EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.
Dear Reader (and listeners even though you will never hear this “news”letter by pressing your ear to the screen, NO MATTER HOW LOUDLY I TYPE!),
If you replace the phrase “the international community” with “the Klingons” it often makes more sense. The Islamic State can only be defeated if the Klingons are resolute. America can’t do this alone — we need the Klingons. Why don’t the Klingons handle this one?
Here’s Obama at that press conference in Estonia:
. . . we know that if we are joined by the Klingons we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem. And the question is going to be making sure we’ve got the right strategy, but also making sure that we’ve got the international will to do it. This is something that is a continuation of a problem we’ve seen certainly since 9/11, but before. And it continues to metastasize in different ways.
And what we’ve got to do is make sure that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world along with the Klingons to isolate this cancer, this particular brand of extremism that is, first and foremost, destructive to the Muslim world and the Arab world and North Africa, and the people who live there. They’re the ones who are most severely . . . [blah blah blah]
Now, I know what you’re going to say: “But the Klingons don’t exist!”
And my reply would be, “Neither does the international community!”
But, here’s the thing, if the Klingons existed they really would be useful in crushing the Islamic State, deterring Putin, etc. I mean how awesome would a giant bird-of-prey hovering over the Kremlin look? It’s entirely unclear that if the international community existed it would be of much use.
Besides, I’ve seen Klingons. I know what a Klingon looks like. I know what their language sounds like (mostly like a Hungarian choking on a chicken bone). I know a bit about their codes, customs, and beliefs. Heck, I’ve even seen pictures of a Klingon wedding. I’ve never seen an international-community wedding.
Now hold on, you say. There’s the U.N., the EU, the Apple Dumpling Gang at Davos. There’s the World Bank and the IMF, the African Union and the International House of Pancakes. Every time I turn on the NewsHour I see cookie-pushers in pinstripe suits sitting around plates of clever cheese and expensive bottled water having weighty discussions about things of International Weightiness. Isn’t that the international community? Meanwhile, those “Klingons” you see are just a bunch of actors and weirdoes playing make-believe.
To which I respond: And just what the Hell do you think the cookie-pushers are? John Kerry is the U.S. secretary of state. (He’s also a human toothache, but that’s another matter.) That is who he is. That title doesn’t come with dual citizenship in the international community. And whenever he pretends otherwise he’s doing exactly that: pretending, playing make-believe, acting every bit as much as a bat’leth wielding chiropodist from Scarsdale. The difference is that the chiropodist knows he’s just pretending. It is not at all clear that John Kerry understands that the international community is a convenient fiction.
The trouble with the phrase “international community” is that the first word negates the second. There is, of course, an international sphere or realm or space. But those words don’t imply a kind of civil society. Domestically there’s this whole ecosystem of institutions, customs, and people who interact with one another. Internationally there are nation-states, which have relations with each other, sometimes via institutions and alliances, a few non-state actors (both good and bad), and then there are animals, gravity, clouds, rainbows, and other things that are blind to the Westphalian system of nation-states. And that’s it. Domestically there’s a thick atmosphere, like an ocean teeming with life, called civil society, which is itself made up of communities. Internationally it’s a vacuum, like in space. No one would talk about interplanetary atmosphere.
(“Oh yeah,” you respond, “What about the platonic aether and solar radiation and dark matter!?” To which I reply, “Shut up.”)
Welcome to the Interregnum
Earlier this week, I was on an AEI panel on the legacy and lessons of Caesar Augustus. I know what you’re thinking: “Why?” Which is pretty much what I was thinking too (I asked Michael Auslin, who organized it, “Maybe you’re thinking of a different Jonah Goldberg?”). But it worked out okay (You can watch the whole thing here). I was in on the first discussion, which was about the problems of today. My co-panelist, Jakob Grygiel of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) gave a very interesting talk (Fun fact: He was born in Poland and raised in Rome. I told him, “I want your mother to cook for me!”). He likened the current global environment to what used to be called the Interregnum.
Historically, the Interregnum — which I choose to capitalize here not out of fidelity to grammar but for dramatic flair — was the period between kings. (“Inter” means between, regnum means reign, a burning sensation when you pee means you misbehaved on that business trip to Reno.) You don’t have to be a fan of Game of Thrones to understand why this is a dangerous period. Succession to the throne is in doubt. Ambitions manifest themselves as opportunities present themselves. Loyalties become unclear. Irons get struck when they are hot. Clichés become dramatically relevant. When a system is structured around the power and authority of a single individual, it’s wholly understandable that it will go into crisis when that individual disappears and it’s not immediately clear who will replace him.
Grygiel’s point is that the Obama administration has wittingly or unwittingly sent the signal that our reign as the enforcer of the Pax Americana is over. Or, less starkly, we have sent the signal that it might be over. This is an important distinction. When it comes to power politics, perception matters as much as reality. Vladimir Putin, the Chinese Politburo, the Islamic State, Assad, the Iranians, Solomon Grundy, the stinking Diaz Brothers, Simon Bar Sinister, and that sweet-smelling cloud that steals your hemoglobin are all going to test America and the system around it to see how much they can get away with. It’s like Gandhi’s famous advice about going to prison. “On the first day, find the biggest, meanest-looking MoFo you can and beat the crap out of him. That will send the signal no one should mess with you.” (“Um, are you sure that was Gandhi? Remember Aristotle’s warning: ‘Some quotations on the Internet are unreliable.’” — The Couch).
The reason this is such a dangerous moment is that the mere act of testing the system encourages others to test it as well. In prison, when you’re a pushover for one guy, everyone gets the idea that they can take the apple brown betty off your lunch tray. It’s also how riots and lootings start. One person smashes a window on the hunch he can get away with it. Others watch. When nothing happens to the smasher, the idea becomes contagious.
This gets us to the heart of the damage Barack Obama has done. A superpower can cruise on perception for a very long time. Perception is relatively inexpensive. Sure, you gotta float some ships around. Yeah, you might have to run some military exercises. But as long as people think you’re sustaining a Pax Americana you are, in fact, sustaining a Pax Americana. But once you let that perception waver, you’re suddenly faced with a terrible set of choices. You can’t tell the world you’re still in charge, you have to show them. If you just talk about red lines and then do nothing to enforce them, further talk becomes worse than useless, it becomes provocative. If you opt to demonstrate your power, you risk failing and confirming weakness. You also risk a horrible escalation as the bad actors respond not with surrender but with even more testing. Does anyone think Putin would be the first to blink at this point if Obama sent troops to Ukraine?
Obama could do everything right starting today (Stop laughing!) and in a sense it would still be too late. It’s always more expensive to put down a riot than to prevent it. And it’s not entirely clear to me that the American people are willing to pay that price right now. It’s much clearer that this president has no interest in asking them to.
The Indecider in Chief
Everyone mocked George W. Bush for his “I’m the decider” shtick. I never particularly liked the locution myself. But it did get to the truth of the matter. The president has to make decisions. These days, even Dianne Feinstein is willing to admit that this president has problems making decisions. That’s all fine and good. But one thing bothers me. A lot of people don’t seem to realize that not making a decision is, itself, a kind of decision. President Obama’s passive aggression (for want of a better term) has never gotten the attention it deserves. This is, after all, the guy who voted present whenever he could in the Illinois state legislature — not exactly the most high-stakes arena in the world. He’s been voting present on a global scale ever since. As John Fund wrote almost exactly a year ago:
Since then, further evidence has piled up that Obama is a dithering, indecisive leader willing to deflect making a decision because of what many see as political calculation. It’s one thing when this happens domestically, like when his administration delayed meaningful action by BP and the state of Louisiana to clear up the Gulf of Mexico oilspill in 2010. It’s another when it happens in foreign policy — especially in the Middle East. Obama stood aloof during the Iranian street protests of 2009. In Libya, he delayed a decision for weeks until choosing “to lead from behind,” in the famous words of one adviser. In Egypt, the administration was caught flat-footed not once, but twice, by uprisings.
If the brakes on your car give out and you’re barreling down the road, deciding to wait until you have better options is every bit as much of a decision as deciding to turn left or right. Postponing doesn’t get rid of the decision tree, it merely changes the available choices on it. Obama likes to avoid making decisions until events make the decisions for him.
I tried to make this point on Fox News yesterday. Everyone’s talking about what the president should say. The assumption is that saying something will reflect a policy of doing something. But that isn’t how Obama sees the situation. He wants to say something that will take the pressure off of him to do something. This has always been his M.O. When the IRS scandal looks really bad, he says it’s a big problem and an outrage. That takes the pressure off the White House and frees him up from having to do or say any more about it. Now he dismisses the whole thing as a “phony scandal.” Obama didn’t lay out those “red lines” for Syria because he really meant it. He warned of red lines because doing so liberated him from having to act. When Assad called Obama’s bluff he folded. Obama didn’t order the surge in Afghanistan to win, he ordered the surge in Afghanistan to free himself from the hassle of having to talk — or think — about Afghanistan.
Wrapping Your Car Around the Decision Tree
And what is amazing to me is how so many people mistake dithering, buck-passing, and political cowardice for sagacity and strategic genius. Just last week I mocked the ridiculous notion that Obama is a “chess master” always thinking ahead of his opponents. Just this week, Jonathan Alter proves this incandescent idiocy will not die. He writes: “Obama is what was once called a “long head” — a leader who patiently tries to think a few moves past everyone else. This is a good thing. Thinking hard before reacting is usually the wiser course.”
Will someone please provide some examples of where Obama has outthought America’s adversaries? The man cowers behind his desk and his fans hang a sign reading “Genius at Work.”
Various & Sundry
Thoughtfulness is nice and all, but does anyone else miss the days when foreign-policy liberals thought with their hearts? The Islamic State represents virtually everything liberals claim to hate– slavery, rape, religious fanaticism, war, aggression, torture — and yet they reserve their true rage for Republicans. It’s maddening and disgusting, as I wrote here.
My column from yesterday is on how the Islamic State is like a “Foreign Legion for Losers.”
Oh, and speaking of The Weekly Standard, if you watched Special Report last night, you heard about this very important piece by Steve Hayes. If you didn’t watch Special Report, (a) shame on you, and (b) here is that very important piece.
Speaking of Special Report, alas, I am only scheduled to be on once this month, on 9/23, which is the day after Commentary’s Charles Krauthammer Roast in NYC. Hopefully I won’t be too hungover.
Meanwhile, I will be on Fox’s new show Outnumbered a week from Friday. Not sure what that will mean for the production of this “news”letter, never mind life as we know it.
Oh, look people, I bought into this frick’n Dear Reader gag, but I’ll be damned if it’s not hard to come up with original ideas. Feel free to suggest some!
Just in case you missed it above, here’s the link to that Augustus panel again. (Don’t be shocked if I end up turning my comments into a piece for the magazine sometime soon.)
Zoë Update: She’s fine, except for the fact that embarrassing images of her were hacked from the cloud.
At least she didn’t eat 43 socks. I gotta say I’m a little annoyed by this story. Who doesn’t notice 43 missing socks?
“Dizzy” by Tommy Roe was the No. 1 song in America the day I was born. How do I know? Boom.
Laser-cannon breakthrough. Faster please . . . the volcanoes are coming.