Op-ed: The great humiliation

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, January 17, 2016 4:27pm
  • Opinion

The Obama administration was right when it insisted that the capture and release of 10 American sailors by Iran showed the benefits of a cooperative relationship with Tehran.

The crux of the arrangement is simple: The Iranians agree to humiliate us (and pursue their long war against the United States and their hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East), and we agree not to care. It is, as Secretary of State John Kerry says, diplomacy at its best.

What Vice President Joe Biden called “standard nautical practice” involved the Iranians making our sailors get on their knees on their captured boats, eliciting an apology from the commander, and photographing and videotaping all of it to broadcast for propaganda purposes — in clear violation of international law.

This obviously wasn’t another Carter-era Iranian hostage crisis (it wasn’t even a hostage crisis), but it was another national humiliation to add to a sour public mood that President Barack Obama doesn’t get, let alone understand his own role in creating.

His State of the Union address was devoted to a pep talk for the country that did more to demonstrate that he is out of touch — an occupational hazard for late-second-term presidents — than that anyone is wrong to feel pessimistic.

Yes, the economy has had a long recovery, but it has been slow and weak and, by some measures, hasn’t been felt in much of the country. Yes, we are the most powerful nation on Earth, but our adversaries, from Vladimir Putin to ISIS to Iran, have been gaining and are eager to demonstrate our toothlessness — in the case of ISIS, with spectacular acts of evil.

The president’s version of world events in the State of the Union was particularly wan. He touted the marginal gains against ISIS without coming to grips with the catastrophes that made its rise possible; he boasted of the Iran nuclear deal, with nary a hint that the pact hasn’t moderated Iranian behavior as hoped; and he spoke as though “partnering with local forces and leading international efforts” in Syria is an effective response to that country’s hellish meltdown.

True to form, in what was supposed to be a visionary speech, Obama continually took ill-disguised shots at his potential Republican successors, Donald Trump foremost among them. He scolded the 2016 GOP field for its fear, cheap sound bites and pandering.

There is all of that, of course — it is a primary campaign, after all — but there also is a deeper disgust with the direction of our country and the failures of its institutions, and a yearning for something better.

The president can wave off the discontent Trump in particular is tapping into as ill-informed or distorted, but an overwhelming majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. It isn’t just the right. The embodiment of the left-wing reaction to this discontent, Bernie Sanders, is drawing enormous crowds and threatening to defeat Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire. The president’s line that “anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction” could have easily been directed at the Vermont socialist.

The day after the State of the Union, the images from Iran emerged to provide a picture worth more than President Obama’s 6,000 words.

The president has actively sought America’s diminishment abroad. For him, this is a shrewd play that avoids costly entanglements and makes us stronger. But there is no doubt that we are less respected and feared around the world. The public feels it, and doesn’t like it.

President Obama may fancy himself above the old Thucydides trinity of motives — honor, interest and fear — but most people aren’t. Many of them, as a certain presidential candidate puts it, want to win again.

They look at the photographs and videos of those American sailors, and it feels like a punch in the gut. The Obama administration looks at them and says to the Iranians, thank you very much.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

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