David M. Shribman: The world is changing fast and the United States seems stuck

Perhaps only a few times before have world leaders returned to their posts to so dangerous a mix of global conditions

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Summer isn’t officially over, but this weekend is the traditional finale to that sweet season of beaches, peaches and breaches of attention. It’s back to work, back to school and back to our knitting.

And what a tangled skein has been knitted during those sun-splashed months of Michigan cherries and peaceful reveries. Perhaps only in 1914, 1938 and 1939 — and perhaps 2001, if you consider that planning for the September attacks was continuing apace over Labor Day Weekend — have world leaders returned to their posts to so dangerous a mix of global conditions as the ones Barack Obama, the American Congress, the Western allies, Middle East warriors and Eastern European leaders now confront.

Mr. Obama has taken criticism for vacationing as crises gathered in Iraq, Libya, Ukraine and Missouri, but he has historical companions in holiday retreat. As the world slipped into war in 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign minister, was off bird-watching.

It had been a splendid summer, the prettiest in memory in Europe, elegized by the poet Alice Meynell (1847-1922), whose “Summer in England 1914’’ speaks of a golden time when “The hay was prosperous, and the wheat;/​The silken harvest climbed the down:/​Moon after moon was heavenly-sweet.”

The president’s vacation is over, summer moons are in the past, but this remains:

The gravest crisis. There is much competition for this title, but it may go the new caliphate spilling over the borders of Syria and Iraq and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose group, known as the Islamic State, is rapidly replacing al-Qaida as the sum of all American fears. The calamity in this region has vast, sober and frightening implications that range far beyond the Levant, the old French geographical term that for a time was attached to al-Baghdadi’s organization.

The good news is that the Islamic State is isolated, with several of the other reviled groups taking up opposition (but not, alas, arms) against it: Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and al-Qaida. In this case, of course, the old proverb, sometimes ascribed to Arabic origins, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, does not apply, though a touch of the first Truman doctrine — not the one he announced to a joint meeting of Congress amid the Greek Civil War in 1947 but the one promulgated in 1941 while he was still a senator — might appeal to some Western strategists: “If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia; and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany.’’

But the good news about the Islamic State crisis may be outweighed by the bad, including reports that the group possesses more than two dozen M1 Abrams tanks, a fleet of Humvees, a cache of other American weapons and a sprinkling of Russian ones, and that its ultimate goal is to attack the American homeland. No one doubts that is its aim. The only question is whether it can.

A close second, a half-game behind, but even in the loss column. Here we consider the growing shadow cast by Vladimir Putin’s Russia over the nations that once comprised the Soviet Union. Most Western leaders did not regard the convoy of aid that barreled through Ukraine this month as a heartwarming humanitarian gesture from the onetime head of the KGB, who has said publicly that the destruction of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” a remark that somehow overlooks the Nazi conquest of Europe stretching from Belgium to Albania. Last week’s Russian tank movements were anything but reassuring.

Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration who now is the president of the Brookings Institution, sees the emergence of a doctrine of Putinism. This doctrine, he wrote this month in Politico, “violates international law, nullifies Russia’s past pledges to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors, carries with it the danger of spinning out of control and sparking a wider conflict, and establishes a precedent for other major powers to apply their own version of the Putin Doctrine when convenient.’’

For the past several months, the West has been powerless to stanch the flow of Putinism, which, acknowledging the danger of employing this facile metaphor, nonetheless has menacing similarities to the 1933-1939 prewar attributes, and appetites, of Hitlerism.

That’s the bad news. Mr. Talbot and others point out that in seeking to replicate the Soviet Union, the resurgent Russia of 2014 may also find itself replicating the corrupt Russia of 1917-1989, which did not satisfy its peoples’ basic human needs, nor their basic consumer longings. The first Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight, though with somber consequences. The second may fare no better, probably not without somber consequences either.

Competing for the wild card. There’s the seething anger on all sides in Ferguson, Missouri. There’s the uneasiness about the economy. There’s the queasiness — even Mr. Obama’s diminishing number of allies feel it — about the president’s extension of power to the edges of, if not beyond, constitutional authority.

Then, last week, a new one: broadening fear of a cyber threat to financial markets, raising the specter of a “black swan event,” an allusion to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2008 book, “The Black Swan,” which carries this ominous subtitle, perhaps the leitmotif of our age: “The Impact of the Highly Improbable.’’

Amid all this, the country has the feeling of spinning too fast on its axis, perhaps even spinning out of control. This president has the capacity to make a difference but seems indifferent about doing so, most especially and most mysteriously in Ferguson. And Congress? It, like much of the country, is hopelessly in irons — a nautical condition which occurs, according to the official Coast Guard auxiliary handbook, when a boat “is stopped, pointing directly into the wind, having lost all headway.”

In February 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his recent campaign rival, 1940 GOP presidential nominee Wendell Willkie, to London, and the presidential emissary presented Winston Churchill with a letter of introduction that included a handwritten verse from Longfellow with the phrase “Sail on, O Ship of State!”’ and continuing: “Humanity with all its fears,/​With all the hopes of future years,/​Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”

This is one of those moments. It is also one of those heavenly-moon moments when the United States is in irons, stopped, pointing directly into the wind, having lost all headway.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (dshribman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1890).


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