Crimea River

There is no monopoly in common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

— Sting, “Russians”

The post-911 world is some sort of demented wonderland populated by Muslim extremists, increasingly unpredictable and dangerously weird North Korean dictators, and petty despots so determined to cling to power that they would rather commit genocide with poison gas and barrel bombs than risk even the slightest whiff of democracy in their countries. And let us not forget the rise of “moderates” in Iran who appear finally to be ready to negotiate a reduction in its nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions. In this topsy-turvy new world order, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russian troops into the Crimea is an almost refreshing return to the geopolitics of the Cold War.

Putin has made no secret of his desire to restore Russia to the level of international power it held before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet era he has been adept in using “soft power” in the form of Russia’s huge energy reserves and bribes barely disguised as loans to keep the former Soviet republics in the Russian orbit and beyond the influence of the West. Indeed, even the most powerful member of the European Union, Germany, can only push Russia so far, as it too is dependent upon Russian natural gas to power its economy.

For its part, the United States has few cards to play in this crisis. With a nation weary of and bloodied by thirteen years of war, and a Congress unable to agree upon the day of the week, President Obama is not about to commit military forces to moving Putin out of the Crimea. So instead, he must rely upon diplomacy and threats to freeze visas and assets of Russian individuals. Putin undoubtedly knew that he had the stronger position than his American counterpart; and this emboldened him to invade the Crimea.

Putin has been careful to describe his move into the Crimea as a defensive action to protect the lives and interests of the Russian-speaking minority in the region; and he has assured anyone who will listen that he has no designs upon the rest of Ukraine. But make no mistake: Putin is sending a strong signal to Ukraine and its newly-installed and terribly weak government in Kiev. Like Glenn Close’s unforgettable Alex Forrest in the 1987 film “Fatal Attraction,” Putin wants Ukraine to know that Russia will not be ignored.

It is incredibly fortunate that thus far there have been no violent altercations between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the Crimea. It would, however, be foolish to rely upon the continued good sense of commanders on the ground to avoid disaster. While it is true that no one is worried that the current crisis will escalate into a nuclear confrontation, we should not forget that a century ago, a devastating global war ignited from what began as a regional conflict (which also happened to involve Russia).

Reagan, Thatcher, and the other great Cold Warriors of the West are now gone; and one would be hard-pressed to find any current president or prime minister of their stature who can oppose Putin and assert the leadership that could inspire the people in struggling democracies like that of Ukraine, and remind tyrants everywhere that their days are numbered.

Barack Obama may have won the Nobel Peace Prize; but in the global game of chess with Vladimir Putin, he is being schooled by a true Grandmaster.

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I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People (Don’t) Like Me!

Mitt Romney must feel as if he has truly entered the Twilight Zone, or that he is Stewart Smalley’s evil twin.  He is accomplished, intelligent, (sometimes) well-spoken, attractive, focused, determined, and very, very rich.  His opponents for the Republican nomination include a brilliant, but erratic and irascible former Speaker of the House, a conservative zealot trying to revive a derailed political career, and a libertarian maverick.  By any stretch of the conventional political imagination, Romney should be the poster child for a resounding victory against a weakened incumbent Democrat in November.  (What would the late GOP strategist Lee Atwater have done with a hand of cards like these?)  And yet…he seems unable to close the deal.  Or rather, the Republican rank and file just do not seem to be convinced that he is the man to lead them to the Promised Land of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Indeed, the latest polls of Republican voters place former Senator Rick “Sweater vest” Santorum ahead of Romney. How can this be so?  By most accounts, Romney has done just about everything right in his pursuit to become the standard-bearer for the Republican Party: he has piles of money, a disciplined organization, and a message that should resonate in hard economic times.  (And he has fabulous hair!)  To be sure, he as made some foolish statements; but to my knowledge he has neither said nor done anything that has made him unelectable.  Some say that the reason for the unease about Romney is that he is “not conservative enough.”  Others think that there may be a lingering prejudice against Mormons.  (I suspect, however, that these may be the same people who persist in believing that President Obama is a Muslim.)  Still others maintain that Romney’s capitalist success story has made it impossible for him to comprehend the plight of the struggling middle and lower classes of American society.  I do not pretend to have an answer for this baffling state of affairs.  Many people with bigger brains and even bigger paychecks are working around the clock on this one.  I have little doubt that the Romney Machine will find a way into the hearts — as well as the minds — of the GOP faithful.  The Man from Massachusetts may get a little bloody, and his perfectly pressed shirt and blue jeans may show a bit of mud from the campaign trail; but he will capture the nomination — and perhaps even the respect and devotion of his fellow Republicans. But Romney may find the 2012 Election to be the “dark, drizzly November of [his] soul.”  Why?  He just might win.  As the old adage goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.”

Little Barry Gets A Gold Star

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free

Now that ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it

Lemme tell ya, them guys ain’t dumb

Maybe get a blister on your little finger

Maybe get a blister on your thumb

— Dire Straits, “Money For Nothing”

I would like to thank the Nobel Committee for forcing me out of my long hiatus from my duties as a blogger.  I could not have imagined a greater gift that its decision to award the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace to President Barack Obama.  H. L. Mencken is most assuredly spinning in his grave.

I must have missed something in the last nine months of the Obama presidency.  Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended?  Have the Israelis and Palestinians committed themselves to peaceful coexistence?  Have Iran and North Korea given up their ambitions to become (overtly, at least) nuclear states?  Has the genocide in Darfur ceased?  No?  Then why did Obama win what is arguably the most important and recognizable prize in the world?

My liberal friends and other Obama sycophants insist that the President’s actual achievements in the area of world peace are far less important than his potential to do good.  (I wish I could get my credit card company to accept that logic: surely my potential to pay my bill means more to them than getting a silly check from me every month.)

Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I was under the impression that the Nobel Prize was awarded to people who had actually done something in the area for which they were being recognized.  Some of Obama’s predecessors in the Oval Office have amassed an impressive record for peace–and they did not get the Nobel Prize for their efforts.  For instance, Jimmy Carter brought Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to the negotiating table. (Sadat and Begin won the 1978 Prize.  Carter eventually won the Prize in 2002.)  Ronald Reagan restarted nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviets and pushed Mikhail Gorbachev to unleash democracy in the former Soviet Union and its satellites.  (Gorbachev won the 1990 Prize.)  Bill Clinton hammered out peace in Northern Ireland and got Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands on the White House lawn.  (Arafat, Rabin, and Shimon Peres won the 1994 Prize.  Bill is, I am sure, actively campaigning to get the Prize before Hillary does.)  Even Presidential also-ran Al Gore managed to finally win something: the 2007 Prize.

To be sure, achieving peace anywhere in the world–or even down the block–is an elusive and frustrating goal; and prior Administrations could not and did not accomplish everything that they might have desired.  And President Obama faces challenges that his predecessors could not have imagined in their worst nightmares of global Armageddon.  Be that as it may, he has not yet met what should be a very high standard to join such exclusive company.

Awarding Obama the Nobel Prize for his potential as a peacemaker is disturbingly similar to the current practice of giving children prizes, certificates, etc. for just about anything that they do.  (I mean, how ridiculous is kindergarten graduation?)  Greater minds than mine have proposed that this ready availability of praise cheapens its value and creates an expectation that merely showing up merits getting an award.  Hard work, sacrifice, and determination are dismissed as unnecessary or even foolish.  Obama, of course, could not have achieved such amazing success before reaching age 50 had he subscribed to this point of view.  But accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace now ironically contradicts the amazing and (I admit) inspiring narrative of his life.

President Obama should do the right thing and refuse the Nobel Prize for Peace.  I am pretty sure that he will get another crack at it.

You Can’t Come Home Again

“It’s a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers—you are the Indian.” – James Baldwin

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to enter his own home last week marks the official end of the post-racial honeymoon that followed the election of President Barack Obama.  Black is now the same old Black, especially if you are also male.

Professor Gates’ humiliating ordeal flooded my mind with memories of several incidents that happened to me during my undergraduate years at Yale and doctoral study at Princeton.  And like Gates, I was utterly stunned because in each case I was part of an elite academic and cultural community and believed (foolishly, it turned out) that my race no longer mattered.

The episode that came to mind immediately when I heard about the Gates incident occurred while I was in graduate school at Princeton University.  The year was 1988; and I was a first-year student in the Department of History.  I was at the time the Department’s only student of color and one of only four students of color who chose to live in the Graduate College, a magnificent Gothic edifice at the edge of campus.  Situated next to a golf course, the GC, as we called it, was peaceful, majestic, and a marvelous place to engage in the life of the mind.  I loved it.

One evening after dinner, I escorted a friend, a young White woman studying political science, back to her room.  Upon reaching that destination, we stood outside her door for several minutes and talked—about what I no longer remember.  While we were standing there, a uniformed Princeton University Public Safety officer approached, handed us a flier, and said that there had been several recent assaults on campus.  The officer then went on his way, presumably to hand out more fliers.  My friend and I looked at the handbill and simultaneously laughed at the description of the alleged assailant: “black male with dark complexion.”  I even remember saying something like, “Why, this describes me!”  We laughed some more, and I bid my friend good night.  I then returned to my room to finish my reading assignments for the next day’s classes.  About half an hour later, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it and discovered my friend.  She looked deeply troubled, and I invited her in immediately.

“Darryl,” she said, “Public Safety just left my room. They sent someone to see if I was okay.  They wanted to know who you were and where you lived.”  She did not tell them anything and, knowing my friend as I did, I am sure that she gave the Public Safety officers a piece of her mind.  We deduced that for some reason the officer handing out the handbills must have thought it strange that we were having a conversation in the hallway.  (Why?  Who knows what thoughts lurk in the minds of those who wear the badge.)  He might even have heard my comment about the vague description of the suspect in the assaults.  Whatever it was that got his spider-sense tingling, he acted on it.

My friend was horrified by what had happened and kept saying how sorry she was.  I was conflicted.  Of course, I wanted campus security to do its job.  What if the dark-skinned person the officer had seen with my friend had been someone who meant to harm her?  He followed his instinct and had been wrong.  But maybe the next time he did so would save someone’s life.  Maybe mine.

I comforted my friend as best I could.  I think I even made a joke, saying that if I had been arrested, I would not have to finish all of the reading I had to do for class the next day.  Inside, though, I was deeply hurt.  It was not the first time that my identity—my belonging—had been called into question by policemen; and I knew that it would not be the last.  What pained me more was the cruel realization that my Ivy League education and all of its purported advantages had not—and could not—shield me from racism, be it targeted or casual.

The experience of Professor Gates is an unwelcome but necessary reminder that though African Americans and other peoples of color have made impressive strides in American society, we always have to worry if the keys to the kingdom will actually unlock the doors before us.  Because if they do not (and sometimes even if they do), someone else might call the police.