Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Great Unraveling

It’s strange to watch a good mind go off the rails. It’s not the same as watching a brain freeze.

A writer begins an essay with a cogent analysis of, in this case, nothing less than the state of the world. Naturally, he moves on to asking how and why the world is the way it is.  

If you follow his reasoning you can see that the answer is staring him in the eye. He doesn’t see it. At the last minute he looks away.

A potentially excellent article has become partisan hackery.

Today’s example comes from Leslie Gelb, former New York Times columnist and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. You can’t get more credentialed than that.

Gelb opens strongly by evaluating the current state of the world. It’s a large topic and Gelb has sufficient vision to grasp it.

In his words: “The world is on fire. People’s lives all over the globe are souring and uncertain. Futures are frightening, more so than at any time since the 1930s. The steel doors of dictators are being opened by courageous middle-class democrats whose precious accomplishments are immediately threatened by religious extremists and the usual thugs. Economies are sinking, or on the verge, in Europe and the United States, with awful repercussions everywhere. Most depressingly, political leadership worldwide is not up to extinguishing the flames. Many leaders are weak and lost; most want only a promised land for themselves. In hours like these, governments and people stop hoping, stop talking seriously, and draw their guns.”

After explaining how Russia is getting out of control, Gelb moves on to the Middle East. There he sees impending doom: “From South Asia to Israel’s doorstep, the region is already afire, blood spilling within countries and edging toward war between them. The Libyans are not finished with their murdering path to what they and the media call ‘democracy.’  Egypt is tottering between rule by Islamists and the military. The former won the elections, the latter monopolize the guns—for now. A clear Islamist takeover could easily lead to grave tension and even war with Israel.”

In Europe, the current financial crisis is bad and looks to be getting worse. The repercussions will be felt around the world.

In Gelb’s words: “Precious Europe and its deep debt crisis are bringing everyone down. China sells it nearly 20 percent of its exports; the U.S. is not far behind. European investments abroad will slow. Most important, life in Europe itself will become uncertain. It’s not inconceivable that Europe could come apart, and that many of these relatively new democracies will tilt toward authoritarian rule. “

At this point Gelb returns to a theme he touched on in his first paragraph: the absence of leadership. As he sees it, the world is suffering from a vacuum in American leadership.

Fair enough.

Gelb writes: “For all its waning power and prestige, the world continues to look to the United States for solutions and for hope. If Americans can’t find solutions, solutions will come harder for others. Sadly and perilously for all the world, Americans are losing hope.”

Meaning, that he has completely missed the point.

For those of you who care about English grammar, Gelb’s first sentence here contains an egregious grammatical mistake. One wonders how Gelb’s editors could have missed it.

To be clear,  “for all its waning power and prestige” is supposed to refer to the United States. Grammatically it refers to “the world.” It’s called a dangling modifier. Serious writers should know better.

It matters because it’s a symptom. Gelb refuses to take the next logical step: the person  most responsible for the world’s current unraveling is none other than Barack Obama.

A world teetering on the edge of chaos is a world whose putative leader does not know how to lead. It’s a world where Barack Obama would rather run for re-election than govern.

Over the years, in times of trouble, world leaders have dialed up the White House. They have relied on American power, economic, military, and diplomatic, to help set things aright.

Now, they have learned, through bitter experience, that when they dial up the Obama White House no one’s home.

Recently, Obama accused Republicans of wanting to create a world where everyone could do as he pleased and where no one played by the rules. Everyone understood that he was speaking nonsense.

But, consider this. Obama’s failure to lead is creating a world that looks a lot like the one that he is accusing Republicans of promoting.

Leslie Gelb fails to see that the world he is describing is the world that Barack Obama has created. When Gelb says that the world is losing hope in America because America is losing hope in itself, isn’t he referring to the great agent of hope, Barack Obama?

Everyone but Leslie Gelb knows that Barack Obama is the world’s leading purveyor of false hope and empty rhetoric.

Gelb would rather blame it all on the Republicans. Here we can watch Gelb’s mind go off the rails.

In his words: “The teabaggers and the Occupy Wall Street crowd are acting out frustrations shared by most Americans: politicians who ignore them, greedy six-gun bankers who trample them, media that trifle with them, a stalemated government, an ever-harder time meeting daily needs, the absence of effective leadership to show the way out. The great Republican Party may have fallen into ideological Gaga Land.”

Slandering the Tea Party is a prelude to blaming Republicans for the absence of consequential presidential leadership. As though that is not absurd enough, Gelb accuses Republicans of worshiping Lady Gaga.

Not a word, not a hint, not a suggestion about the ideological zealot in the White House. Nothing about the rabble rouser who is in running American foreign policy. 

A liberal Democrat runs the executive branch. If he cannot exercise leadership, it must be the fault of the Republicans.

Believe that and you will believe anything.

Gelb seems to have forgotten that Obama  has happily embraced the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Occupy movement in America, and labor union agitation. He does not mention that Obama has no real taste for exercising American leadership in the world.

Obama likes grand historical drama. He does not know how to conciliate and compromise. Ergo…

A world in flames is Obama’s world. It enacts his ideology. It was produced when he abrogated his role of world leader. It was stoked by his ideological fervor.

According to Gelb, Barack Obama is trying.

In his words: “President Obama is smart and level-headed, and he tries. But he still hasn’t grasped the magic and toughness of true leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.  Like them, Obama has to realize he’s not simply wrestling with traditional conservatives who will make reasonable compromises. He’s in a war with fact-free fanatics who want to kill him politically. No less. The only way to fight this fire is with fire.”

This is going to become the conventional idiocy. Obama’s supporters are painting the picture of a man who is trying to lead but whose best efforts are being stymied by conservatives.

How does it happen that the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations does not understand which branch of the American government has near-absolute authority to conduct foreign relations?

According to Gelb, Obama cannot lead because he has ignored the fact that his true enemies are Republicans.

Say what? If anything, Obama has always thought that his true enemies are Republicans. He has been ignoring the world because he has been out bringing the fight to Republicans.  

How much reality do you need before you see the writing on the wall?


vanderleun said...

Why can't Gelb and millions like him see the obvious truth?

Because along with "too big to fail" we now have someone in the WH who is "too black to fail."

The failure of Obama puts the entire liberal/progressive experiment of the last 70 odd years into shadow. Not good.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

If we go back 70 years, as you rightly suggest, we arrive at the same narrative.

When the world burst into flames in the early 1940s, the cognoscenti were quick to ignore the fact that FDR had been conducting foreign policy for eight years, years that shadow the rise of the Third Reich. Since they could not imagine that FDR had anything to do with what was happening, then blamed Congressional Republicans.

Same story, different players.

Mike said...

Thank you for reading and analyzing the column, it spares me the effort. But I fear a rational analysis of the irrational is a futile gesture.

I try to avoid the usual categories of liberal/conservative, red/blue, and left/right, because they tend to obscure rather than illuminate individual's motivations.

Instead, I prefer to think of Mr. Gelb, and his tribe (including our president) as cargo cultists. This places them within an understandable and predictable context.

A modern westerner knows that a wooden model of an airplane will never cause the gods to once again drop treasure from the sky. What he cannot do is explain to the model's builder why it is so. It is not that the words of explanation do not exist, it is that there is no way to penetrate the perfect shell of belief which forms the worldview of the cargo cultist.

Normally this is not so much of a problem, but time, tide and the vagaries of politics have placed these believers in sympathetic magic in control of the complex machine which is the American economy.

That the machine is crashing, despite all the virgin sacrifices, chicken blood, and sweat lodges, cannot mean their beliefs are wrong - indeed they cannot conceive there are beliefs other than theirs. The only possible explanation is rival and malicious sorcerers are casting counter spells to keep them from succeeding.

My fear is their kind of thinking is so seductive it threatens to drag us back into barbarism.