As the Washington Post’s Chuck Lane explains in this issue of World Affairs, Barack Obama’s comfortable foreign policy approval ratings will likely diminish the standing of foreign policy in the debates that will lead us to our choice in November 2012. To most that will seem ironic, given that in the last election cycle this issue was front and center for candidate McCain, who famously called candidate Obama “dangerous” to the nation’s security in a campaign that was dominated by war, withdrawal from war, “torture,” proliferation, terrorism, the Patriot Act, and related topics bearing on matters beyond our borders. Yet four years later, we find the president’s potential Republican opponents generally mute on these issues, largely because the president wisely abandoned some bad ideas, reversed himself here and there, and adopted not a few Bush policies he’d condemned in the 2008 campaign. With the political tables turned, and the GOP left grasping for foreign policy differences that will resonate with voters, it seems likely these issues will invite less attention than during the last campaign—perhaps negating a traditional advantage for the GOP. Then again, this might be a lucky thing for the eventual Republican nominee, since his or her foreign policy resume will be comparatively thin, given the president’s experience and accomplishments since taking office.
If they survive the winter, the Occupy Wall Street protests may cast their own shadow over the electoral choice ahead, particularly since the president appears to have given a backhanded endorsement to the protesters’ agenda. The attention on OWS has struck me as somewhat excessive, especially given their modest numbers and their inchoate views—not to mention their inability to get beyond agitprop sloganeering in their attempts to say what’s on their minds. On the other hand, the OWS message of urgent discontent over the nation’s fiscal arrangements has struck a nerve, so we asked two frequent contributors, P. J. O’Rourke (in Washington) and James Kirchick (in Prague) to take a closer look. In these two excellent pieces, P. J. discovers that the OWS business is all refreshingly American, while Jamie, from his perch in Europe, discovers that it’s all disturbingly European.
World Affairs also offers three takes on the seasonal changes (spring? winter?) in the post-revolutionary Middle East. And another knowledgeable contributor, Michael Zantovsky, the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (who writes as literately on international affairs as any analyst) meditates on the eternal return of diplomatic failure that has come to characterize what no one can still believe is a Mideast “peace process.” These four articles are rich in insight and intelligence, and while they may not always offer hope for the near term, they offer understanding that may make the long term seem less threatening.
NPR’s Tom Gjelten offers an interesting and optimistic piece on the consequential recent developments in the natural gas industry, which appear destined to rearrange the global energy power and dependence structure in ways that will diminish the leverage exercised by the world’s energy exporters—too many of whom are enemies of democracy and decency. This is a good thing.
Last year ended with the deaths of two giants. The space in this world that Christopher Hitchens filled so brilliantly and so fully is now forever empty, and we’re left to contemplate it in an echoing silence. There was no better conversationalist, no better provocateur, no better essayist, and no more alert, erudite, prolific, and gracious a person as he. Although he was famously brutal in the battle of ideas, he was humble, honorable, and touchingly courteous in matters of manner. I am blissfully grateful to have known him and to have been able to call him a friend and colleague. Christopher will be missed in these pages but, in fact, he will be immeasurably missed wherever the English word is studied and spoken.
Although I knew his health had also taken what was to be its final turn for the worse, it was damn near disorienting trying to absorb the loss of another giant, Vaclav Havel, with Hitch’s death still coming into focus. These two towering figures, unique and different on many levels, rose above the rest of us because of their courage of conviction, their commitment to honor, and their ability to express it so intelligently, persuasively, and consistently. Havel and Hitchens will be mourned by all who lament the dearth of intelligent, principled, and humble life forms. We grieve their loss.