Reality intrudes on ‘West Wing’
The White House is a risky place for on-the-job training, as Barack Obama and the rest of us are learning. But the president doesn’t deserve all the blame for the installation of a handsome but unprepared matinee idol in the toughest job in the world. The adoring cult, the 53 percent of the giddily oblivious electorate that took a flyer on Election Day, deserves most of it.
Matinee idols only do what matinee idols do, look pretty and inveigle softly with practiced seductiveness. Trouble arrives when the matinee idol and his public confuse role with reality. Reality arrives with the surprise and impact of a lemon-cream pie in the face.
Nasty surprises abound across the real world. Iran completes a third round of testing of Shahab-3 and Sajjil medium-range missiles capable of hitting not only Israel, Eastern Europe and several Middle Eastern countries but, if all that were not sobering enough, several U.S military bases as well. Venezuela boasts that it’s working with Russia and Iran in finding sources of uranium, the key ingredient of nuclear weapons technology. China says it will display new “upgraded missiles” in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of Red China. India announces that it can now make nuclear weapons up to a strength of 200 kilotons, four times over the line that the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty pledges signing nations not to cross.
This is the fine mess Barack Obama told us would never happen if Americans would elect him to soothe the fears of the frightened and bank the ambitions of evildoers of the world. Suddenly, the president has to deal with headaches, a thousand town halls, with hundreds of thousands of angry bigots, racists and Nazis of hysterical liberal imagination jeering his scheme to take over the health care of the nation, never prepared him for. He’s got headaches no speechwriter can cure.
Headache No. 1 is Iran, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad taunts Mr. Obama and the dazed leaders of the West. Mr. Obama may be the most puzzled of all. He went many thousands of miles out of his way to apologize for the sins of the evil country he’s the president of, promising with servile humility to hector us to do better. For his efforts, he learns that the Iranians have not only not disbanded their nuclear-bomb factory, but have added another to enrich uranium, and dared Mr. Obama and the West to do anything about it. “We are going to respond to any military action in a crushing manner,” boasts the chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Air Force, “and it doesn’t make any difference which country or regime has launched the aggression.” A teleprompter won’t be much protection against an incoming nuclear missile.
Who can blame the Iranians for thinking they have Mr. Obama’s number? The more that soft diplomacy doesn’t work, the softer diplomacy becomes. Robert M. Gates, the president’s defense secretary, says he’s sure Mr. Ahmadinejad intends to build nuclear weapons, but he doesn’t know what anyone can do about it except talk some more. “The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time.” (But when that time runs out, couldn’t the military just buy some more?)
There are signs that the Europeans, so eager only a year ago to march to the music of the piper from Hyde Park, are sobering up like the millions of independent voters who have stepped out of the parade in America. The buzz about Barack Obama at international conferences is no longer about how strong and artful he is in the presidential role, but how naïve and artless reality has revealed him to be. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is said to have told confidants that he thinks the American president is “weak.”
Clark Judge, a recent delegate to the annual Global Security Review conference in Geneva, sponsored by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, was surprised by the emerging “wide skepticism” of the president. “The impression emerged for me,” he says, “that Mr. Obama’s riveting rhetoric is in danger of turning from a plus to a minus.” One former foreign minister scorns the president’s “pointless rhetoric, no matter how elegantly expressed.”
Reality is an unforgiving teacher, and inevitably grades on a steep curve. Mr. Obama imagined last year that he was auditioning to replace Martin Sheen on the television serial “West Wing.” He’s learning better now.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
Playing president on TV: Martin Sheen