Changing the Game

Yeah, yeah – everything changed in America in the sixties. Unthinking support for this war or that evaporated, traditional ideas about the proper relationship between the races collapsed, there was a massive shift in what was considered acceptable sexual behavior, the recreational use of mind-altering drugs suddenly seemed no more harmful than all the old folks sloshed on alcohol, or even less harmful, and popular music certainly changed. It was a cultural revolution after all – the conformist fifties were buried. The love-beads and long hair were a bit silly, but no more silly than the pastel polyester jumpsuits of the seventies, with the bellbottom pants. Politics shifted around too. Kids wore Che Guevara t-shirts and the whole Cold War thing, with its absurd but effective nuclear standoff, was seen as hopelessly hopeless – it led nowhere. Peace and love was the answer, of course, and social justice. Martin Luther King spoke of his dream in that famous 1963 speech, and the next year brought us the Civil Rights Act, and the year after that the Voting Rights Act. Things changed.

The whole decade still drives political and social conservatives up the wall, even now, but it all happened and there’s no going back. America simply continues to fight the cultural wars of the sixties for some reason. The Tea Party crowd wants their country back. Half of the country has wanted that since the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, or perhaps since 1954 when the Brown decision desegregated public schools, and now it’s even worse for them. A black president, no matter how pleasant and reasonable, no matter how quite normal and appealing his wife and daughters are, just won’t do. That’s just a confirmation that the sixties really did change everything.

There’s not much to be done about it. This year the still quite conservative Supreme Court did gut the Voting Rights Act, and the Republican Party is in the midst of a two-year effort to make it next to impossible for minorities and the poor and college students to ever vote again, but that’s a bit of a rearguard action, a temporary fix. The wave that started in the sixties will overwhelm them, eventually. Rick Santorum continues to fight what he considers the good fight, to bring back the sexual mores of the fifties, when abortion was illegal and women died in back alleys, when contraception was illegal too, and women were pure and chaste and modest, but he’s a perpetually marginal national candidate. There was a cultural revolution.

There were subtle shifts too, but those had less to do with peace and love and all that. Cultures shift in the way they see how things get done, and one of the subtle shifts was in sports, which has always been a lens through which people view conflict resolution, and somehow, as the sixties melded into the seventies, baseball died. Some of this had to do with player strikes, and the Pete Rose gambling scandal, and then the start of many years of asterisks – new records that weren’t really records because this player or that was on steroids, or is now on something more exotic. That was disillusioning, but that wasn’t the real problem. The problem was the game. It was boring, or more accurately, people became bored by it. Baseball is a game of anticipation. The good stuff is waiting to see what the pitcher will throw in a tight spot – seeing him on the mound considering the inside slider or the fastball, and the batter tensed up trying to figure out what’s coming next. The best part of the game is when nothing is actually happening, and the best game is a no-hitter. The tension is relieved with the devastating strikeout, or the rare home run – but the delicious part is just before either.

As the sixties ended, America seems to have decided all that was pointless. Baseball faded and the nation turned to professional football, which many have called a series of committee meetings interrupted by extreme violence – but it was another way to see conflict resolution. Chat a bit, planning a way to beat the crap out of the other guys and get to where you want to be, then do it – knock them on their asses and run over them to get to your goal – actually called the goal. It’s a different way of thinking, as George Carlin once explained:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.

Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle. …

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.

Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying.

In football you wear a helmet.

In baseball you wear a cap. …

In football you receive a penalty.

In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick.

In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late-hitting and unnecessary roughness.

Baseball has the sacrifice.

That’s cute, but Carlin notes that the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe!

As the sixties ended we decided which we’d rather watch. Baseball revenues fell and fell. Fans went elsewhere. Slowly but surely America turned to the football. It was a zero-sum game where things were resolved in quick bursts of violence. It was all about crude physical dominance, not subtle adjustments, and the rest is history. If sports is a lens through which a culture sees how goals are achieved, if the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, we had chosen a different lens.

The culture had shifted, and it’s no wonder that by the turn of the century we got the neoconservatives and their project for what they called the New American Century – as the sole remaining superpower we could transform the world into what it should be, using the threat of our military might, or our military itself, to spread somewhat secular democracy and unregulated free-market capitalism everywhere, assuring peace and stability forever, everywhere. Quick bursts of violence, or the threat of those, would get the job done. It was football, not baseball.

It didn’t work in Iraq – we created what will be a client-state of Iran, with an ongoing Sunni-Shiite civil war, at the cost of the lives of almost five thousand of our troops, with maybe fifty thousand more returning home without limbs or with scrambled brains, or both, at a cost that may approach two trillion dollars. It didn’t work in Afghanistan – we got rid of the Taliban and then decimated al-Qaeda, but when we leave all bets are off. Syria is next up, but Obama seems to want to play baseball, not football. Syria has agreed to destroy its chemical weapons and has submitted the paperwork to become a signatory to the treaty about those, joining the rest of the world on this matter – so we got what we said we wanted – putting a stop to that Assad jerk using those chemical weapons on men, women and children. We got even more. If and when those chemical weapons are actually destroyed, there’ll be nothing that can fall into the hands of al-Qaeda and such folks. And the American people can relax too – we won’t be easing into one more war in the Middle East, where we quickly toss out one bad guy and have to stick around for eight or ten years until we find someone to run the place, with our folks being shot dead and blown up day after day, because no one wants us there. We won, without firing a shot. Obama and Kerry said that Syria would not have done this if we hadn’t threatened force, but the fact remains, we did nothing. It was all in the anticipation, like in baseball.

Obama is having a hard time explaining this, which he tried to do on the morning before the second Sunday of the new football season:

President Obama says a tumultuous month as commander in chief, when his policy toward Syria took a number of unexpected turns, may not have looked “smooth and disciplined and linear,” but it is working.

“I’m less concerned about style points. I’m much more concerned with getting the policy right,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview on This Week.

Getting the policy right is a matter of explaining the policy, which had nothing to do with war:

“My entire goal throughout this exercise is to make sure what happened on Aug. 21 does not happen again,” the president told Stephanopoulos of the large-scale chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that he said killed more than 1,400 civilians.

“We have the possibility of making sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

See George Carlin, above. In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe!

That was the whole idea:

Obama argued on “This Week” that the choices he’s made – including a renewed partnership with Putin – have already created a desired deterrent effect, making it less likely the Syrian government will again use chemical weapons in the short term.

The president said a “verifiable agreement” to disarm Assad of his chemical stockpiles will go further than any U.S. military strikes could have in eliminating the threat of their use.

“If that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right,” Obama said.

To a nation ready for another round of football games later that afternoon, that might have seemed absurd, especially since he went on to speak of making subtle adjustments:

In the latest diplomatic turn, some say Obama is being outmaneuvered, even insulted, by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose New York Times op-ed this week rebuked “American exceptionalism” …

Obama said he is optimistic but cautious that Putin will be a reliable partner.

“I don’t think that Mr. Putin has the same values that we do,” Obama said in response to Putin’s controversial op-ed.

“I welcome him being involved. I welcome him saying, ‘I will take responsibility for pushing my client, the Assad regime, to deal with these chemical weapons,'” he said. “This is not the Cold War. This is not a contest between the United States and Russia.”

If Russia wants influence in Syria, Obama added, “That doesn’t hurt our interests.”

This is not a zero-sum game where things were resolved in quick bursts of violence. This is not football:

The president suggested that he even sees a potential role for Iran in helping to stabilize Syria, despite reports that Iranian fighters have been streaming into the country to support the Assad regime.

Obama confirmed publicly for the first time on “This Week” that he has exchanged letters with new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who has vowed to act forcefully to prevent any Western military intervention in Syria, using “all efforts to prevent it.”

Obama said he believes his threat to use U.S. military force in Syria, and subsequent pause to pursue diplomacy, sends a signal to the Iranian regime in the ongoing dispute over its contested nuclear program.

“What they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically,” Obama said.

Ah, but someone else knew it was a football Sunday:

Sen. John McCain on Sunday threw cold water on the deal the United States and Russia have struck to dismantle the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stores by 2014, arguing it does nothing to keep the use of force on the table and help the rebels topple an Assad regime accused of gassing its own people.

Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican and a defense hawk who’s called for more forceful action in Syria, said the agreement went soft on Syrian President Bashar Assad despite tough talk from President Obama in the wake of an Aug. 21 chemical attack on civilians near Damascus.

This is about winning by brute force:

Ultimately, Mr. McCain said, the Americans did not strike a winning deal with the Russians.

“I think it’s a loser, because I think it gave Russia a position in the Middle East which they haven’t had since 1970,” he told NBC. “We are now depending on the good will of the Russian people if Bashar Assad violates this agreement. And I am of the firm belief, given his record, that this is a very, very big gamble.”

In short, one wins by dominance, not by making subtle adjustments, although Slate’s Fred Kaplan has a different view:

It should be no surprise that U.S. and Russian diplomats struck a deal to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons so quickly. Both nations had strong converging interests to do just that. Diplomacy becomes almost easy under those circumstances.

Russian leaders have always been keen to block the spread of weapons of mass destruction. During Soviet days, the Kremlin was far fiercer – and more effective – at keeping nukes out of the hands of the Warsaw Pact nations than the White House was at keeping them away from its NATO allies.

There a reason for that, a reason we have to understand:

It’s not that Soviet premiers had a deeper dread of nuclear war than American presidents. It’s that they had a greater need to impose control over their client states. In this sense, it’s likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin was horrified when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (or his henchmen) started firing rockets loaded with nerve gas. The horror stemmed not so much from the casualties as from the chaos it would set in motion. Assad’s move made him a client out of control; it suddenly aroused the ire of Westerners who had been kept at bay through two years of bloody mayhem and who were now seriously thinking of – or being pressured into – intervening militarily.

When Secretary of State John Kerry fatefully (who knows how casually?) remarked that the United States would halt its preparations for airstrikes if Assad destroyed his chemical arsenal, Putin said, “It’s a deal,” then muscled Assad to agree.

Kaplan concedes that the hard-ass neoconservatives said what Putin did was just a ploy to buy time, to elevate his stature in the Middle East, and to make Obama look weak. Maybe so, but football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late-hitting and unnecessary roughness, while baseball has the sacrifice, and letting Putin strut a bit was a sensible sacrifice to make here, because it’s probable the Putin really wanted to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons, because of the instability they were bound to set off, so let him look good:

It is certainly true that Putin went about this very cleverly. Obama had said that airstrikes would be “limited,” designed strictly to “deter” Assad from firing more chemical weapons and to “degrade” his ability to do so. In his public statements, Obama had also said that his long-term goal was to reach a political settlement to the Syrian civil war, a settlement that would involve Assad’s departure. But the airstrikes, he said, were a separate matter; an outsider’s military power could not help one side or another win a civil war.

Putin must have seen this distinction as confusing at best, duplicitous at worst. War, after all, is by nature political; military strikes always have political objectives. This is why he had so firmly opposed any talk of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons: He figured that U.S. airstrikes in Syria would be a pretense or prelude to deeper intervention and “regime change.”

However, when Kerry said that dismantling the weapons might halt the juggernaut of U.S. military action, Putin saw an opening. He took the narrowest slice of Obama’s rhetoric literally: that the coming airstrikes were strictly about Assad’s chemical weapons. OK, then, Putin replied: I’ll help to remove those chemical weapons, and you call off the airstrikes. End of story.

And so, assuming all goes according to plan, Assad loses his stash of deadly chemicals – but he stays in power, at least for the time being, and the Russian Federation re-emerges as a serious player in Middle Eastern politics.

Yep, that is a “win-win-win for Putin” of course, but Obama didn’t do too badly:

At the same time, Obama can cite his threat to use force as the reason Putin suddenly swung into action (this might even be true, to some extent). He can thus take at least joint credit for ridding Syria of chemical weapons and upholding international law. And he is saved from having to make good on letting Congress vote on whether to authorize the use of force – a vote that he seemed all but certain to lose.

That means the only losers are the Syrians:

They’re stuck with Assad, and the civil war rages on. But this is how things were before the sarin strike of Aug. 21, which pushed Obama across a red line he didn’t want to cross all by himself – and then pushed him into a compounding crisis of his own making when it became clear that no other institution (not the United Nations, NATO, the Arab League, or the U.S. Congress) wanted to cross with him.

So, all in all, we get some sort of stability – we get home, safe – because Putin wanted this to work:

If his goal was simply to humiliate Obama, he could have waited for the House of Representatives to vote down the authorization to use force. The fact is, no Russian leader, particularly an authoritarian ex-KGB man like Putin, could have believed for a moment that a foreign leader – especially a U.S. president – would back away from the threat of military action simply because the legislature opposed it. In this sense, Obama’s wavering rhetoric might have thrown Putin into a deeper panic, for Russian leaders have found unpredictable opponents to be at least as fearsome as strong ones.

Another way to put that is that Russian leaders are used to American presidents thinking all of geopolitics is a football game – diplomacy is a series of committee meetings interrupted by extreme violence – and Obama was doing that baseball thing, where the pitcher stands on the mound considering whether it will be the slider or the fastball, but doing nothing. Putin should study American sports.

In any event, we’re playing a new game here:

If Obama and Putin can find common ground to solve this crisis, maybe the “reset button” can be pushed again. Might they be able to mediate a ceasefire in Syria, a step back from the brink in Iran (where a new president and foreign minister have sent intriguing signals that they’re ready for such moves), and a renewal of compromise measures elsewhere? It’s too risky to hope for such things, but the past week has taken the world on such a steep and dizzy roller coaster ride, no prediction can be dismissed as too wild or woolly.

Of course Obama is a basketball guy – that’s his game – but at least he doesn’t think all of life is a football game. Something did change in our culture as the sixties ended. We became fans of brutal dominance, and that may have become the lens through which we see the world. Obama doesn’t seem to be a fan of brutal dominance, which is odd, and kind of refreshing – but it’s no wonder he has such a hard time explaining himself, even when things go right. We expect football.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Intervening in Syria, Putin and Obama, Syria Agrees to Disarm, The Sixties and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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