Does America Need More Swagger or More Subtlety?

In this Agora, TNH Executive Editor Constantinos Scaros and his debate rival, anarchist-poet-historian Dan Georgakas take on whether President Barack Obama is being unfairly bashed or deserves it.

In this Agora, TNH Executive Editor Constantinos Scaros and his debate rival, anarchist-poet-historian Dan Georgakas take on whether President Barack Obama is being unfairly bashed or deserves it.


PART 1: Scaros Strikes First

Dan, I am a latecomer to the Obama-bashing phenomenon.

There were those who were against President Obama to begin with – some stuck in the Middle Ages who couldn’t stomach the fact that a man with a darker skin color than theirs could be their leader, many others whose prejudice was political, not racial, repulsed by the notion of another Democrat, particularly of the “tax and spend” variety, in the White House.

They were the near-40 percent who never even gave him a chance from the start. But the rest of those who caused the President’s approval ratings to fall from the mid-60s to the mid-40s are a mix of disgruntled former supporters: some disappointed that he didn’t turn out to be the “different kind of politician” they had hoped for, others, more practically, because of the sting of losing their job and/or their health insurance.

As long as the economy continues to improve, and the technical and actual hiccups of Obamacare take a turn for the better, Obama’s approval ratings will have bottomed out and will begin to climb back to 50 percent and above.

Through Obama-bashing’s first five years, I have bucked the trend. Neither did I join the loons who insisted on seeing his birth certificate (lest he was born in Kenya – how absurd!), nor did I expect him to transform politics profoundly – something that his predecessors, from George Washington to George W., were unable to do.

Instead, I judged Obama, and continue to do so, by America’s standing in the world. Oh, not whether America is liked – but whether America is respected and, if necessary, feared.

I wouldn’t give a rat’s posterior about whether the Arab, French, or Greek “street” thinks of our president as an enlightened citizen of the world or a trigger-happy cowboy.

If there is anything even less useful than pandering to the public opinion of Americans for whom current events is merely an occasional indulgence – if they switch channels during commercials of American Idol or Dancing with the Start and accidentally stumble upon a news station – it is paying attention to the far more news-hungry foreign masses, who are nonetheless just as misinformed if not more so because of their lack of access to objective journalism and their overexposure to and contamination by mind-controlling institutional propaganda.

By standing in the world, I mean, are we in charge? Before I proceed, please know that I would never support bullying or extortion based on our position of power. The last thing I would ever want America to be is crew of gangsters forcing terrified neighborhood merchants to pay protection money.

I also abhor bullying of any kind. Shame on the biggest, burliest kid in school, who strongarms his classmates in the schoolyard for their milk money. But shame on him, too, if he lets some little weasel push him around, when he can crush him with one finger.

The way I see it, we’ve had three great presidents in the post-WWII era in terms of standing up to our foreign enemies – most notably, the Soviet Union: Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. The rest, from Truman to Clinton, practiced some version of détente. George W. Bush tried to be great – it’s not that he backed away from a fight – he just wasn’t a very good fighter.

Don’t get me wrong – I think resorting to violence, whether in the schoolyard or on the battlefield, should only be the last straw. But once you’ve become king of the mountain (as the United States did a few times in its history, most recently following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990), you have a sense of duty to stay there: not for the sake of war, but for the sake of peace.

I am troubled by Obama’s lack of spending the “superpower capital” he inherited. By shunning the world stage swagger that is his Presidential birthright, and instead acquiescing to being just “one of the top forces” on the sidelines.

Someone is going to claim that swagger, and just like Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev did, so will Russian President Vladimir Putin try.

This is not about whether Putin is a madman or a misunderstood foreign counterpart who can be a valuable partner to the United States: it is about the fact that there can only be one top dog. And for the sake of world peace, that top dog must be the United States, by default.

When the Soviet Union toppled, I thought: “never again!” Never again would we live in a world in which we had such a formidable adversary: a Nazi Germany, an Imperial Japan, a Soviet Union.

So, if Barack Obama thinks the way to a better America is to solve big problems with a larger role in government, he needs to continue to put that into practice in foreign affairs, too.

That’s why I supported his continued war on terror (even though he phased out that terminology). That’s why I don’t have a problem with the NSA, or droning first and taking names later. By the same token, we need a president with the cunning of Eisenhower, the determination of Kennedy, and the execution of Reagan to continue leading the nation another president, Abraham Lincoln, so aptly called “the last, best hope of earth.”

PART 2: Georgakas Strikes Back

Dino, you ask what role the United States of America should play on the world stage and if President Obama is playing that role well. I think we can look for sound guidance on these questions by considering statements by three distinguished presidents: George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight David Eisenhower.

In his farewell address, Washington warned us to beware of what Thomas Jefferson termed “entangling foreign alliances.” The idea here is not that we should be isolated from the world but that we must be wary of being drawn into conflicts in which we have no vital interests.

The turmoil in Ukraine comes to mind. Many Ukrainians are pro-Russia while many others lean towards the EU. We also know that in the recent fighting in the streets, the “democratic” forces included hooligans of the Golden Dawn variety. For neighboring Russia, whose fleet is headquartered in the area, access to the Black Sea is a vital concern.

The United States cannot play a significant role in resolving this crisis. Good relations with Russia are essential while good relations with Ukraine are secondary at best. The internal divisions in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq are similar. I believe it is always a serious mistake to get involved in what can be thought of as deadly family quarrels. To date, Obama has managed to avoid that error.

Theodore Roosevelt commented that it was best to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” The most striking example of that strategy was the containment policy molded by George Kennan in the 1950s for handling the USSR. He argued that in the long run, the economic and cultural strength of the West would prove superior to that of the USSR.

While the United States would vigorously act in defense of non-Soviet Europe, we did not openly support subsequent armed insurrections in East Germany or Hungary, and we only gave indirect support to later political rebellions in Poland and Czechoslovakia. It took thirty more years for the USSR to collapse, but not one American combat solder was involved. I think Obama is pursuing a similar strategy regarding Iran.

At the end of his presidential term, Eisenhower, a man who knew the realities of war, warned the nation to beware of the growing “military industrial complex.” He feared the United States would inadvertently develop a permanent war economy. Since that time, the U.S. has indeed emerged as the major arms dealer in the world and has taken part in numerous coups and wars that mainly benefited our transnational corporations.

John F. Kennedy had to resist enormous military pressure to invade Cuba, an action that likely would have set off World War III with the USSR. Ronald Reagan, hardly a dove, also rejected the bellicose military views given him when he met with Gorbachev in Finland, a meeting that ultimately brought an end to the Cold War.

Obama has avoided the adventurism and deceits that took us into the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq. On issues like electronic surveillance of Americans and a reckless use of drones, however, he has been severely criticized by activists of the Left and the Right.

I think we should avoid sports terminology like being number one when discussing international affairs. That suggests there are “winners” and “losers,” which is not helpful in resolving international conflicts. The United States is currently the world’s economic and military superpower, but what often gives us true international clout is our democratic culture, not playing policeman to the world. I think Washington, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower got it right: sometimes doing less accomplishes more.

What’s your opinion?