Politics

07.21.14

American Statesmanship Is Depressingly MIA on Border Kids, MH17 & Gaza

Kid refugees at the border, 300 souls shot down, Gaza aflame—we’re lurching from crisis to awful crisis, but gone are the days when our politicians could put aside partisanship to act.

It’s been the most depressing two weeks of the Obama presidency. The child border crisis, the new Gaza war, the Russian separatists shooting down that plane—these aren’t just infuriating political squabbles of the sort we follow every week but profound political crises with enormous human tolls. Any of the three on its own would have been dreadful enough. All three of them in succession, the incomprehensible suffering and death of innocent victims of calculation and avarice, are almost more tragic than the mind can bear.

The tragedy in each case is deepened by American impotence. It’s not that we couldn’t prevent these things that’s upsetting. The border crisis, despite what they say on the black-helicopter right, was not fomented by President Obama in an attempt to force Congress to act on immigration. It’s a function of nightmarish conditions in Central America from which destitute, desperate people are fleeing, and of a network of completely immoral hustlers at the border who exploit them. Israel makes an incursion into Gaza every few years, and we always have little choice but to let it play out. And Russian separatists, with a nudge from Vladimir Putin, are going to do what they’re going to do.

What’s maddening and emotionally exhausting is that we can’t seem to do anything about them. You can blame all this on Obama if you want to. He deserves some blame. He was slow to respond to the border crisis, and for a host of reasons, Putin and Bibi Netanyahu pretty clearly don’t even listen to him (wouldn’t matter in Bibi’s case if he did, since the U.S. position is largely defensive of Israel’s actions). Maybe different leadership in the White House would make some kind of huge difference.

I suspect not a lot, though. We don’t live in a country that can speak with one voice at a time of crisis. I don’t want to get carried away saying that there was a golden age of unity in American global crisis management. There never was any such thing. Politics never stopped entirely at the water’s edge, and in many cases that was a damn good thing. I for one am quite glad that there were ferocious critics of U.S. Vietnam policy, and I wish the Democrats had been considerably less craven when Bush and Cheney were leading us into Iraq atop that landfill of lies and false promises. So I do no Broderesque pining for a golden era that didn’t exist.

We may need another Depression and global war. And the way we’re going, we may get them.

At the same time, there have been many occasions in our history when our leaders took partisan potshots at each other, and gave voice to legitimate disagreements, while they also behaved like statesmen behind closed doors and, at key moments, said or did the right thing in public. The motivation wasn’t to support the president. It was to support the country and show the rest of the world that the United States had the ability to act swiftly on the world stage when trouble was afoot.

Whatever that statesman gene was exactly, it’s basically gone. And yes, I do think it’s more the Republicans’ doing than the Democrats’. The Democrats largely behaved as Americans first in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, whereas I think we can be certain that all the radio and cable fatmouths on the right would have been howling for President Gore’s impeachment, and GOP elected officials would inevitably, on one timetable or another, have followed their lead. But even if you blame the parties equally, or blame the Democrats more, you should lament this: It harms the United States. And it strengthens the countries and interests that will step in to fill the vacuum created when the United States doesn’t act—Russia, China, Iran, the Islamic State, Hezbollah, border coyotes.

What, for example, was John McCain thinking last Friday when he said: “It’s just been cowardly, it’s a cowardly administration that failed to give the Ukrainians weapons with which to defend themselves.” What on earth is he talking about? First of all, the Ukrainian army has been winning that war. It’s making a final push to take back the two major cities of the east. The Ukrainians appear to be doing all right without these weapons of bravery. And second and more importantly, what in the world does that have to do with the Malaysian airliner? What, that if we’d been supplying the Ukrainians, they would have shot that missile down before it hit the jet?

It’s so horribly sad that of all the things McCain could have said in the wake of this tragedy for which Obama is no more responsible than he is for the outcome of the World Cup, this is what he chose to say (on Fox, egged on by Sean Hannity). And I wonder how the senator feels now, when he looks in the mirror, about all that rhetorical building up of Putin over Obama he and Lindsey Graham and others were doing when the Crimea and Ukraine crises started. Criticize Obama. Fine. He’s earned it. But build up Putin, as if this were just some video game?

And it’s not just words. Where’s the House of Representatives on the president’s border crisis bill? Debate it, change it, amend it; fine. Even denounce it. But do...something with it. Republicans think they’re hurting Obama by not doing anything with the bill. They’re hurting the United States, which appears to the rest of the world unable to handle its own crisis. And the rest of the world, when it is in crisis, will hear what the United States has to say and quite reasonably think, “Why should we listen to you?”

The saddest thing of all is that it’s probably gone forever, that old urge toward statesmanship at the crucial moment. Depression and the fight against fascism gave politicians on both sides certain touchstones through which to remember that a few things were more important than partisan advantage. We may need another Depression and global war. And the way we’re going, we may get them.