Things are the way they are and that’s that, and everyone knows it, which explains Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – the 1925 novel by Anita Loos which she adapted for film in the 1928 silent movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – but there are no prints of that any longer, anywhere, so that’s gone. No matter – there was the 1949 stage musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and then the 1953 film adaptation of the musical, which was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes of course. Some notions do persist, and the 1953 iteration of this notion about what men really prefer, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, was beyond iconic. Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in that hot-pink dress said it all – gentlemen do prefer blondes, even if they are a little dimwitted (charmingly naïve) and easily distracted by bright shiny objects, which is useful in terms of evolutionary biology, where dominance matters. So yes, Marilyn Monroe, the innocent waif who needed to be given diamonds for her to feel any sort of self-worth at all, was the object of every man’s desire, and in the fifties and early sixties, Clairol sold a lot of hair-goop by asking American women a simple question: “Do blondes have more fun?” The question was supposed to answer itself, but in this 2012 review of the relevant scientific research – mostly from overly eager graduate students with far too much time on their hands – it seems that gentlemen sometimes prefer blondes and sometimes they don’t, depending on culture and circumstances. But that’s just science. Everyone knows that gentlemen prefer blondes. That’s a given.
Everyone also knows that strong leaders have no qualms about anything, no second thoughts, and just do what needs to be done, and if it turns out that what they did didn’t really need to be done, they never apologize, no matter what damage has been done. At least they did something. Thoughtful leadership is a contradiction in terms. Strong leaders act, they don’t think – they have “people” for that sort of thing, you know, the wimps and losers who never get the girl at the end of the movie. Everyone knows this, at least everyone on the right. That’s the only thing they remember fondly about George W. Bush, his strong leadership – he led us to geopolitical and economic disaster, but he was the decider, and he did things, even if they were the wrong things. He acted, damn it – and no Democrat ever does that – they think too much. And Obama is the worst of them.
The corollary is obvious. Gentlemen prefer blondes – everyone knows this – and patriotic Americans, proud of their country, prefer Real Men to be their leaders – which everyone also knows. That means that gentlemen prefer blondes and Republicans prefer Putin. Yes, they’re saying that, as the Los Angeles Times’ David Horsey reviews here:
The GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers of Michigan, said Putin is playing chess while Obama is playing marbles. Other conservatives have taken this critique a step or two further. On Fox News, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared that Putin has shown what leadership is by acting boldly and rapidly to assert his nation’s interests in Crimea. Also on Fox, right-wing celebrity Sarah Palin suggested that the Russian president is far manlier than the U.S. president.
“Obama, the perception of him and his ‘potency’ across the world is one of such weakness,” Palin said. “Look it, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”
In recent days, Rush Limbaugh has surprised himself (so he says) by finding admirable qualities in Putin that Obama lacks. He joins the ranks of numerous social conservatives, such as Pat Buchanan, who were already Putin fans due to his support for the Russian Orthodox Church and his opposition to gay rights.
Horsey reports this is the current line at this year’s CPAC event, and it’s easy to see what’s going on. Putin often rips off his shirt to show off his toned abs, and maybe he does wrestle bears, but he’s certainly fine with his people beating the crap out of gay folks in the streets, and he had no qualms about sending that all-girl rock group Pussy Riot off to jail for years for bad-mouthing him, something that should have been done to the Dixie Chicks when they bad-mouthed Bush. Ah well, at least Clear Channel organized all those bonfires across America to burn their CD’s and all – but Putin is even better at this sort of thing. He takes no crap from anyone, and Horsey adds this:
All of this suggests two things. One is that conservatives despise Obama as much as they ever detested any Soviet leader and so they give more slack to Russia’s president than they do to their own. The other is that today’s conservatives like their leaders to be testosterone-driven tough guys who dispense with niceties and nuance.
Next year we will see PUTIN FOR PRESIDENT bumper stickers, if they’re not out there already – as a protest. Only those born here can run for president – otherwise the Republicans would have run Arnold Schwarzenegger long ago – so they’d just be making their point. They just don’t want a president who wears mom jeans, and there’s this item where Fox News’ Sean Hannity mocks Obama for wearing a bicycle helmet:
It’s embarrassing. When I grew up, all I did was ride my bike. I never wore a helmet. Ever. Not once. Not one time. And guess what… we survived.
Then see this discussion of the matter with all the shots of George Bush wearing his goofy bicycle helmet, which he wore all the time, because he preferred riding his bicycle here and there for hours a day to the tiresome business of details of foreign and domestic policy. Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld could take care of that stuff. But one can forgive Hannity. He was in a fix. Sarah Palin had already come up with that devastating quip about mom jeans and he had to come up with something. They’re a competitive bunch over there at Fox News. Roger Ailes might dump him and give Sarah Palin his slot – so the issue is Obama’s goofy bicycle helmet. Vladimir Putin doesn’t wear one of those, or a shirt either, and he rides horses and snowmobiles and probably tigers, not bicycles.
This is talk of iconography, like Marilyn Monroe not quite in that hot pink dress singing about how diamonds are a girl’s best friend, not substance, and Igor Bobic reports on the substance:
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) ratcheted up his rhetoric against President Barack Obama on Friday, accusing his administration of being “near delusional” in their assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces have occupied the Ukrainian Crimea.
“I think many things and I’ll try to be brief,” McCain told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC. “One is a fundamental understanding of Vladimir Putin. They have been near delusional in thinking the Cold War was over.”
“Maybe the President thinks the Cold War is over,” he added, “but Vladimir Putin doesn’t and that’s what this is all about.”
So forget the mom jeans and the goofy bicycle helmet, except for this:
If the Cold War never truly ended, it sure fooled former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the latter of which famously peered into Putin’s soul and proclaimed him “a very straight forward and trustworthy” man.
It also fooled John McCain, who faced off against Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
“The Cold War is over, the Soviet empire is gone and neither one is missed,” he once told a group of military veterans during the campaign.
Yeah, well, there’s that, but McCain is just angry, or still angry, that the country thought there could be something like thoughtful leadership. This was his told-you-so moment. He should have been president. He’d have nuked the bastards by now, or at least had them wondering if he might just do that. They’d be outta Crimea in a heartbeat. They’d have never tried to grab it. Dominance is everything. The Cold War never ended. He was just kidding back then.
Leon Wieseltier tries to help McCain out by arguing that Obama’s instinctive rationality and his odd belief that others share it, means he just cannot see the ambitions of Putin’s new Russia:
The lack of preparedness at the White House was not merely a weakness of policy but also a weakness of worldview. The president is too often caught off guard by enmity, and by the nastiness of things. There really is no excuse for being surprised by evil. There is also no excuse for projecting one’s good intentions, one’s commitment to reason, and one’s optimism about history, upon other individuals and other societies and other countries: narcissism is the enemy of empiricism, and we must perceive differences and threats empirically, lucidly, not with disbelief but with resolve. “Our opinions do not coincide,” Putin said after meeting with Obama last year. The sentence reverberates. That lack of coincidence is now a fact of enormous geopolitical significance.
In short, Obama thinks people think, and they don’t, and that misunderstanding is the result of Obama’s narcissistic arrogance, although Andrew Sullivan pushes back:
Opinions don’t coincide with almost all geo-political adversaries and even allies. That doesn’t mean that some common ground on the question of shared interests cannot also be reached, even as one retains no illusions about the underlying conflict.
Maybe that’s too complicated a notion, as Rich Lowry in this item says that Obama should have learned from the Bush era that Putin was not to be trusted, ever, at all:
Of all President George W. Bush’s failings, not giving the Russians a chance wasn’t one of them. He notoriously looked into the eyes of Russian president Vladimir Putin at the beginning of his presidency and saw sweetness and light. His illusions were shattered by the end, with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Bush woke up. Why can’t Obama? But Daniel Larison says that formulation is far too simplistic:
It is not possible to understand Russian behavior over the last ten years without acknowledging the extent to which U.S.-Russian relations were wrecked by several Western policies, chief among them being Bush’s push for missile defense in Eastern Europe and NATO expansion into the former USSR. If the Bush administration suffered from any illusions, it was that the U.S. could consistently goad and provoke Russia in its own region without consequences. By the end of Bush’s second term, that illusion was dispelled, and it was in order to repair the substantial damage that had been done in the previous five or six years that the U.S. successfully sought to find common interests with Russia.
Rich Lowry got it backwards. Bush is the one who wasn’t thinking and thus never woke up. Consistently goading and provoking Russia in its own region might have been great fun, a gleeful display of dominance, and was the bad idea that might be behind this Crimean crisis. Putin had had enough of that crap, and now Obama has to deal with the damage Bush did.
The Libya example alone cracks apart the case – no Realist would ever have committed American military power to save civilians in the service of a social revolution obviously unsettling to American interests.
The reason Obama has had liberal humanitarians like Power and Susan Rice on his foreign policy staff since his campaign, and throughout his presidency, is that he shares their ideological goals within the limits of what is practically attainable. Obviously, Obama is no George W. Bush. On the other hand, nobody else is George W. Bush, either. Most American presidents fall somewhere on the continuum between Bushian crusading moralism and Nixonian ruthlessness. Obama does, too.
Sullivan can only add this:
And yet Libya remains more of an exception than a rule. And Obama seems to have learned from its unintended consequences just how dangerous liberal internationalist impulses can be.
Yeah, liberal internationalist impulses can be a bitch, making things worse, sometimes, or most of the time, but then so can the impulse to grab what you can and let the other guy know that you just might wipe him out, and his whole pathetic country, if he even looks at you funny. Rudy Giuliani might have had his little orgasm watching Putin show what true leadership really is by “acting boldly and rapidly to assert his nation’s interests” – but you can make a lot of enemies that way. All-out war is next, and the last time Giuliani ran for president he spent a lot of money in the primaries and came away with all of one delegate to the Republican convention. Running as a proto-Putin did him no good at all. Republicans do prefer Putin, but only in the abstract, as a foil to Obama. They use Putin as a rhetorical device. They really don’t want to change the rules and make Vladimir Putin our president, for the same reason they’ll probably not nominate Ted Nugent for president. It’s just a way of talking about Real Men and Real Leadership, and mom jeans and bicycle helmets. And gentlemen really don’t prefer blondes either. By all accounts Marilyn Monroe was a pain in the ass – one messed-up woman.
Charles Krauthammer doesn’t think about ditzy blondes, however, as he knows what Obama got wrong:
Obama says Putin is on the wrong side of history and Secretary of State John Kerry says Putin’s is “really 19th-century behavior in the 21st century.” This must mean that seeking national power, territory, dominion – the driving impulse of nations since Thucydides – is obsolete – as if a calendar change caused a revolution in human nature that transformed the international arena from a Hobbesian struggle for power into a gentleman’s club where violations of territorial integrity just don’t happen.
The idea here is that Obama had better get his act together and out-Putin Putin, because, as Anita Loos knew, some things never change, although on this matter Andrew Sullivan isn’t so sure about that:
Is it possible things are just a little bit more complicated than that? It could be that the impulse for national power, territory, for dominion, is now not obsolete, but simply much more attenuated now than it once was (and that argument is easily compatible with Kerry’s phrase). And the case for that is pretty strong. I mean: if nations have one driving impulse – “seeking national power, territory, dominion” – and if the record shows no change or evolution in this eternal truth, how do we explain huge tranches of recent history?
Why on earth, for example, would European countries pool sovereignty in the EU? How could they be deluded into thinking that giving up “national power” could be a good thing? And why, for that matter, would this arrangement remain attractive to other countries as well, not least of which Ukraine? Why on earth did the US invade and conquer Iraq only to leave it a decade later? Why did we not seize the oil-fields with our military might to fuel our economy? What was Krauthammer’s hero, George W Bush, doing – singing hymns to human freedom rather than American hegemony?
Why, for that matter, have military incursions into other countries become rarer over time? Why has the level of inter-state violence in human affairs declined to historically low levels?
Sullivan is not impressed:
Even with Putin, I think it’s worth noting that his current Tsarist mojo is not exactly triumphalist. Krauthammer concedes as much:
“Crimea belonged to Moscow for 200 years. Russia conquered it 20 years before the U.S. acquired Louisiana. Lost it in the humiliation of the 1990s. Putin got it back in about three days without firing a shot.”
So this is less like Hitlerian aggression and more like a sad attempt to re-seize one tiny portion that was part of Russia proper far longer than it was “lost”. More to the point, Putin “got it back” only in the wake of Ukraine deposing its democratically-elected, Russophile leader in a violent, popular putsch. Yes, if your contention is that the desire for territory/dominion/power is “obsolete” you’re a fool. But if your contention is that this impulse plays a much less critical role in international affairs than in almost all previous periods in human history, you’d be merely making an empirical observation.
The world did change, to a new and odd global interdependence that Thucydides could never have imagined:
One reason we won’t see major armed conflict over Ukraine, for example, is because the Germans and Brits have too much to lose in terms of their economies – and Russia does too. In the end, economic power is the basis for military power. Economic power, in the global capitalist economy, is also related to soft power, to where human capital wants to go, and where money wants to flow. Becoming a global pariah is not good for that kind of thing – and it has a direct relationship to power as a whole. And one reason why Putin’s attempt to coerce Ukraine is not as win-win as Krauthammer suggests is that controlling and occupying countries by brute force is much more difficult than it used to be. The most advanced military machine in history occupied Iraq for a decade and lost. Ditto Afghanistan – for both the Soviets and the Americans. Ditto, for that matter, the Israelis on the West Bank. In each case, the occupying power’s cost-benefit analysis looks weaker than ever. And if Putin attempts to invade or annex Crimea, his headaches are sure to become even worse, as he manages Russia’s steep decline by beginning an armed conflict within what used to be the Soviet Union’s undisputed territory.
Sullivan then argues that our American collective memory has gotten in the way:
For many Americans and for Krauthammer, the key referent is the Second World War which America won with almost none of the devastating trauma experienced by Germany, Britain or the Soviet Union. But in Germany and Britain right now, the collective memory is much more indelibly that of the Great War, where small matters of territory – like Crimea – metastasized through miscalculation into a generational catastrophe.
All parties, and Obama, would like to avoid that, because the world did change:
In other words, power rests on money; and money rests on the global economy. Russia is able right now to get away with its somewhat lame attempt to annex Crimea because its core economy is so primitive and petro-based. But even then, its potential vulnerability to economic retaliation – through global trade and travel and finance – makes this a mug’s game at some point.
Putin, of course, may not see it this way. And understanding that is critical to dealing with him.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be a damned fool about it:
In the real world, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a huge defeat for the US. In the real world, permanently occupying the West Bank is national suicide. And in that sense, Putin is not a symbol of the world order reverting to its eternal nineteenth century dynamic. He is a symbol, in fact, of how that dynamic has ended, and how attempts to restart it are unlikely to result in the glorious military victories some still seem so eager to celebrate.
If so, then all the current Republican shouting that we really ought to have a president just like Vladimir Putin, and they’ll be more than happy to find one for us, is no more than nostalgia for the brutal simplicity of the Cold War, or the wars of Thucydides’ times. Swords and sandals and loincloths, and no mom jeans and goofy bicycle helmets! That would be so very cool, and we could jail the gays and any uppity all-girl punk-rock groups too. And there’s this – Not Cool: The Hipster Elite and Their War on You – the new book about how Cool people are destroying America “from within” – because “each day they pass judgment on those who don’t worship at the altar of their coolness” – and that’s oppression and persecution and cannot stand. Vladimir Putin would never stand for that. What a guy!
It’s an interesting argument, but everyone else has agreed that there is such a thing as thoughtful leadership, and it’s useful, and now essential. And by the way, gentlemen really don’t prefer blondes. Way back when, some of us thought Audrey Hepburn was pretty damned hot.