Charlie, a member of my immediate family, is a 21 year old student at a college in Boston. He is relentlessly nice and upstanding, known to every family member for his decency and disposition.
Which made his response to my question about deflate-gate – about the under-inflation of footballs used by the Patriots in Sunday’s victory over the Colts – the more surprising. To my query about who was responsible for the scandal, he replied, “I think it’s the most boring story and I couldn’t care less.”
What?! Are twenty-somethings so inured to cheating in professional sports – so jaded about corruption in America – that nothing has the power any longer to shock them? If Charlie is any indication, the answer is yes.
I didn’t ask Charlie to comment on the news that the feds had just charged New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver with abusing his office by taking millions in payoffs. Just as well. For though Silver is being accused of using his position over a period of many years to “obtain millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks,” the likelihood that Charlie would be exercised by the revelation is nil.
Pats quarterback Tom Brady is strong and large and handsome. Silver appears weak and small and, well, not so handsome. They are, to put it politely, radically different physically. But otherwise they are not radically different. Both are clever and gifted and have been stunningly successful. But… both seem intent on winning at all costs. Both seem as attracted to power as fairness. And both seem emblematic of an America in which greed for money and power are pervasive.
I suppose this accounts for Charlie’s response. But the fact that deflate-gate bores him, and that he couldn’t care less that one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of American football is suspected by many of cheating, is a downer. It’s a melancholy commentary on the temper of the times.
It’s one thing for a president of the United States of America to use his annual State of the Union address to accentuate the positive. It’s quite another for him to eliminate the negative.
President Barack Obama was right last night to take a victory lap on the economy. He had sufficient facts and figures to support his claim that the “state of the union is strong.” But he was not right to be less than fully forthcoming about the state of the world within which this union is situated. In the realm of foreign affairs he dissembled to a degree that was a discredit.
First, he gave America’s foreign policy short shrift, as if what happened outside the US was of minor importance. Second, more critically, his comments – especially on Putin and terrorism – were misleading and misinforming.
It is correct to say that Russia is more “isolated” now than it was one year ago. But it would have been important to add that the reason for this is the success of Putin’s foreign policy, at least from the vantage point of Russia. In the last year Russia seized Crimea, and there is no sign that anyone anywhere is prepared to seize it back. And, in the last year Russia made mischief in Ukraine, which, as I write, shows no sign whatsoever of abating. By sowing the seeds of conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Russia is accomplishing one of its most important foreign policy objectives: to prevent Ukraine from becoming a strong and independent state allied with the West.
On terrorism generally, and on ISIL specifically, the president was even more disingenuous. For him to claim that “In Iraq and Syria, American leadership – including our military power – is stopping ISIL’s advance” is contrary to all the evidence. Maybe the president knows something that the American people do not. But so far as I can tell it is Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times, who is correct – and Obama who is not. On January 20th Rachman wrote that, “there are two specific ways in which the threat from militant Islamism has worsened over the past five years. First, jihadi groups are operating in more parts of the world. Second, the frequency of attacks and number of deaths are increasing.” In short, “the ‘war on terror’ is going backwards.”
Presidents cannot be blamed for using the State of the Union address to tout their presidencies and policies. But their feet should be held to the fire if they use the occasion to shade the truth.
As usual, the bloviating about the 2016 presidential election has begun way early. And, as usual, the bloviating is focused on who will be a candidate for the nation’s highest office. In other words, as usual, the bloviating is leader-centric. Already we are fixating on a few individuals specifically – Clinton, Biden, Warren, Bush, Romney, Christie, Cruz, Kasich, Huckabee, Paul, Perry, Walker – rather than on the situation more generally.
But a good argument can be made for the proposition that the outcome of the next presidential election will be determined not by a small number of leaders, or, for that matter, by a larger number of followers. Rather the outcome is more likely to be determined by the context within which by then we’re embedded.
Here is an example of context as key. If between now and November 2016 the United States is at peace, and if the homeland has remained free from attack, the Democrats will benefit. Barack Obama and his putative successor will be able to claim that for eight years the Democrats have kept Americans free from harm.
If, on the other hand, the U.S. proves vulnerable to terrorism, Obama’s earlier claim that extremism has been defeated will prove tragically hollow. It will prove, or appear to prove, that the Democrats did not take the terrorist threat sufficiently seriously. Further, given their willingness to be more militantly aggressive abroad, and more militantly defensive at home, the Republicans will profit. The Republicans will profit politically to the degree that the U. S. seems weak militarily.
Our proclivity remains the same – to fixate on leaders. But the smarter approach is the systemic approach. For leadership is a system with not just one part – but three. To get the present and project the future is to look long and hard at leaders. It is also to look long and hard at followers, at others. And it is to look long and hard at the context within which leaders and followers necessarily are situated.
When I was a graduate student at Yale I received a master’s degree in Russian and East European Studies. So, though I did not ultimately concentrate (my doctoral work) on what then was the Soviet bloc, I stayed with the subject. I continued to follow it closely, making it a point to be up on the latest Kremlinology.
Imagine my surprise, then, when virtually overnight, virtually without warning by even the most esteemed Soviet experts, the Soviet Union collapsed and communism in East Europe along with it. I was stunned at the time. And I remain stunned still that a series of events so momentous should have been so completely unforeseen.
In recent months have been two changes of cataclysmic importance, both of which fall into the same category. Both were wholly unanticipated, predicted by nearly no one.
The first is the rise of ISIS – ISIS, which scarcely anyone had even heard of as little as a year ago. The second is the drop in oil prices, which has been nothing short of vertiginous. But who knew six months ago? Who told us then what we know now: that the price of oil, which had been stable for over five years, would drop suddenly and precipitously, by over half in half a year?
Nobody – nobody told us. Why? Because nobody knows nothing.
It’s easy enough to understand why the attention of the Western world has been fixed in recent days on France. It’s less easy to understand why the attention of the world has not been similarly trained on Nigeria. Americans and others were stirred last year by the kidnapping and subsequent disappearance of nearly 200 girls from a Nigerian school. But since then our gaze has turned elsewhere, closer to home, as our anxieties about terrorism in America and Europe have overshadowed those about terrorism in Africa.
While we were watching the streets of Paris, a ten year old girl killed herself and some 19 others by detonating explosives (strapped to her body) in a busy Nigerian market. Moreover on the same Wednesday that the Kouachi brothers murdered some of the staff of Charlie Hebdo, the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram massacred an estimated 2000 in Baga, a city in Northern Nigeria.
This is not a game of numbers. Is killing 2000 people ten times worse than killing 200? A thousand times worse than killing 2? The point is that there is no obvious distinction between terrorism in France and terrorism elsewhere, including in Nigeria. In fairness, with France one has the sense that President Francois Hollande will attack terrorism with all the forces that his strong state can marshal. Nigeria, in contrast, is a weak state, with no evidence that President Goodluck Jonathan has the will, the skill, and the resources effectively to address the relentlessly growing terrorist threat.
But I wonder why the distinction, why the divide in American minds between terrorism in Europe and terrorism in Africa. From where I sit they are of a piece, the one as much of a threat to security in the 21st century as the other. The fact that Abuja, Nigeria seems so much further from Washington than does Paris, France, does not mean that what’s been happening in the former is any less of a threat than what’s been happening in the later. I would argue, in fact, that in this super-small, hyper-connected world terrorism anywhere is terrorism everywhere.