This is sorta silly season in politics. - Barack Obama, during the 2008 Presidential campaign.
When is it NOT silly season in Washington? Our politics have become so shallow, so stuck on things that don’t matter, that they border on being irrelevant.
That’s true for many Washington politicians in general, and Republican politicians in particular.
Case in point: Republican Newt Gingrich, who was once Speaker of the House and a respected deep thinker. It seems he’s gone off the shallow end. For Gingrich, no attack on Obama is too trivial or trifling.
A couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the Somali pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama, Gingrich said it was time for Obama to show the world he was tough on piracy. As Gingrich noted on the ABC show This Week with George Stephanopoulos:
Look, this is the administration [Obama's] which keeps trying to find some kind of magical solution that doesn’t involve effort, and doesn’t involve risk, and doesn’t involve making hard decisions….. we ought to simply, as a civilized world, say we are gonna stop the pirates in the region. Period. It’s very good for the rest of the world to see that there’s someplace in the planet where people are willing to draw a line and say certain things won’t be tolerated.
Gingrich went on to say that piracy was a global threat along the lines of Iran, North Korea, and Mexico, and represented a test of the President’s resolve. That led Stephanopoulos to ask conservative commentator George Will whether the pirates were in fact a test for President Obama. Will responded
Good Heavens, no. The Speaker’s very litany of nuisances around the world — some rising considerably above nuisance — indicates just how down on the chain of concerns this should be. Again…. this is well below what mugging was in New York City, because as Paul [Krugamn] said the sea’s really quite safe.
Why did Gingrich elevate the piracy incident to the top of the list of foreign policy concerns? Because in the event that the pirate incident didn’t work out well-say, with the unfortunate death of Maersk Alabama captain Richard Phillips, whom the Somali pirates were holding hostage-Gingrich could call it big failure by Obama on the world stage.
Fortunately, thanks to a daring rescue by the Navy Seals, the captain was saved. It was a happy ending for everyone… except, perhaps, Gingrich. As writer Albert Hunt put it in his article Republicans Firing Blanks at Obama
This wasn’t a major crisis, not the often-discussed 3 a.m. national security moment for Mr. Obama; it was more about politics than policy. Still, it illustrates the vacuity of the Republican and conservative commentary.
Gingrich got another case of the hot-and-bothered from various verbal and visual exchanges between Obama and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez during the Summit of the Americas. It was handshake-gate, according to Newt:
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tore into President Barack Obama Monday for his friendly greeting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying Obama is bolstering the “enemies of America.”
Gingrich appeared on a number of morning talk shows comparing Obama to President Jimmy Carter for the smiling, hearty handshake he offered Chavez, one of the harshest critics of the United States, during the Summit of the Americas.
“Frankly, this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators – when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead,” Gingrich said on “Fox & Friends.”
When asked about the criticisms, Obama rejected them outright:
Speaking of Obama, I am increasingly and continually impressed with his communication skills. He discusses issues in a way that is not overly long or complicated, but yet, manages to add depth and understanding.
It’s the exact opposite of the George Bush school of communication.
It was Bush who, when asked why the US was attacked on 9/11, famously said it was “because they hate our freedom.” In fact, Al-Qaeda couldn’t care less about our freedom. Their (unjustified) terrorist attack was based on a long history of grievances about American behavior in the Middle East, about which most Americans had little knowledge or previous concern. For example, did you know… that in 1998, then President Bill Clinton authorized an American attack on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with an unknown number of casualties?
Bush could have used the why-do-they-hate-us question as a learning opportunity, to teach to a nation that is woefully ignorant and apathetic about foreign affairs. But that didn’t happen. By ignoring (or being unable to articulate) the history of America’s relations with the Al-Qaeda and the Middle East, Bush not only failed to provide an understanding of the issues, he obfuscated them.
The misinformation of Bush’s comments helped to create a national mood that enabled Bush to rather easily convince the country that we should invade Iraq – and we all know where that got us.
Compare Bush’s dumbed-down answer about the reasons for the 9/11 invasion, to Obama’s comments concerning handshake-gate. Obama offered a brief primer on Chavez and Venezuela:
• Chavez is harshly anti-American
• They interfere in the affairs of neighboring states
• the US and Venezuela have foreign policy and economic differences
• Venezuela is an oil power
• they are not a militarily threat
After quickly going over the facts, Obama makes the point that it’s ridiculous to think that a handshake or other such interactions will have any lasting impact on our foreign relations.
Some young people might call Obama’s response to his critics a smack down. I don’t think it was all that, but Obama definitely disarmed his critics with those comments-and was informative in doing so. That’s that kind of depth we need to see from our leaders when talking about the issues of the day-not the silly stuff that’s passing for real debate from guys like Gingrich.
Kudos to Obama for going deep. And brickbats to Gingrich for going deep sea fishing in the shallow end of the pool.