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Muddling Through 

Impressions on how the Syria solution is changing the game

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After a staggering display of mush, muddle and miscues by the world’s lone superpower, a rogue nation appears ready to give up the chemical weapons it supposedly never had. Without a shot’s being fired. This, of course, is a miserable failure in the eyes of the gaseous class, amateur hour in real time, because, well — it wasn’t planned.

— Timothy Egan, New York Times, 9/12/13

Regarding Syria, some thoughts on our emerging, yet largely unplanned, political and governmental universe:

1. Has the world changed? Yes, the geopolitical universe can no longer be explained through Cold War paradigms, when every move, every event, reflected bipolar competition, complete with a cast of surrogates. Going back even before the Cold War, we had a world reduced to constellations of empires and colonies.

2. In this new, cacophonous world, do “grand strategies” have a future? Not as much as they did when we could count on the Cold War paradigm to reduce the number of variables. For sure, gunboat diplomacy has run its course — which makes all those the Republican “neocons” look ever more ridiculous.

3. After playing second fiddle to the Pentagon for decades, the art of diplomacy is emerging again.

4. It needs to be understood that diplomacy is both bureaucratic and social, often practiced during the well-known two-martini lunch — or on a tennis court. President Kennedy learned of Khrushchev’s interest in negotiating our way out of the Cuban Missile Crisis from ABC newsman John Scali, who had the message passed to him over lunch by a friend — who happened to be a top Soviet spy. Yes, diplomacy is a messy and always imprecise business.

5. We can’t understand the various quandaries the United States finds itself in on the world stage without understanding recent history. Consider: In succession we experienced Vietnam, the Six Day War, the Iran embassy debacle, Lebanon, the Bush I invasion, Iran-Contra, 9/11 and the Bush II invasions. As do all countries, America continues to react most to its recent and not-so-recent past — both successes and failures. (Why are the Germans are so stubborn on the matter of maintaining a high-value Euro? Because they remember the 1920s, the Weimar Republic, hyperinflation and Hitler, that’s why.)

6. Do the pundits and most politicians grasp all this? In this ambiguous new world, where time and space are compressed ever more? Timothy Egan gets to the nub of the matter: “But outcomes don’t really matter to those obsessed by who won and who lost, those who see all politics as up-and-down nonsense instead of a clash of ideas with real consequences. [Syria] has to be cast in the tired terms of the daily struggle for sound-bite supremacy. It’s a debacle. A blunder. A humiliation.”

7. Moreover, the American public doesn’t want to wade into this mess, for reasons that should be obvious. Recent history again instructs those who are paying attention. Bush’s war left an imprint: Don’t believe the government out of hand whenever WMDs are mentioned, and don’t embrace any idea founded on the catch-all of “making the world safe for democracy.” We haven’t forgotten about all our challenges on the homefront, either. Why do we cut food stamps while pouring another $10 billion a month into Iraq and Afghanistan?

8. The president and his secretary of state have stumbled into tactics that can be summed up as “muddling through,” the term first used by Charles Lindblom, who was referring to unplanned incrementalism — taking baby steps toward big decisions instead of unleashing cataclysms.

9. Does “muddling through” represent a decline in American power? It does if by “decline” we refer to that Cold War world, which is no more. For one thing, the American economy relative to the rest of the world isn’t what it was a half-century ago — alone at the top. While still the largest single national economy in the world, ours is no longer the giant as it once was. Consider: The combined European Union economies taken together have recently surpassed the U.S. in GDP. (You know, “old Europe,” socialist Europe, universal health care Europe, gun control Europe, that Europe.) And aside from its ability to deliver pinpoint strikes (which makes Obama’s threat credible), our military can be more like a modern-day Gulliver when we task it with impossible missions like regime change or even culture change.

10. As for Obama’s leadership? Again, Timothy Egan: “The net result, accidental or not, is that Syria is no longer just an American problem. They say they will give up the poison gas that, wink, wink, was never used. The principle, as Obama said, ‘that with modest effort and risk we stop children from being gassed to death,’ is there on the table for a world that preferred to look the other way. And, added bonus: the neocon warriors are gone, homeless in both parties. All of this is a hugely positive leap from where we were a week, a month, or a year ago.”

11. One more thought: Might it be that we would all benefit if world leaders would have those two-martini lunches more often? 

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