the fact that Republicans had the reputation of being the more hawkish party. His explanation was that the more an adversary believes an administration has no stomach for war, the more likely that adversary will miscalculate in its provocations. The paradox, in Dad’s view, was that the best way to avoid a war was to always be ready to go to war.

If there was anything obvious about Obama as a candidate or as president, it was that he wanted to end the wars Bush had started and to avoid any other wars. And now here he is sort of trying to get the country in the mood for war.

Maybe there is a method to President Obama’s apparent madness in dealing with Syria, i.e. the switching of gears, changes in plans, broadcasting of intentions and of self-limits, the delay in waiting for seeking symbolic congressional approval after legislators come back from recess. Maybe it will all end well. My personal guess is that the president simply hopes to delay military action so long that, assuming Assad avoids any obvious further use of chemical weapons, Obama can declare a moral victory without actually doing anything. But that almost certainly won’t work because, as Middle East dictators are wont to do, Assad will be loudly declaring that it was he who triumphed by staring down the Americans. And, as the pundits tell us, this will only embolden the nuclear weapon developers in Iran.

There seems to be no way for a U.S. president to get it right. George W. Bush was eventually vilified for invading Iraq. The web site Iraq Body Count puts the civilian casualty toll since the beginning of that war ten years ago at a minimum of 114,396. (I can find no estimates of how many would have otherwise died under the repressive and sometimes bellicose Saddam Hussein regime or indirectly because of United Nations sanctions.) The lesson learned in the U.S. was to not intervene militarily in the Middle East. And so the U.S. has stayed out of the war in Syria.

But consider this. The United Nations estimates that, in just two and a half years of the Syrian civil war, more than 100,000 have already died.

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