04 September 2014

Count the Cost Twice, Cut the Check Once: Foreign Policy in a World of Endless Problems

Frank Bruni has criticized President Obama for his "Messy Words." Obama recently said that "If you watch the nightly news it feels as though the world is falling apart," and then went on to say, "The world has always been messy," seemingly dismissing today's outrages with a nonchalance that offends Bruni. Bruni knows how horrific conditions are (he's one of our best, most conscientious reporters) and he wants something done.

McCain would like us to bomb all the bad guys. Bruni would like us to save all the innocents. Emotionally, I think they have the high ground. Practically, I think these responses drive us to at least two things: it gets us started on projects we've no hope of completing and it promises us an endless source of outrage and upset.

Woody Allen once quipped, "I can't enjoy a meal as long as I know someone, somewhere is starving."

There are a variety of topics that lend themselves to outrage. Right now. South Sudan is still a failed nation-state. It seems to me that there is no worse curse for people then to find themselves in such a state: institutions collapsed, crime rampant, hardly allowance for the basic needs much less ability to create jobs or hope. Gaza. Still. Ebola is spreading. In Libya and Syria innocent people are being slaughtered. Iraq is devolving into a mess. Putin seems to be toying with the idea of rebuilding the Soviet Union. And of course there are still plenty of obnoxious - even criminal - examples of sexism and racism in this country.

And I'm old enough to know something about this list. It changes but it never ends. You could maybe start all the projects suggested by such a list but you can pretty much guarantee that you won't finish them. Not during any one term, anyway.

I'm glad that we have people like Bruni to remind us that these sources of outrage and tragedy involve real people who we should really care about. I'm even glad for McCain's frequent reminders that we might bring justice to the bad guys. We do have a moral obligation to help. But quite honestly, I'm even more glad that we have a president so different in character from George W. Bush.

I like a little hesitancy and thought as prelude to projects as messy and uncertain as intervention in a foreign country. Whether it's marriage, having a child or intervening in a foreign country, it seems wise to hesitate before starting a project that might never end.

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