Tuesday, November 12, 2013


On the eve of the anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, the various comments and editorials make an attempt to compare "then" and "now."  The comparison is unflattering for President Obama. It is also flawed. Besides, history should not slip into hagiography. President 
Kennedy left a mixed legacy.  Even his sophisticated handling of the Cuban missile crisis was not a deal without concessions (the withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey.)  It is all about style, and his oratory craftsmanship was second to none. The temptation to gloss over less glamorous or unsavory episodes has unfortunately a bigger weight than historical veracity.

The times of Camelot seem outdated now.  The "best and the brightest" created a court which highlighted the almost British acting talent of a man who still inhabits imagination and feeds loss and nostalgia for better days. Only President Reagan came close to creating an aura around his persona which compares to the JFK worship.  Is it not paradoxical to see how this Democratic president was in reality the last one who felt entitled to the ownership of American might and power?  All his successors, with the exception of George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, have felt uneasy or out of place in power's treacherous corridors. However both  did so with more zeal and application than out of natural talent.

Historians are making a fortune in constrained parallel history, looking for common denominators between the Cuban crisis, Vietnam, Kissinger's balance of power politics and current or recent events. They lose track of the larger picture. Fifty years ago the United States stood alone and was able to steer world affairs without having to consider alternative options or competing proposals. Today, as we have witnessed yet again in the dealings regarding Iran, the United States has to consider others and has to confront a world which lies in tatters. A constant rollback of America's influence has led to a situation wherein America is confronted with diminished political and strategic territoriality and capital.  Besides, the rise of the non-states has further corrupted the former uni-polar world.

Political science makes pathetic efforts to find sense when there is no longer room for it.  There are no longer lessons to be learned from Vietnam, Iraq, North Korea or Iran & Co.  Dennis Rodman has replaced Kissinger!  New situations require new therapies. Venezuela or Bolivia today can "free-lance" without fear of retaliation. Drones might be "cool" killers but they multiply at the same time the scourge they are supposed to eradicate.  The Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were gifts for the Americans and the West insofar as they isolated and confined a bacteria which ended up consuming itself for lack of oxygen. Walls are rudimentary instruments but they also "deter."  Israel understands this all too well. 

The Obama administration finds itself in a non-enviable situation on too many fronts which seem to have run out of control or become adverse to coherent management. The lack of trust is contagious and is no longer directed at the outside world, it rules among allies who retain "pique" rather than "communality."  Rumsfeld's "Old Europe" is back with a vengeance. Other allies in other vital parts of the world are bewildered.  The American secretary of  state looks as cursed as some Updike or Cheever persona.  It also must be recognized that the old Kissinger method and his periodic assessments of America "in/or versus the world" no longer apply.  Improvisation, or void, has overtaken a more structured intellectual approach, less by lack of will than by lack of co-players.  Foes who still follow, grudgingly, classical diplomatic rules have ended up reinforcing them, often by "blinking" first.  Rogue adversaries are far more perverse because they are unpredictable both for reasons of the means they use and for the mindset which prevails.

To return to President Kennedy... He was able to monitor events because his counterparts knew too well the non-rhetorical danger which would be unleashed if they risked going too far. Life was still precious in those days. The President paid back with his own. Today life has become a commodity. The eternal flame in Arlington cemetery might well morn both a fallen president and a worldview buried with the man who, notwithstanding his imperfections, tried to make sense of it all...then!

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