A Sane Man Facing the Insanity  

America’s 44th president is often cruelly hit, if sometimes quietly and behind his back, with the wicked “w” word.
For many angry or disappointed people — here and abroad — that word is: “wimp.”
It is hurled in the direction of the White House of Barack Hussein Obama as an overall assessment of a US foreign policy that, to many, increasingly looks like some poster boy for non-interventionism of the very stubborn kind.Fair or not, the perception of a pathetic global presidency offers an easy target of ridicule and will be a major issue in the coming national legislative elections, not to mentiontwo years from now when the presidency is up for grabs.In a sense, the broad-based spraying of scorn has already begun.  Even Hillary Clinton, Obama’s prior secretary of secretary of state, deliberately permitted herself to be quoted as dismissive of her former boss’ disinclination to forcefully back “moderate” opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Had the former First Lady been of Oval Office command, which of course she very much hopes will be next in her life, America would have gotten wisely involved — this, at any rate, was the general and vague idea under conveyance.The president’s firm disinclination to allow the US military to bear the burden of a Syria involvement is deplored for lacking spine or visionary vigor.What’s more, regarding the Iraq mess, the decision to withdraw US forces at the request of the government of a country we should never have invaded in the first place is viewed as a humiliating retreat; and the failure of the Iraq we shattered to hold up against vile elements of religious extremism is entirely Obama’s fault. Similarly as for Israel, if only the US had somehow been “stronger,” the Arabs wouldn’t so hate the Israelis so terribly much — and vice versa. Right….It is certainly not hard to cast the current US president as the near-polar opposite of his predecessor in interventionist predilections.  George W. Bush evidenced an almost crusader mentality in his avidity for military intervention abroad. Obama’s instinct perhaps best reflects (to push the religious analogy further) the contemplative monk on a prolonged retreat of inner contemplation and stocktaking.The problem for Obama is that America’s historic DNA comes not from the heritage of thoughtful monks but from armed-to-the-gills cowboys. We lasso or shoot bad guys, not pray for their sins and hope for their redemption.More often than not, we act in the belief that many problems can be solved with a gun and that, in reality, few things can be fixed without one.  American diplomacy is capable of brilliance, but is more often honored in the non-deployment.In the case of World War II, certainly, this was not a bad set of DNA genes to have. But the Vietnam tragedy should have taught us Americans a huge lesson that would have made the unbelievably stupid Iraq tragedy a conceptual non-starter — and US restraint in Syria a thoughtful and consistent follow-through.

Wars are costly beyond calculation and there are no free ones of any consequence. In fact they are the worst credit card debts to have in your name because the principle is always huge and the interest rate so high that it take you forever to pay them off.

Vietnam (and even the Korean War) is still on an active account; Afghanistan and Iraq are just starting to submit their staggering bills. For all our cowboy courage, we are leaving the next generation not a safer world but a poorer nation. Just as in personal finance one might think twice about the utter need for a second home (not to mention that first yacht), how much more thoughtfully should we resist the urge to go into further national debt for involvements that might look good on paper but in the end but blow up in our face?

Against this backdrop of melancholy cost-benefit analysis, a solitary man in the White House tries to exercise prudence for the generations of Americans yet to come. An administration of caution tries to steer a steady sensible course in the capital city with a largely idiotic Congress and a Supreme Court almost as badly divided within itself.

Often it takes more courage and guts to say “no” than “yes”. Obama’s restraint is not a vice but a virtue. He is not a wimp. The “w” word that best applies to him is: wise. Future generations will look back and realize they were very fortunate to have him in the White House, not a lonesome cowboy with a fast draw. — By Tom Plate


TOM PLATE, a former editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times, now Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is a columnist and journalist in world newspapers. His ‘Giants of Asia’ quartet includes “Conversations with Ban Ki-moon’, ‘Lee Kuan Yew’, ‘Thaksin’ and ‘Mahathir’. His next book is IN THE MIDDLE OF CHINA’S FUTURE (Marshall Cavendish). 

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