Syria and Barack Obama’s surplus powerlessness

Fred Hof writes: In his excellent Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, Joby Warrick quotes White House wordsmith Benjamin Rhodes as saying, “I think, candidly, that a lot of people have used this debate to position themselves for posterity as being for doing something in Syria when in fact it wouldn’t have made much difference.” Leave aside that the use of the word “candidly” is an indicator that the thought articulated is anything but candid. Leave aside the broad brush nature of the accusation. What is important is not the view of a staffer, but that of his boss. If President Obama thinks that his critics are poseurs and their ideas are all useless, what does it imply about his willingness to correct a disastrous course during the time left to him in the presidency?

Mr. Kerry too is perfectly free to claim that nary a “realistic alternative” has been offered by critics. This critic takes special exception to the claim. What is important, however, is whether or not the President of the United States recognizes that a significant policy shift is required. What is critical is whether or not he is energizing his national security apparatus to produce alternatives for his consideration. If he is satisfied with the present course, if he is at peace with the political implications for allies of Syria emptying itself, and if he is satisfied that mass murder in Syria can go unanswered on the grounds that it is not genocide, then it will likely be up to his successor to stop digging and eventually climb out of the hole. [Continue reading…]

The phrase, surplus powerlessness, comes from Michael Lerner, who in his 1991 book of the same name, defined it this way:

the set of feelings and beliefs that make people think of themselves as even more powerless than the actual power situation requires, and then leads them to act in ways that actually confirm them in their powerlessness.

Lerner describes the shift from idealism to cynicism that has shaped the thinking of so many of our generation — including a president who once in office, traded hope for realism:

The cynical chic that dominates social and political discourse in the 1990s — and which finds its highest expression in the elitist put-downs of all forms of idealism that weekly emanate from The New Republic, national columnists, and television news commentators and analysts — is a defensive compensation for the pain that many people experienced when they found that their unrealistic hopes for total transformation could not immediately be gratified. The tendency of the mass media to foster a desire for immediate gratification of all our desires made many people expect that the minute they could formulate the notion of a very different kind of world, the moment they could see its importance and desirability, they should be able to achieve it without too much struggle. A year or two, perhaps. But if nothing happened that quickly, then perhaps nothing would ever happen, and the very possibility of things changing must be an illusion. How quickly the demand for instant gratification turns revolutionaries into cynics. Suddenly the Saddam Husseins and Mu’ammar Qaddafis, the virulent nationalists of Eastern Europe, the totalitarian oppressors in China, the multinational firms that seem to have little compassion for the communities they uproot or destroy or the ecology they pollute in pursuit of their profits — all seem to be inevitable, as though built into the structure of necessity. All we can do as individuals, we begin to believe, is to become “realistic,” which is to say, to act in the same selfish and self-centered way as everyone else, expecting that anyone who can will hurt us if we don’t get the advantage first.

The power of an American president can be overstated and yet the description — most powerful man on Earth — remains true, even at this time of dwindling American power.

The president might view Syria as though he is no different from the millions of other onlookers who feel powerless to influence events and yet his posture has always involved the exercise of choice.

Some might argue that Obama now serves as a much needed role model in a rare, unappreciated virtue: American humility.

I suspect, however, that the lesson more commonly drawn from his example will be that presidents can’t actually accomplish much. Having fueled hope, he ended up breeding apathy.

Whether that turns out to be the case will likely become evident as the Bernie Sanders campaign advances.

Some of the early signs are not too promising as strong youth support fails to be matched in voter turnout.

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