After East Ghouta 1: Minimum Leader

When last we observed the President, he was offering the responsible hitman’s credo – “Kill Without Joy” – but finding no client’s adequately lethal rage to proxy. With skeptics on one side fearing he was asking too much, skeptics on the other side fearing he was asking too little, his just-right coalition seemed to be both outflanked and far outweighed in Congress and public opinion. ((Though America has never been known for a Daoist approach to policy, the nation found itself on the pathless path to stillness, grasping for the strategy of ever lesser means to ever greater effects, whose ever-nearing/ever-receding absolute is no means/all effects, or do-nothing/be-all.))

Tuesday night, from the East Room of the White House, he invoked the magic words of American world-historical exceptionality, but almost as though to confirm that the spell has been broken. Read a few days later, the speech suggests an elegy more than a call to arms:

My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has meant doing more than forging international agreements — it has meant enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them.

A contradictory metaphor from a man urging action, even the least action or a mere conditional promise of action: An “anchor”‘s action is to resist action. An anchor does not bear weight. It supplies weight. It does not forge or move to enforce. It was forged. It sits still.

Earlier, back on the other side of a series of Frequently Asked Questions, the President had reminded us that “The Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.” Yet, from us, at this sub-surface nadir in self-confidence, of a polity defaulting to “no” on every uncertain binary, the cry of “never again!” returns no audible echo. ((Prepared remarks from UN Ambassador Samantha Power, delivered at the end of the G20, were also on historical point:

If we cannot summon the courage to act when the evidence is clear, and when the action being contemplated is limited, then our ability to lead in the world is compromised. The alternative is to give a green light to outrages that will threaten our security and haunt our conscience, outrages that will eventually compel us to use force anyway down the line, at far greater risk and cost to our own citizens. If the last century teaches us anything, it is this.

)) The President seems to know, but cannot seem to explain persuasively, in a way that matters to his Fellow Americans, why we cannot or cannot yet afford to let the reasons for being what we have been “for nearly seven decades” slip into the past, along with the last living witnesses of the creation. If at this moment the President appears less than he was, he is the image of our own self-diminution reflected back at us: His state is our state.

24 comments on “After East Ghouta 1: Minimum Leader

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  1. You know I wonder why he didn’t bring up Hama, then again, that didn’t require sarin, but machine guns, and other crude implements, just like the ’94 Rwandan massacre was preceded by brutal campaigns going back a hundred years.

  2. About Samantha’s “green light” talk: it sounds to me like an assumption that the global relationship is akin to that of parent to a child, the whole permission/violation/punishment thing being seen as unquestionable. Even if this weren’t an inherently absurd frame to read international policy through (since it effectively nullifies all interests beyond what the parent thinks is best), children eventually grow up…

    I’d hardly characterize failing to drag the country to yet more war as diminution of ourselves. Getting ones way by violence is more like a regression than not, in the sense of sloughing off modern civility in favor of clubbing heads*. In the specific case of Obama though, if he is shrinking as you put it, good! People that claim such powers could do with a dose of humility at the least. If we are doomed to have Obamas (and Putins, and Assads, and…) in this world, occasional self-realization that they too are mortals surely isn’t a bridge too far.

    (* – That this is how Assad continues to rule Syria — by open brutality — is not lost. Were his people to make a deposit on the tyrant ash heap I’d be fine with it. I’d say the same of all rulers eventually, but some are more obvious than others. The problem here with responding the same way with regard to nations as we would on an individual level is that the ratio of attacker to bystander is drastically different.)

    • Incidentally, of course you do, Mr. P, think, “In the specific case of Obama though, if he is shrinking as you put it, good!” One individual, the one who identifies with the leader, or nation, or city, etc., witnesses his or its elevation, and feels elevated, witnesses its humiliation and feels humiliated. The one who doesn’t, and whose sense of self ends at the surface of his or her skin, or perhaps his or her private domain, or perhaps his oppressed oppressed class, sees the elevation of any larger or more powerful individual or group as diminishing. This pattern is well-known, one of those eternal subjects of political philosophy.

        • Where to start? First, do you presume that such a sentiment will or can be reasoned, or that it might ought to be? Does it need to be more reasonable than “it works for a critical mass of people in the sense of making them more happy or satisfied,” whether or not it’s intrinsically or absolutely “reasonable,” and whether or not we can know for sure that it is the best or only reasonable way?

          • Considering the sentiment you refer to is routinely used to justify a wide range of actions in the name of a collective (most of which are conducted with little to no actual input from those making up the claimed collective), it’s not exactly a benign belief. I can simply ignore beliefs that I may find silly provided their adherents don’t take to violence. People have their quirks, after all. However, warped patriotism & nationalism as elite worship cheers on violence. More to the point, it cheers violence while saying “this is for all of us!” as if we should be thankful for whatever the hell the ruling class sees fit to order.

            I’m sure the average Aztec identified with the guys yanking hearts out too.

            • I didn’t say anything about benignity, or offer an argument in favor or against. Your question was as to “reasonable”-ness. You then turn to “violence,” as though having demonstrated that violence must always be “unreasonable,” or, for that matter, as though un-reason itself must always be an unreasonable recourse. You move to a next level of presumptions when you refer to “warped patriotism & nationalism” and “elite worship.” Does that mean that you believe in a non-warped patriotism and a non-warped nationalism? How are either of the latter conceivable if they don’t include affirmation of the pure products and everywhere apparent chief features of patriotism and nationalism? Do you distinguish between a reasonable respect for the “elite” and an unreasonable worship? Is there no meaningful difference for you between one type of authority or “ruling class” and another?

              • I’ve heard of a theory on religion that mankind originated it as way of coping with knowledge of own mortality. As that, though unreasonable due to dependance on faith in absence of evidence, does not in and of itself lead to believers violating others (there are other factors), it could be argued as reasonable use of un-reason.

                re: patriotism, I think it at best silly distraction, identification of country as team in competition. For such thing, I prefer actual sports. The further you step away from that best case scenario, the more it inches into xenophobia, bigotry & violence.

                Do you distinguish between a reasonable respect for the “elite” and an unreasonable worship?

                Since unanimity is impossible, identifying nation with rulers such that opposing what they choose to do at a particular moment is seen as opposing the country is ridiculous. Nothing is in everyone’s name if everyone isn’t saying “yes” to it.

                Respect? What definition do you have in mind?

                • Sorry, but you keep on moving on to new arguments based on new presumptions. “Opposition” is not “diminution” or “disrespect.” Being done “in the name of” is not the same as being done “with the agreement of” or the “with the unanimous agreement of.” These are all unreasonable presumptions to impose in a discussion originally of “reasonable”-ness.

  3. Of course, it’s not a game, 100,000 casualties tell us so, whether it was Baniya last year, or Maloula this last week, like I’ve said before it’s Bosch’s last portrait with a touch of Goya

  4. If I give someone money to go to the store & pick up a pack of Samuel Adams & they come back with Bud Light, I’m still going to be pissed if they respond with “but it’s for us all”. No, I wanted Sam Adams & it’s my money.

    CK, if you aren’t lumping opposition with disrespect, then show me an example of what you would consider respectful opposition. For real.

  5. As for Sam Adams, if you’re one of 300,000,000 people contributing beer money and the guy comes back from the store saying they didn’t have S.A. but 275,000,000 people wanted BL as 1st, 2nd, or 3rd choice, you should cut him some slack if he fit it all in his car “for us.”

    What could be more reasonable than that?

    Respectful opposition is the norm for people who respect themselves enough not to waste their time on matters beneath their dignity. Serious opposition automatically elevates the opponent. Opposition based on diminishing the enemy is therefore also always self-diminishing. Though this function of opposition also does not have much to do with the original question about the reasonableness for those who may identify either with O or with the country of feeling diminished in witnessing his performance, in some sense the same reflexivity applies there, too. Even those who hate America or hate nations or despise patriotism or hate or despise Obama personally may feel deflated by the sense that he is a politically weakened figure or that America is impotent.

    • Tbh, the analogy would work better if 100,000,000 picked between Bud Light & Bud Ice, w/ the rest not picking because either the choices suck or they don’t like beer anyway.

      “Wait… why are people who don’t like beer buying beer for everyone else?”
      Because they’ll be locked in the storage shed if they don’t. Thus the problem of states vs voluntary.

      I know my opposition isn’t respectful, I don’t think people claiming to control our lives deserve respect, what they deserve is to not have that power, screw them. Who does provide respectful opposition in your view? What, is it a matter of only questioning the proposed action and not the authority claim?

      • b-psycho: I don’t think people claiming to control our lives

        They don’t claim to control our lives. You claim they control our lives. Those who acknowledge the necessity of some decisionmaking structure, and do not see the desirability of your alternative, if you have one, feel entitled to say, “Screw him.”

        Are you asking who in the current public debate offers opposition to Obama in a respectful way? Or who expresses opposition to “the system”? Or are you asking for a definition respectful/respectable opposition?

        • Are you asking who in the current public debate offers opposition to Obama in a respectful way?

          If that’s your scope, sure. I’d assumed by definition that you’d consider any systemic critique inherently Out Of Bounds, so current debate is fine.

          They don’t claim to control our lives. You claim they control our lives.

          If they make a call that conflicts with my reading of my own interests, provided I am not violating anyone else can I safely ignore their order — “Nope, I’m not doing that” — yes or no?

          If yes, then they don’t claim control over me, my critique is apparently wrong and I am in fact a free man. If not…

          • You seem to reason by absolutes only. By your definition, there would be no “freedom” for anyone, since, as soon as your absolute freedom is hemmed in by other people’s, you are “controlled.” If there are any consequences to your refusal to cooperate, you are “controlled” and no longer “a free man.” It turns the notions into absurdities. Any world other than the one perfectly in accord with all of b-psycho’s self-determined interests, wishes, and impulses, and where there are no consequences for b-psycho if he refuses to cooperate, or abide by other people’s determinations of their interests, is an un-just world, apparently.

            As for the current debate, I don’t consider an authentic critique of the system OOB, but you and I might differ over what makes for an authentic critique. There are many on all sides of the mainstream debate that largely manage to offer criticism or opposition without diminishing themselves in diminishing the objects of their criticism or opposition. It’s more the norm for what we call “polite” disagreement, though sometimes where a critique fails is precisely where it implicitly presumes the stupidity or bad intentions of the opponent.

            • Cooperation, voluntarily, among political equals is fine. No problem with such organization, we can get together and do things. It’s when someone whips out a gun & says “we’re doing this or I assault you” that’s the problem.

              If someones reason for me to listen to them is that they claim the right if I do not to assault me, that’s the reasoning of a mugger, regardless of what philosophical excuse is provided or ceremonial pomp surrounds it. This idea that there can be no meaningful organization without violence disproves itself every day, otherwise all would be chaos that is not government sanctioned & controlled.

              • Since everything is government-controlled according to you, then there are no examples of meaningful organization that is not “government sanctioned & controlled,” and that occurs except “in the shadow of death”: under an implied and determinative threat or danger, and past and future, of violence, from war down to the level of daily life in “peacetime.”

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