Sometimes it seems as if America is an outrage machine, fueled by Fox News and, on the radio everywhere, by Rush Limbaugh. Glenn Beck jumped in too, and now it’s Donald Trump. It’s somehow always the end of the world as we know it, and No-Drama Obama is the real problem. He actually may be a clever Anti-Colonialist Muslim Socialist, born somewhere overseas that most of us couldn’t locate on a map, and may have wormed his way into American power, using his smarmy wiles to charm and trick kind-hearted but gullible Americans into electing him their president – as someone once put it – and what can be more evil than that? His calm is just as galling. Outrage should be met with outrage. It’s just not right when it isn’t. That’s un-American.
Outrage, then, might be the most American of traits, or our defining trait, but there’s a problem when there’s just not enough stuff to be outraged about. All fires need fuel. Back in the sixties, the Vietnam War provided that fuel – the left was outraged, then after the Pentagon Papers were published, the center was too, although the shift started when Walter Cronkite stepped out of his usual role one memorable evening and told his national audience that this particular war was pointless. That was a tipping point. The mounting outrage finally ended that war. That’s cool, and a few years later Watergate provided a lot of fuel for outrage, even if that whole business took more than a year to unfold – but it finally unfolded and Nixon was gone. Outrage worked, but Bill Clinton’s dalliance with young Monica just wouldn’t do. Clinton was impeached over that, and cleared, after the nation had decided that Bill Clinton being a jerk wasn’t the same as his being outrageously evil. There was no general outrage. This was just incredibly bad judgment mixed with quite ordinary middle-aged-male horniness, and a younger willing partner. She was no angel.
Republicans paid a price for that impeachment. No one would ever take their outrage seriously again, or as seriously as they took whatever high crimes and misdemeanors they saw everywhere. Hillary Clinton didn’t murder Vince Foster with her bare hands, and now, at the end of the years of No-Drama Obama, everything we were told was outrageous turned out to be nothing much. The Fast and Furious gun-running scandal, an entrapment program designed to catch those who were arming all the nasty drug lords from the Rio Grande south to Tierra del Fuego, started under the Bush administration and actually worked pretty well. We hadn’t provided arms used to kill our own agents. The IRS scandal, where the IRS was targeting Tea Party organizations so they couldn’t get tax exempt status, wasn’t what it seemed – they were targeting organizations on the left too, and it was all done by rather confused low-level bureaucrats, badly too. Benghazi seems to have been a tragedy caused by a turf war between the CIA and the Department of State, over who was providing security that night. Obama never said let our ambassador and those three others die, because he wanted al-Qaeda to take over the world – it was just an organizational screw-up and such things can be fixed.
As for Obamacare, filter out all the angry shouting and you’re left with something quite innocuous – a way for millions more Americans to have the opportunity to purchase low-cost subsidized health insurance, from private for-profit third party underwriters, which is clearly not the end of the world as we know it. There’s no public option, some Medicare-for-all scheme. It’s not a single-payer scheme either. It’s hardly socialized medicine – there are no death panels, just millions of new customers for the private sector guys, with the government guaranteeing their premiums. That’s a sweet deal, so all that was once good and right about America will be safe, if funneling everything to the private sector, where private profit somehow equals public good, is what’s good and right about America.
That’s a judgment call, but Obama actually gave up on everything the progressives wanted. It was the only way he could get anything at all passed, and even then not one Republican voted for the thing. He had given them what they had insisted they wanted. He gave them Romney’s Massachusetts plan with the “individual mandate” that the Heritage Foundation had thought up years before, so there’d be no freeloaders playing games with the system. The Heritage Foundation hates Takers after all – but now every Republican candidate promises, if elected, to repeal Obamacare – every word of it – because it’s outrageous – and the nation shrugs, except for the Republican base. What’s the problem, or really, what’s their problem?
The nation had already shrugged at gay marriage. Where’s the outrage? If you have a problem with two people you don’t know marrying each other and settling down, six states away, you have far too much time on your hands – and by the way, Obama isn’t coming for your guns. He wants to tighten up the background-check process, so unstable jerks don’t arm up. If you’re not an unstable jerk what do you care? Hell, you might be safer – but then again you might be outraged by last year’s climate deal with China and this year’s big international climate deal in Paris, because there’s no such thing as global warming. Obama covered that in his State of the Union:
Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.
Be outraged if you want. You will be lonely, but you may be outraged we’re talking with the Cubans again, trying to work things out. Fine, be outraged, but what good did fifty-four years of not talking to them do? And yes, we reached a deal with Iran – they stop trying to build nukes and we lift sanctions, slowly, as everything is verified, for ten years. This doesn’t stop them from being troublemakers – it only removes one worry, a big one, for a decade – but it does remove that worry.
Where’s the outrage? We were never going to get them to love Israel and country music and Jesus – but for ten years they won’t be a nuclear threat. That ain’t exactly chopped liver, but now every Republican candidate promises, if elected, to tear up that deal. The Iranians will love Israel and country music and Jesus, or die, or something. Good luck with that. Not all Americans share the Republicans’ outrage. This was a good thing, even if it wasn’t everything. Ah well – those who want everything, right now, are prone to outrage. They throw tantrums. It’s best to ignore them. Parents know this.
Those prone to outrage, however, can always find something to latch onto, and the day of Obama’s State of the Union it was this:
A crisis over the seizing of two American patrol boats in the Persian Gulf was averted Wednesday when Iran returned the craft and released their crews as Pentagon officials struggled to explain how the boats had ended up near a major Iranian naval base.
Their quick release was hailed by the Obama administration as an unintended benefit of the new diplomatic relationship with Iran established by the nuclear accord negotiated between Tehran and the United States and five other nations in July. The accord is expected to go into effect next week, ending the oil and financial sanctions imposed on Iran over the past decade, and giving it access to around $100 billion in frozen funds.
Thanking the Iranians for their cooperation, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that “we can all imagine how a similar situation might have played out three or four years ago.”
This was nothing much. Our guys, and one woman, goofed, the Iranians agreed, and sent them back to us almost immediately, and returned the boats too. Diplomacy works:
Mr. Kerry negotiated the release in at least five phone calls with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister. Senior American officials described the American-educated Mr. Zarif as clearly worried that the episode could sink the nuclear accord on which he and President Hassan Rouhani have staked their legacies.
Mr. Kerry, one of his top aides said, in essence told Mr. Zarif at one point that “if we are able to do this in the right way, we can make this into what will be a good story for both of us.”
That’s it. That’s the whole story, but for this:
It is still not clear how much influence Mr. Zarif had over the events: The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has been engaged in an open power struggle with Mr. Rouhani’s government. It is still not clear who decided to release the sailors.
There is a second shadow government over there, with guns, which complicates matters, but this was our problem:
Even as Mr. Kerry was describing the release on Wednesday morning, American military officials were offering new explanations about how the two 49-foot patrol boats, formally called riverine command boats, had ended up in Iranian territorial waters while cruising from Kuwait to Bahrain. After first suggesting that a mechanical failure had disabled at least one of the boats, they acknowledged that there was no mechanical problem. Both boats were returned to the United States under their own power, leaving Pentagon officials to untangle the chain of events that led to the episode.
But they could not explain how the military had lost contact with not one but both of the boats. Several officials noted that the crew members were relatively young, junior enlisted sailors. They were commanded by a lieutenant, and Iranian government-controlled television was playing video on Wednesday of one of the sailors, apparently the lieutenant, apologizing for entering Iranian territorial waters.
“It was a mistake; that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake,” the sailor said. “My navigation system showed I was in Iranian waters but I made a mistake and entered.”
A Defense Department official said that the Navy lieutenant’s filmed apology was probably intended to defuse a potentially volatile situation. There are military rules of engagement that advise American prisoners of war to disclose as little information as possible to their captors. But the United States and Iran are not at war, and such rules would not apply, the official said.
So no harm, no foul, and a bit more care is called for:
“The Iran story is frankly embarrassing,” said one senior Defense Department official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments. “We still do not know all of the facts, but these guys and gal apparently were just poor mariners.”
But that didn’t matter:
An alternative account came from Senator John McCain of Arizona and other Republicans. Mr. McCain said the argument “that the Iranian nuclear deal somehow aided in these sailors’ return is ludicrous,” adding, “These sailors were ‘arrested’ in apparent violation of international law and centuries of maritime custom and tradition” because their boat was in distress.
“This administration’s craven desire to preserve the dangerous Iranian nuclear deal at all costs evidently knows no limit,” Mr. McCain said.
What’s his problem? At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jay Bookman explains the problem:
In his final State of the Union address last night, President Obama cautioned his fellow Americans against would-be leaders who want to respond to the rest of the world with only “tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians,” who seek to gain political advantage by exaggerating the threats against us and by instilling fear rather than confidence in the American people.
“That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately will weaken us,” Obama warned. “It’s the lesson of Vietnam. It’s the lesson of Iraq, and we should have learned it by now.”
As it happens, fate had arranged a little real-life demonstration of Obama’s point, playing out even as he spoke.
That didn’t matter:
Marco Rubio called the Iranian action “provocative, absolutely,” concluding that “You’re only going to see a continued pattern of provocation, as long as a weak president like Barack Obama is in the White House.”
“If our sailors aren’t coming home yet, they need to be now,” Jeb Bush said. “No more bargaining. Obama’s humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton called it “an openly hostile action” by Iran, which of course implies the need for an openly hostile response by the United States. And Ted Cruz called it “the latest manifestation of the weakness of Barack Obama,” complaining that “our enemies don’t fear us.”
Yeah, right, as Bookman notes:
The only people who ended up embarrassed in the situation were those who had rushed immediately to judgment, demanding an aggressive U.S. response that might have touched off an equally aggressive response by the Iranians.
And let’s put this into historic context. Obama didn’t buy back our sailors with secret shipments of missiles and other weapons, as President Reagan did in attempting to recover Americans held hostage by the Iranians a generation ago. Our sailors weren’t held for almost two weeks by the Iranians, with their ships dismantled and held hostage until what amounted to a ransom was paid, as occurred in an incident involving the Chinese and an American spy plane under President George W. Bush.
Instead, they were released promptly and respectfully. If this outcome is “just an indication of where the hell we’re going,” as Donald Trump angrily described it, then we seem to be going to a somewhat more sane and thoughtful approach to international relations.
Heather Parton adds this:
The only thing the right wingers have left is a rumor that the US “apologized” for straying into Iranian waters which they are convinced is tantamount to waving the white flag of surrender. Kerry’s office says he didn’t, but it’s possible that the commander of the American ship did. But whatever.
These right wingers are sounding more and more like gangsters every day and I wonder what they’re teaching their children.
Considering their reaction to events like this I have to assume they’re saying their kids have a right to do anything they want and if for some reason they break any rules they have no obligation to say they’re sorry and should probably hit whomever it is who’s calling them to account for it. And to think they used to be called “the grown-ups.”
Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, was also not amused:
While the sailors were in Iranian custody, however, President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech and the 2016 campaign proceeded apace, which meant that a number of prominent Americans felt free to vent their spleen about the matter on camera and on Twitter…
Jeb Bush – “If our sailors aren’t coming home yet, they need to be now. No more bargaining. Obama’s humiliatingly weak Iran policy is exposed again.”
Tom Cotton – “@POTUS should nullify the nuclear deal if Iran doesn’t release U.S. sailors immediately.”
Donald Trump – “Iran toys with U.S. days before we pay them, ridiculously, billions of dollars. Don’t release money. We want our hostages back NOW!”
While Donald Trump gets points for tweeting this after Iran had returned the U.S. sailors, I do believe that MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough wins the prize for most over-the-top silliness on Twitter by a Very Serious Person – “It’s hard to overstate how foolish Iran keeps making our president look.” And then this – “Hey Iran, you have exactly 300 days left to push a US president around. Enjoy it while you can. After that, there will be hell to pay.”
I’d like to ask Joe Scarborough a question: Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, you overreacted a wee bit? That maybe, the next time something like this happens, it would be a good idea to count to 10 slowly, think about the situation a little bit and then respond?
No, outrage is too easy, and it feels so damned good. That’s why Trump is running away with the Republican nomination. He never waits ten seconds. That’s why folks love him, but Zack Beauchamp at Vox adds this:
Wednesday morning, Iran – as expected – released the American sailors. What does that say about the idea that American “weakness” is encouraging Iranian aggression?
To find out, I called up Robert Farley, a professor of international relations at the University of Kentucky. … In our phone call, he explained why the theory claiming that signals of American “strength” are the only way to deter enemies is fatally flawed.
“You’re just trying to say that you’re strong,” Farley explained, “but the other state may just think that you’re being an asshole.”
A conversation followed:
ZB: Does signaling “weakness” through diplomatic overture actually embolden Iran – or China and Russia, for that matter?
RF: It makes a certain amount of sense – as long as you don’t look at most of the evidence. If Iran had not, in fact, seized sailors in 2007, and we didn’t have clear evidence that Iran had done this kind of thing before, then maybe it would kind of make a little bit of face sense. “Oh, look, they took our sailors, and they took them right before the State of the Union, so that must be an indication of weakness.”
If we apply this to Russia as well – and the same crew [of pundits and politicians] does – we somehow demonstrated weakness and thus invited a Russian invasion of Ukraine [in 2014]. But again, this only makes sense if you don’t remember that Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.
Again with the Chinese. As long as you don’t remember that China knocked down one of our airplanes in 2001, it makes sense to say that the things they’re doing today are because of American weakness. It all depends on a very willful ignorance about the behavior of all of these countries in the very recent past.
Farley knows bullshit when he sees it:
All of the recent scholarship, going back the past 15 or 20 years, has said that there are dreadful empirical and even some theoretical problems with the “weakness” theory. What scholars have found is that when states try to send messages of strength, like these are supposed to be, other states just don’t understand them. That it’s very hard to send fine-tuned messages to other states: You’re just trying to say that you’re strong, but the other state may just think that you’re being an asshole…
Trying to carefully calibrate a message that says “We’re tough and resolute, but we’re not dicks” is really hard for states to understand. There’s this incentive to lie all the time, on both sides.
There are also some psychological reasons that states just don’t interpret the messages they’re sent in the way that they should be interpreted. Nobody “owns” their own message. Other people get a right to interpret it, and they’re not going to interpret it in the way that you want them to. If they want to believe that we’re incorrigibly aggressive, then they’ll see our actions as being incorrigibly aggressive.
If, on the other hand, they want to believe that we’re a paper tiger, they’ll see it exactly as you say: compensating for weakness.
In short, throwing tantrums never works the way you want, but in reaction to Obama, in his State of the Union, saying that the United States can’t try to rebuild every country that falls into crisis – “the lesson of Iraq” as he put it – at the National Review Bing West threw his tantrum:
That is insulting to all who fought. What does Mr. Obama say to the families who lost a loved one: they died in a quagmire that weakened us? The lesson of Iraq is that after American troops achieved stability, Mr. Obama quit, leading to a larger war and more American deaths.
That set off Kevin Drum:
Jesus, this pisses me off. Are conservatives ever willing to take responsibility for anything? They destroy the economy and then spend eight years bitching and whining because it’s taking Obama so long to dig out of the hole they dug. They sit around spouting tough talk about their “Axis of Evil” but do nothing to stop North Korea and Iran from developing nuclear programs – and then go ballistic when Obama finally does something about it. And after merrily dragging us into the stupidest and most disastrous war in recent memory, they’ve spent every year since then desperately trying to pin blame for the aftermath on Obama.
They’re like small children, ruining everything they touch because the world is a big playground that they govern with their guts instead of their brains. Then they throw temper tantrums when the adults come along and try to clean up the messes they’ve made.
Calling Iraq by its true name is no insult to anyone. The insult is that people like Bing West were willing to throw American troops into a killing field because they had to take out their post-9/11 rage on someone, and Iraq was handy. It’s time to grow up, Bing. You can’t remain a child forever, blaming your mistakes on everyone but yourself.
That about sums it up – those ten sailors on those two boats screwed up. We screwed up, and then we worked things out. The Iranians now have an incentive to act like adults, so they did. We have an adult as president, and another as secretary of state. And we have our perpetually outraged Republicans, but kids do not have a right to do anything they want, and if for some reason they break any rules, then have no obligation to say they’re sorry, and then get to hit anyone who calls them to account. It doesn’t work that way, or hasn’t worked that way since the Bush years, or won’t work that way until President Trump takes office.