Director Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, set during the Depression, was a divine counterfactual thought experiment designed to remind a suicidal George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) that his hometown, Bedford Falls, would have turned out to be a pretty miserable place called Pottersville without his seemingly ordinary presence.
Consider the Obama administration’s first six years as a prolonged counterfactual take on what the world might have been like for the last 70 years without a traditionally engaged American president dedicating our country to preserving the postwar Western-inspired global order.
The what-if dream seems to be working to show the vast alterations in a world that Westerners once took for granted. France, a perennial critic of America, is suddenly an unlikely international activist. For seven decades, the French harped about American hyperpuissance – on the implied assurance that such triangulating would be ignored by an easily caricatured, aw-shucks American George Bailey trying his best to keep things in the global community from falling apart.
But now the Johnny-on-the-spot American everyman is gone, and lots of things have filled the vacuum. An overwhelmed France nevertheless intervened in Mali to staunch Islamic extremism. It bombed Libya, and then discovered that the United States’ new policy of “lead from behind” meant that America was no more likely to clean up the ensuing post-Qaddafi mess than was France — especially given that the new Mogadishu-on-the-Mediterranean was not far from Marseilles, but an Atlantic Ocean away from New York and Washington.
Some present-day Americans relish the Schadenfreude of making the world step up to the plate — or else.
Just as Pottersville seemed to have its adherents, so some present-day Americans relish the Schadenfreude of making the world step up to the plate — or else. Obama supporters praise the new tough love, as if the current American recessional was part of a brilliant plan to stop infantilizing our allies and instead to make them grow up and accept responsibility for their own defense. Unfortunately, the new isolationism in reality was not so much designed to bulk up our friends as to ignore them and let other, less-benign forces drive world currents.
Of course, France used to ankle-bite the U.S. on its Mideast policy, with the assurance that in the end American interests were about the same as French interests — and were backed moreover by eleven carrier groups. But now France has learned that the U.S. really does trust the mendacious Iranian theocracy (soon to be “a very successful regional power”), and that it wants a deal to restore a failed Obama legacy far more than it worries that nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles might one day reach central Europe, or that a nuclear Sunni-Shiite rivalry might characterize a brave new Middle East. It was once easy for France, with its own volatile Muslim population, to poke fun at neo-cons and an Israel-centric U.S. policy; it is perhaps not so reassuring to appreciate that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are now considered by America as co-equals with or preferable to democratic, Western Israel.
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Japan and South Korea more or less took for granted the American nuclear umbrella. Not now, in the present Pottersville dream. Japan is rearming — and wondering exactly how far American indifference extends. South Korea has no idea what the current administration would do in the case of Chinese or North Korean aggression other than issue a red line, a deadline, or a step-over line. In comparison with the Obama nonchalance, the old days of an engaged U.S. president no longer seem so bad.
The Eastern Europeans and the Baltic States rushed to join the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall, if at times seeming prickly about the omnipresence of U.S. power. By 2008 “Hope and Change” seemed a nice change from “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” Now they are learning what life in Putinville is really like and suddenly beefing up their defenses,while begging for the stationing of American troops on their own soil. Good luck with that.
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The West more or less thought the destruction of al-Qaeda in Anbar Province during the Petraeus Surge of 2007–08 was a bit of an overreaction to the bad idea of removing Saddam Hussein. But dream America away, and you get ISIS as a Jayvee organization conducting video beheadings in the theater of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre site of Palmyra, while Iranian-backed militias run Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, and the Gulf monarchies worry whether jihadists will eventually cut off 40 percent of the world’s oil supply.
The contra–George Bailey presidency has had ramifications at home as well. It was easy to caricature past presidents for deporting illegal aliens and enforcing the border. But no American in his right mind ever considered a United States without a southern border at all, or an end to the entire notion of “illegal” and “alien,” as northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S. have blended together as a sort of new fusion homeland. In Pottersville, expecting federal statutes to be enforced makes one racist, while promoting ethnic chauvinism and exemption from the law proves one liberal.
Most recent presidents considered Al Sharpton a rank demagogue with a history of defamation and of inciting riot and mayhem. Now, in our present alternative universe, he is the president’s closest adviser on racial matters. It was generally agreed that proactive policing had lowered the violent-crime rate to levels unimaginable in the crime-ridden 1970s; now the police are considered the enemies, and violent crime is spiking, with the vast majority of its victims minority youths. Once, presidents tried to calm tensions; now, in the present surreal dream, they accuse the police of stereotyping, talk of their own racial affinities in regard to ongoing criminal cases, traffic in mythologies like the Ferguson concoction, and urge ethnic groups to punish shared enemies at the polls, as racial polarization and violent-crime rates naturally rise in tandem.
#related#Some were persuaded by Obama’s rhetoric of a U.S. post-9/11 overreaction, when on the campaign trail he trashed the American insistence on labeling jihadists radical Islamist terrorists. But replace a centrist U.S. president with one much father left, and you earn the make-believe world of overseas contingency operations, workplace violence, man-caused disasters, jihad as a personal odyssey, the Muslim Brotherhood as a secular organization, Bowe Bergdahl as having an honorable record, and an Israeli president as the chief threat to Middle East peace.
The aim of Capra’s fable was to remind us that the easily ridiculed, so-so status quo often hides Herculean efforts by those whom we take for granted, and who, working in the shadows, guarantee civilization instead of chaos. In the movie, the guardian angel Clarence can make the dream go away and cure George Bailey of his suicidal melancholy, as normalcy returns with the old Bedford Falls. In our version, we will learn soon after November 2016 whether we awake from the temporary alternative universe of a new Pottersville or whether it proves to be a depressing and continuing reality.