I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column. News of Russia’s proposal for Syria to surrender its poison gas was just breaking and changing every hour, forcing me to rewrite my column every hour. To clear my head, I went for a walk along the Aare River, on Schifflaube Street. Along the way, I found a small grocery shop and stopped to buy some nectarines. As I went to pay, I was looking down, fishing for my Swiss francs, and when I looked up at the cashier, I was taken aback: He had pink hair. A huge shock of neon pink hair — very Euro-punk from the ’90s. While he was ringing me up, a young woman walked by, and he blew her a kiss through the window — not a care in the world.
Observing all this joie de vivre, I thought to myself: “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to be a Swiss? Maybe even to sport some pink hair?” Though I can’t say for sure, I got the feeling that the man with pink hair was not agonizing over the proper use of force against Bashar Assad. Not his fault; his is a tiny country. I guess worrying about Syria is the tax you pay for being an American or an American president — and coming from the world’s strongest power that still believes, blessedly in my view, that it has to protect the global commons. Barack Obama once had black hair. But his is gray now, not pink. That’s also the tax you pay for thinking about the Middle East too much: It leads to either gray hair or no hair, but not pink hair.
Well, bring on the Grecian Formula, because our leaders will need it. My big take-away from the whole Syria imbroglio is that — with Europe ailing, China AWOL and the Arab world convulsing — for an American president to continue to lead will require more help from Vladimir Putin, because our president will get less help from everyone else, including the American people. Everyone is focusing on Obama’s unimpressive leadership in this crisis, but for my money the two main players who shaped the outcome — in ways that would not have been predicted but will have huge long-term implications — were Putin and the American people. Obama got blindsided by both. What does it tell us?
The fact that Americans overwhelmingly told Congress to vote against bombing Syria for its use of poison gas tells how much the divide on this issue in America was not left versus right but top versus bottom. Intervening in Syria was driven by elites and debated by elites. It was not a base issue. I think many Americans could not understand why it was OK for us to let 100,000 Syrians die in a civil war/uprising, but we had to stop everything and bomb the country because 1,400 people were killed with poison gas. I and others made a case why, indeed, we needed to redraw that red line, but many Americans seemed to think that all we were doing is drawing a red line in a pool of blood. Who would even notice?
Many Americans also understood that when it came to our record in the Arab/Muslim world since 9/11, we were 0 for 3. Afghanistan seems headed for failure; whatever happens in Iraq, it was overpaid for; and Libya saw a tyrant replaced by tribal wars. I also think a lot of people look at the rebels in Syria and hear too few people who sound like Nelson Mandela — that is, people fighting for the right to be equal citizens, not just for the triumph of their sect or Shariah.
It’s why John McCain’s soaring interventionist rhetoric was greeted with a “No Sale.” I also think the public picked up on Obama’s ambivalence — his Churchillian, this-must-not-stand rhetoric, clashed with his “On second thought, I’m going to ask Congress’ permission before I make a stand, and I won’t call lawmakers back from vacation to do so.” The bombing was going to be bigger than a “pinprick” but also “unbelievably small.” It just did not add up.
Finally, there was an “Are you kidding?” question lurking beneath it all — a sense that with middle-class incomes stagnating, income gaps widening and unemployment still pervasive for both for white- and blue-collar workers, a lot of Americans were asking: “This is the emergency you are putting before Congress? Syria? Really? This is the red line you want to draw? I’m out of work, but this Syria thing is what shall not stand?”
As for Putin, if he had not intervened with his proposal to get Syria to surrender all its chemical weapons, Obama would have had to either bomb Syria without congressional approval or slink away. So why did Putin save Obama? In part, no doubt, because he felt the only way he could save his client, the Syrian president, was by also saving the American president. But the bigger factor is that Putin really wants to be seen as a big, relevant global leader. It both feeds his ego and plays well with his base. The question now is: With the American people sidelined and Putin headlined, can we leverage Putin’s intervention to join us in also forging a cease-fire in Syria and maybe even move on to jointly try to end the Iran nuclear crisis.
I agree with Obama on this: No matter how we got here, we’re in a potentially better place. So let’s press it. Let’s really test how far Putin will go with us. I’m skeptical, but it’s worth a try. Otherwise, Obama’s hair will not just be turned gray by the Middle East these next three years, he’ll go bald.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.MORE IN Election Letters
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