I have no way of proving this. But to me at least it’s clear that the president of the United States finally decided to take up arms against ISIS because of recent videos showing the beheadings of two American journalists. We know about Barack Obama that both his campaign for the presidency and his more than six years in the White House were predicated on getting us out of foreign conflicts, not in. We also know that earlier this year he dismissed ISIS as insignificant, not a threat, certainly not to the security interests of the U. S. Similarly we know that the majority of the American people and the majority of the Congress more or less supported the administration’s foreign policy, specifically its aversion to foreign entanglements. In fact for years now, while the brutal and miserably costly civil war in Syria has dragged on, the U. S. has been content to stay on the sidelines, a bystander, not a participant. But once James Foley and Steven Sotloff were decapitated, and once their decapitations were posted on line, things changed.
If these same two journalists had been shot – even in cold blood in a public square – America’s foreign policy would not have turned on a dime as it did. The American people would not have gone from being near-isolationists to near-interventionists, and the American Congress would not have supported the strategy of getting directly involved. Most importantly, the American president would not have delivered a televised speech from the White House in prime time (a rarity for this president) to announce to the world that he was assembling a coalition to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
So what is it about a beheading that is so gut-wrenching? What was it about these two beheadings in particular that was so overwhelming they turned a ship of state? Two things: first the barbarism of the deed itself, a knife wielded by one to sever the head of another, close by, bound and kneeling in abject subjugation. Second, the videos. As David Carr pointed out in the New York Times, these videos are by no means crude or one-dimensional. Instead they make evident a “sophisticated production unit, with good cameras, technically proficient operators and editors who have access to all the best tools.” Of course the irony is this 21st century technology is being used to 12th century ends. YouTube is being used to depict the ultimate regression: an atrocious even sadistic murder committed in a public square.
Exactly what ISIS hoped to gain by filming its defilements is not clear. What is clear is that its action triggered America’s reaction – which is another way of saying that its tail wagged our dog.
*Invitation to a Beheading is the title of a novel by Vladimir Nabokov
In the over two years that I have been writing an occasional column titled “Putin Patrol,” never has the man been riding higher than he is now. It’s not that his domestic policy has been a particular success (though he has managed to squelch his political opposition). Internally Russia continues to suffer from a range of problems – including a limited, lagging economy – that over the long term will haunt it. But externally, in the short term, Putin has got nearly everything he wanted. From his agreement with Obama on Syria’s chemical weapons to a putative deal over Ukraine, Putin’s foreign policy accomplishments have been so demonstrably self-evident that his standing among the Russian people is sky high.
Let be clear here. Let’s not mince words. Whatever the long term outcome in Ukraine, as of this writing this much is true:
- Putin has changed the map of Europe by seizing Crimea, and now presuming it part of Russia. He has further changed what until this year was the post-Cold War European order.
- Putin has secured de facto if not de jure control over parts of Eastern Ukraine. The cease-fire deal that two days ago was agreed on by him and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko locks in place any and all gains made by Russian forces since their invasion – not “incursion”! – of Ukraine began. This includes protection of regional – read Eastern – autonomy.
- Putin has insured that Ukraine not move even a millimeter closer to the West, in particular the European Union, without paying a potentially high price. This is – again, let’s call it what it is – a severe restriction on Ukraine’s ostensible right to decide its own political future.
To be sure, there are in this case as in every other one mitigating or at least explicating circumstances. Realist political scientist John Mearsheimer writes in Foreign Affairs (September/October 2014) that the West’s “triple package of policies – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion – added fuel to a fire [Putin was] waiting to ignite.” Moreover there is all this one saving grace: in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion NATO members finally decided to establish a rapid-reaction force, essentially to stop Putin, Russia, from going beyond Ukraine to interfere in other countries such as the Baltic Republics. But if 2014 were a geopolitical chess game between Putin on the one hand and Western democracies on the other, the former would be the obvious winner and the latter the obvious loser.
The word “leader” gets bandied around so much these days it’s been diminished. Like a currency that’s lost a lot of its value, the word “leader” is applied with such abandon it’s become almost meaningless. This makes it the more startling when, every now and then, the word regains its value – as in the case of the late, lamented comic, Joan Rivers.
Rivers the leader was not of recent vintage. Rather Rivers the leader was the Rivers of the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, when she broke every rule in the book, shocking her audiences as they, most of them anyway, convulsed in fits of laughter. Words used to describe her since her death a day ago make the point. Rivers was a “pioneer.” Rivers was a “pathbreaker.” Rivers was a “trailblazer.” Rivers was “the first.” Rivers “paved the way.”
It’s said of Joan Rivers that she broke ground for female comics. That’s true and not true, simultaneously. Sure, her coarse comedy made it possible for someone like Sarah Silverman to be socially acceptable, sort of. But the fact is that the Sarah Silvermans are few and far between – it’s not as if since Rivers we’ve had a raft of women who are famous for being funny.
Rather it is that Rivers the comic caught the culture of the changing times. It’s no accident that her break-through moment was in the 1960s, when the old order was being torn down and when button-down gave way to unzipped. Rivers was a leader all right, but her importance was less in comedy than in America more generally. Today’s outpouring of admiration and affection for Rivers is not so much because she made us laugh, but because she dared us to laugh in public at what previously was kept private. To be sure, she, like a handful of others – Lenny Bruce comes to mind – broke the comic mold. But what’s much more striking is that where she led America followed.
Our fixation on leadership is as strong as ever.
- The private sector: In the latest such deal, the Bank of America (BOA) and the Justice Department agreed to a nearly $17 billion settlement relating to charges that the bank had duped investors into buying toxic mortgage securities. The deal does not do what outraged critics wanted it to do: it does not punish individuals for wrongdoing. Leaders in other words, those who led and managed the banks in question, have generally been getting off Scott-free. (An exception to this rule may be Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countrywide Financial, which was acquired by BOA.) I do not denigrate this position: punishing institutions is hardly the same as punishing individuals. This is not, however, to say that no blame is being allocated. The BOA deal is the largest government settlement by any company in American history. So, much as some of us would like to see some previously in charge behind bars, to say that everyone is being held blameless is plain wrong.
- The public sector: Of all the observations that one might make about the recent events in Ferguson, MO, for a student of leadership none was as striking as the stunning lack of it. It was, if you will, a field day for followers, for leaders were nowhere in evidence. In short order, some of the old guard, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among them, parachuted in to town – to little or no obvious effect. Government officials in turn, local, county, and state, including the governor and the mayor, all sent conflicting signals, with no single political leader emerging to take charge. Nor did either the white community or the black one have in place a person or persons who clearly was a spokesperson. If anyone at all was, is, leader-like in style and substance, it was Captain Ronald Johnson, the black Missouri State Highway Patrol official who finally was designated responsible for security. Unlike nearly everyone else, Johnson was able to calm tensions, and he was equally able to engage blacks and whites in civilized discourse. But Johnson’s success in his unaccustomed role was a reflection not only of his leadership skills, but of the paucity of same among those from whom it legitimately was presumed.
- At home: Headline on the front page of the New York Times: “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way” (8/16/14). ISIS is turning out what even administration officials now concede is a threat “beyond any we have seen.” The question that only history will decide is whether President Barack Obama has been in any way, to any degree responsible for the situation in which the United States of America, and for that matter the rest of the Western world, now finds itself. We are a declared target of a terrorist group that has morphed into something akin to a country. Our tendency, not surprisingly, is as it has always been: to blame the person in charge for what happened. Whether this is fair or not is almost beside the point. The point is that ISIS materialized on Obama’s watch and that, rightly or wrongly, it is he who will be held to account for how this turns out.
- Abroad: What’s perhaps most remarkable about ISIS is that until recently it was unknown and unheard of. Until this summer nearly no American even knew the name ISIS, because even to those in the know it seemed not much more than yet another group of Middle Eastern terrorists, similar to those already familiar. But overnight or so it seemed this band of near unknowns became something else entirely: they became leaders who were able able through various means – political, military, and financial – to force the United States to respond to them in kind, by force. What’s obvious even now is that in the 21st century the old rules of the game no longer apply. Instead a very small knot of very dangerous people can compel a global superpower to engage in a military mission – in spite of its best laid plans.
Note: I’ll be hitting the road for several weeks…. So this is my last post for the duration.
The violence in Ferguson, MO – which continues to spew sporadically in the wake of the police shooting of a black teenager – raises the question of whether it is at all useful. Does violence of this sort yield benefits to those who stoke it? Or are the authorities, from the President on down, right to try, day in day out, to quell it? Just yesterday Obama weighed in again, saying that while he understood the “passions and anger” in Ferguson, they served only to “raise tensions and stir chaos.” They undermined, he said, rather than advanced justice.
Be that as it may, let’s be clear: there is a long tradition of threatening, advocating, and defending violence when peaceful methods of protest, or for that matter no protests at all, seem inadequate to the task of creating change. To illustrate the point I quote from a single source, Nelson Mandela. The following words are his, excerpts from a far longer speech delivered in 1964, from a dock in a courtroom in Pretoria, South Africa.
I cite them not, obviously, to promote violence. Nor do I intend to suggest that South Africa in the early 1960s is analogous to America in the early 2000s. But Mandela’s defense of his own use of violence serves to remind that it has played a critical role in human history – including, I might add, in American history. Needless to say that the argument in support of resorting to violence has rarely been so carefully considered or so eloquently made. And, needless to say that from a distance what in Ferguson distinguishes criminality from strategy is impossible to say. Still, the point remains the same: under certain circumstances violence can be considered a political means necessary to achieve a political end.
Nelson Mandela, from his his three-hour speech, “I Am Prepared To Die.”
“Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism …. Second, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy….
It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle…. We did so not because we desired such a course, but solely because the Government had left us with no other choice…. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did….”