Obama's Faux Sophistication

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If you reside on the political right, you’ve probably experienced the subtle condescension that occasionally erupts from a “sophisticated” sort who realizes you’re not on their side of the aisle. The left, in the eyes of many, is the correct and educated political alliance to choose: They have “nuance,” you see, and “worldliness,” and “science.”

We poor saps, at least as viewed from inside these particular heads, are stuck mooing about in our rock-filled, wire-fenced dirt pastures, drifting in and out of various spittin’, shootin’ and taxidermin’ contests, with only Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A, and Kim Davis to keep us company.

“Wow,” you might be thinking. “Chick-fil-A? That’s delicious!” Fair enough. Regardless, on Monday, it was fascinating to watch President Obama address the United Nations General Assembly—the apogee of global political sophistication, really, if you don’t look too closely at certain members of their Human Rights Council.

“I stand before you today,” Obama said, “believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion. We cannot look backwards. We live in an integrated world—one in which we all have a stake in each other’s success.”

Now there was some forward, ahead-of-the-curve thinking, at least until two days later, when a Russian three-star general reportedly marched into the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and announced that America should steer clear of the Syrian airspace, stat. Russian bombing, you see, would begin within the hour. Surprise!

Well, at least Obama was halfway accurate: We now apparently have a stake in Russia’s success, whether we like it or not. This would be somewhat hilarious if it weren’t so deadly, or so indicative of a key strategic region quickly spiraling out of control. As Syria continues to melt down, Obama’s broad, multilayered foreign policy prescriptions, as broadcast to the U.N., seem a little, well, vague: “We must go forward in pursuit of our ideals, not abandon them at this critical time. We must give expression to our best hopes, not our deepest fears.”

The rise of strongmen, the seizing of territory, and the manipulation of natural resources are the way of the past, Obama told the members of the United Nations. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin, a man to whom CBS News once dedicated a slide show titled “Vladimir Putin Does Manly Things”—judo matches! Bear wrangling! Riding horses bare-chested! Clutching giant guns! Installing GPS devices on half-sedated tigers! Giving dirty looks to strange Russian birds while strapped into strange Russian flying contraptions!—apparently did not get the memo.

Meanwhile, “chanting ‘Death to America’ does not create jobs,” Obama continued, apparently unaware that no one who spends their time chanting “Death to America,” painting intricate murals of a skull-faced, razor-clawed Lady Liberty, or enthusiastically burning effigies actually cares about working their way up the career ladder. Now that I think about it, you know what else doesn’t create jobs? Bombing Syria! Quick, somebody tell Vladimir Putin. What on Earth is he thinking?

My best guess, if we could glimpse into the grizzly-strewn wilds of Putin’s mind, is that we’d see several variations on the catchphrase of the legendary American professional wrestler Ric Flair, each repeatedly cold-cocking opponents in a desperate fight for supremacy: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man. Woo!” This, to be sure, is not sophisticated. Unfortunately, when you venture out into the world’s rougher neighborhoods, Mr. Flair’s maxim often matches reality.

The problem with mass-market, eternal-progress “sophistication,” meanwhile, is that it’s often just dressed-up naiveté. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama released “The End of History and the Last Man,” a provocative and oft-discussed book.

 “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history,” Fukuyama wrote, “but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

In international relations classes across the U.S., Fukuyama was often paired with Samuel Huntington, his former teacher. Huntington’s book, the marvelously crotchety “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” argued that global conflict would continue, but primarily along cultural lines. Huntington’s book served as a powerful counterpoint, but throughout the 1990s, at least in pop foreign policy circles, it was Fukuyama’s world. Incredibly, despite the recent saber-rattling surges of Putin, China, and ISIS, much of our leadership still resides there today.

No one can claim easy solutions to the Syrian debacle. But it’s helpful to remember one particular 2012 presidential debate, when Obama mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia our nation’s number one geopolitical threat. “The 1980s are now calling,” he said dismissively, “to ask for their foreign policy back.”

Amazingly, here we are, with Russia poised to steamroll the Middle East, while our president spouts Fukuyama-inspired platitudes before the U.N. Mr. President, don’t look now, but the 1990s are calling. They want their copy of “The End of History and the Last Man” back. There are some corrections to be made.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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