According to their best laid plans, many of the fresh faces on President Obama’s new foreign policy team seek to restore America’s image abroad back to its former good graces. They believe that by shutting down Gitmo, scurrying out of Iraq, engaging with enemies and saving the whales, then all will be well with the world again, and the awful legacy of George W. Bush will truly be a thing of the past.
On paper, and in power point presentations, all this looks plausible and reassuring -mathematical, well-thought- out and rational. It is policy done by extrapolation and computer models, a very 21st century approach. Obama, the smart and cautious One, will guide them through from one stepping stone to another, until the promised land of goodwill and lasting peace is in sight. But I wonder if this is nothing but a throwback to 19th century political positivism - a system of thought thoroughly discredited by the butcheries of the great world wars and the collapsing empires of the last century.
Wars, elections and stock markets, however, are sometimes irrational. Sometimes, if you build it, they shall come and burn it down.
For how else is one to explain that a little less than a week after the election, Arab and Middle Eastern commentators are up in arms over something that was not said by either Obama or his new chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, but rather a sentence uttered by Emanuel’s father that has been be taken to be an introduction to Obama’s new and insulting approach to Arabs? Dr. Benjamin Emanuel reportedly told Ma’ariv newspaper that his son would be pro-Israel, for "Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House." Now, I don’t know how it all sounded in Hebrew, but it seems innocuous enough: Of course Rahm will be helpful towards Israel, for he’s Jewish after all, not an Arab, and his position would be beneficial towards Israel, for he’s going to be the COS, not a janitor.
But the Arab world chose to hear those worlds as “Arabs are not fit to wipe the floors of the White House”—and it has spread like a bush fire, being mistaken on purpose by those who want to see the worst in America, as the official line of the new Obama administration: Arabs need not apply.
Welcome to an irrational world, President Obama.
David Brooks captured something of the truth when he described the post-boomer generation and social caste that Obama belongs to and that propelled him to power, and now crowds around him at the helm. In his far-sighted November 3 column titled ‘A Date with Scarcity’, Brooks warns that a generation that had it too easy will find itself in the uncomfortable situation of dealing with too many variables that don’t make too much sense, like an economy that refuses to resuscitate.
Pundits are scrambling to find a name for this generation - some went as far as to call the younger component of this demographic ‘Generation O’, after Obama - but I lump them all under the moniker of the veal calf generation. They are the new ruling class whose habits and quirks were subversively ridiculed by the book (and website) Stuff White People Like: A soft and self-righteous generation that is likely to find scarcity at home and chaos abroad; a sheltered generation that tested its ideas on fellow wonks at symposia, yet may end up face to face with an unruly and angry mob; one slip-up and the mob will turn. Ivy League smarts don’t work well with mobs, a different kind of smarts, thuggish, instinctual and flexible, may just save one’s life.
As Brooks sees it, the veal calves are not ready. Nothing has prepared them for a world of messiness. And their reaction will be to blame others usually those who came before, and that will be it, for when faced with adversity they will likely wither up , lacking the grit and commitment to follow through.
Factoring in irrationality as an established pattern is counter-intuitively difficult, maybe even impossible, for them. But that shall be the Middle East that they shall encounter: one where dwindling oil revenue drives regimes to more desperate methods of control; a region with jihadists running amok and starting fires of their own; ruling dynasties transitioning power to new and untested heirs; and thugs like Russia and China arm twisting their way to domination.
The Middle East is trending toward the chaotic and irrational, and question is, can the rookies on Obama’s new team even understand it, let alone lay plans for fixing it?
We don’t know how much clout they’ll have, but from the look of it, and the subdued nervousness of the old hands of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment, the rookies have Obama’s ear for now.