The United States of America ain’t what it used to be. The expansive, frontier energy of our past is a lost dream. Good fortune is assumed, taken for granted, leading to laziness and arrogance. Imperialism on the down-slope is not pretty. The long, festering list of shortcomings symbolized by the nation’s neglected infrastructure has a cost. For someone like Donald Trump, it’s an opportunity.
The rocket-like advance of technology dazzles us as it gnaws away at the dignity and integrity of our lives. Fear of the other and outsiders rules from the NSA down to local police departments; it’s a favored flogging topic for pandering politicians. Power is never static. The world created out of the ashes of World War Two — when the US assumed the mantle of top dog — is shifting before our eyes. People dream of getting it all back in the box. Formerly colonized nations now compete directly in a globalized capitalist market against former colonizers. Resentment from abuses of the past strain relations. This is especially true in the Middle East. Citizens flee for their lives into the perceived safety of Europe from the confusing wreckage that was once Syria. And let’s not forget Iraq and Afghanistan as they both try to sort out the aftermath of US intervention and occupation.
Russia, which exists not all that far away from Syria, has announced it’s sending troops and establishing a military base in Syria. President Barack Obama, whose nation is 12,000 miles away from Syria, is debating whether to talk with President Vladimir Putin about Syria when he comes to speak at the UN September 28th. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Putin views Mr. Obama as weak, and Mr. Obama views Mr. Putin as a thug.” Not a lot of rapport there. Donald Trump, on the other hand, said during the recent debate, “I would talk with (Putin) and I would get along with him.” He probably would.
Elton John, the gay British rock star, was recently scammed with a phony call from a putative Putin. Once it was clear the call was bogus, Putin said he’d be glad to chat with John, who said, “I’d love to sit down with him and talk to him. The world faces much bigger problems than gay people.”
We can only hope Mr. Obama shares Mr. John’s willingness and will schedule a long, no-nonsense and complicated conversation with Mr. Putin in New York. Talk is good. Mr. Obama doesn’t have to arm wrestle Mr. Putin — just talk with him directly and candidly about how to facilitate fixing the god-awful mess created in Syria, much of it the result of a vague but determined US policy of regime change ala Saddam and Gaddafi. The idea that our leaders cannot talk with leaders they disagree with and may even see as an “enemy” has become a major hurdle to sanity in the world. The Iran Deal is a rare exception. Likud Israel and Republican America would rather talk tough, posture in the mirror like Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver and build more weapons — than actually enter a mature dialogue.
Putin’s nation is a former empire that hit bottom hard and is on the upswing, while Obama still sits astride an empire, albeit a more and more troubled one. Trump’s campaign call is to Make America Great Again, something all the other Republican candidates bloviate about as well. Their rhetorical pledge is that they will return America to the halcyon days when self-evident exceptionalism and strength sent waves of fear through the peoples of the world. The trouble is it’s hard-to-impossible to resurrect the past: The best one can hope for is some kind of Hegelian dialectical synthesis amalgamated from the past, glorious or less-than-perfect as it may be, and the present, which even Donald Trump recognizes is losing its mojo. Give him the reins to reign America and, a master of braggadocio and salesmanship, he assures us he’ll make the place “great” again.
Despite all the political bullshitting, a reasonably consistent reading of the festering mess in a place like Syria makes it clear the US, for all its remaining power, is a very long way from “great” — and the slide from “greatness” began long before Barack Obama showed up.
One of the ironies of the current Middle East mess is that Russia and Iran are allied with the United States against ISIS, or The Islamic State, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria. An inspector general’s investigation now suggests the intelligence coming out of the US military campaign against ISIS has been doctored to put a rosy spin on what is another debacle. Against ISIS, we find ourselves allied with Shiite militias that killed US soldiers during the precursor Bush debacle in Iraq. We’re also in bed with would-be “moderate” Sunni militias with connections to al Qaeda. The US convinced Turkey to allow it to base bombers in Turkey. What did Turkey get out of the deal? It began to attack and divide the most successful anti-ISIS fighters, the Kurds. If it wasn’t so gravely serious, the situation would be slapstick.
Putin and Russia see this gator-snapping swamp as an opportunity. They say they want to improve the situation in Syria and western Iraq to more effectively clear out ISIS. It may be un-American to say so, but Putin may have a point, here. It’s at least worth having the courage to talk with him about it. Trump suggested he’d talk with Putin in a New York minute. The Artist Of The Deal would look Putin in the eye and, unlike George W. Bush who said he saw the man’s soul, he’d see a deal. It’s hard to imagine Trump not making some money out of such a deal. Obama should be able to do better. Even an imperfect, cynical deal may be better for the current dismal state of humanity than our standard policy of stirring up hornets nests and whacking elusive moles that only seems to make things worse.
That’s just Syria and ISIS. There’s the mess in Yemen, a dirt-poor nation on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. The filthy rich Saudis are trying to crush a revolt by the Houthi people who have been repressed by a previous Yemen government and who are aligned with the Shiite side of Islam. While they have connections to Iran, there is no evidence Iran is stirring up the Houthis. In fact, responding to a US request, Iran agreed to withdraw a ship full of arms headed for Yemen. The issue is the arrogance of the Saudi oil barons, who are aligned with Egypt and Israel against the Houthis and Iran.
Let’s not forget the abomination that is Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military man who took power from a duly-elected government aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, who has held power by a willingness to slaughter thousands in the street. It should not come as a surprise that Sisi is facing a growing insurgency with connections to ISIS. Just the other day, following an insurgent rout of Egyptian forces, Egyptian Apache helicopters assaulted a convoy of picnicking Mexican tourists, killing a dozen innocent people, eight of them Mexican. The government of Mexico is outraged. Sisi’s response has been to make it illegal to discuss the Mexican killings. This is just the latest example of cavalier killing. Yet, the United States still sends Egypt millions of dollars and, along with Israel, supports the Sisi regime.
The final mess is naturally Israel/Palestine. The chilly relationship between US President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is entirely appropriate. Despite a multi-million dollar bilious blitz from AIPAC and American militarists suggesting the ayatollahs in Iran eat children for breakfast and can’t wait to cause nuclear winter across the earth, Netanyahu has been forced to swallow Obama’s Iran Deal. Reports out of Iran suggest the moderates there, like here, may be able to hold off the lunatics. One can only hope this scenario could lead to a more reasonable and sane government in Israel.
As the champion of GOP polls, what would the bumptious Donald Trump do? Like Putin, Trump sees Obama as weak. Gripping the podium with two hands, the Artist Of The Deal likes to sneer that, “We’re going to have the strongest military. I kid you not! Our leaders now are very stupid. Very stupid. Under President Trump, we will have the best, most powerful military ever. And we’ll never have to use it! It’ll be so strong no one will mess with us. And we’ll take care of our vets. I love our vets. Don’t you? They’re fabulous.”
Trump is a professional wrestler, while Obama plays chess.
Confession: Several years ago I watched Trump perform on a pay-per-view Wrestlemania show at a friend’s house in Atlanta. It was real male smoker. We hooted and made off-color jokes as we drank my friend’s fine wine and some smoked huge cigars. Between matches, Trump in a black trench coat trailed by two thugs made violent threats as he searched for Vince McMahon, the billionaire CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. Before the main event, Trump found McMahon, and with the two thugs dragged the beefy billionaire into the ring, where he was tied to a chair. With a big grin, Trump, then, roughly shaved McMahon’s head. There was some fiction about revenge for something; but none of that mattered. What mattered was the theater. McMahon played the victim to the hilt: He wailed in pain and humiliation and made vengeful threats. In a previous Wrestlemania outing, Trump pummeled McMahon about the head and shoulders next to the ring. The crowd loved it! McMahon’s wife, Linda, a WWE manager, of course, ran unsuccessfully for a senate seat in Connecticut where the WWE is headquartered. You can’t make this stuff up.
From the beginning, Barack Obama said he would talk with our enemies. He has done so with the Iran Deal and the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. These are examples of an imperfect American president accepting the real world and the fact the United States ain’t what it used to be. The big-stick bluster of a Teddy Roosevelt may have worked at the birth and adolescence of the American empire, but it’s dead wrong for the long glide path downward from empire back to republic — a shift that doesn’t preclude engagement in the world and self-protection.
Many Americans are terribly susceptible to easy rhetoric and fantasy about a return to the glory days. As the loudest and clearest disseminator of this Pied Piper message, Trump with all his talents for entertainment will lead nowhere but down an even more horrific rathole than the Bush, neo-con, Project For A New American Century invasion/occupation of Iraq did for the country. Anyone who pays attention knows the roots of ISIS reach deep into the George W. Bush White House. If only the American electorate had the power to subpoena the shy ex-president to interrogate him on live TV. There’s a reason the man is in hiding. His brother will not remind us that he — Jeb — was a member of PNAC, which lobbied for the invasion of Iraq. Jeb told the recent TV debate audience that, “The United States needs to lead the world.” It makes one want to run screaming into the night.
The last thing this bamboozled and stressed nation needs is another poseur tough guy campaigning to resurrect America’s greatness. The goal should be more humble: To make America work for its own citizens and to help facilitate a more sane world.