Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday July 20th, 2014

By Barrie Dunsmore


I spent a week out of the country since my last column. I wasn’t cut off from civilization, but I was visiting family so I wasn’t tied to my computer, reading umpteen newspapers and countless opinion blogs each day. Nor was I being bombarded by 24/7 news channels with the most depressing story of the moment. I felt pretty good when I got home.

 But within a day or so, the gravity of our current perilous condition returned with a vengeance: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the Syrian crisis, the Iraq crisis, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria crisis, the Iran nuclear crisis, the Ukraine/Russia crisis, the German crisis over American spying, the crisis of 50,000 undocumented Central-American children flocking over the Mexican border with Texas. It’s enough to give even a hard-nosed old reporter a sense of impending doom.

I began wondering if, after a lifetime of reporting wars and diplomacy- against the backdrop of the Cold War - this might be as bad a time as I had ever seen. But as I mused over that provocative thought, my life-long skeptic gene rescued me when a popular song of 1959 popped into my head. It begins:

“They’re rioting in Africa. They’re starving in Spain. There’s hurricanes in Florida. And Texas needs rain.” (Sound familiar?)

The actual title of the song is The Merry Minuet. It was sung by the Kingston Trio, a highly successful folk group of 1950s and 60s.  It’s on their album, “…from the Hungry i”- a then famous San Francisco nightclub.

The song continues:

“The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. The French hate the Germans.
The Germans hate the Poles. Italians hate Yugoslavs. South Africans hate the Dutch. And I don't like anybody very much.

“But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud. For man's been endowed
with a mushroom shaped cloud. And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off. And we will all be blown away.

“They're rioting in Africa. There's strife in Iran.
What nature doesn't do to us will be done by our fellow man”


Those last few lines were particularly prescient. A few years later, in October 1962, we all were nearly blown away during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The reason it did not happen is that President John Kennedy, with significant help from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, decided that whatever their differences, it wasn’t worth blowing up the world to resolve them. But it was a very, very close call

At one critical point in the crisis, among all his military and civilian advisers with the exception of his brother Robert, President Kennedy was the only one who did not want to directly attack the Soviet missiles in Cuba. All the others argued that not to do so would be an unacceptable sign of weakness which the Soviets would be sure to exploit. The fact is, had the United States attacked the Soviet installations in Cuba, it would have set off World War III.

I know. This is old ground. What does it have to do with today’s multiplicity of crises? Let me answer this way. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis lasted 13 days. The American people were aware of the seriousness of it. But not the negotiating details, and certainly not the giant split between Kennedy and his advisers. For the most part, the mainstream media behaved in a responsible manner. You really don’t need to hype the very realistic possibility of imminent nuclear war.

 But can you imagine what would happen in today’s confrontational and sensationalistic media environment, if a crisis of that magnitude should again occur? Add to that the expectable frenzy of the social networks, Facebook, Twitter and all, and a toxic Congress which has probably never been more infected with partisan, political paralysis. If nuclear war was imminent and word got out that the president - especially President Barack Obama - was bucking the advice of all of his generals, on the first day there would be huge public condemnation, on the next day there’d be serious moves toward impeachment and after a week went by, someone on Fox News would be calling for him to be drawn and quartered, and millions would probably cheer. In such an atmosphere, how would reflective, nuanced diplomacy be possible?

I do not mean by any of the above, to minimize today’s crises. But frankly, they need to be put into perspective. The end of the world is not at hand. President Obama may be cautious to a fault.  But his over-arching strategy, designed to counter America’s recent disastrous policies like the invasion of Iraq, is that war should be America’s last resort, not its first. That basic notion continues to be distorted in the cacophony of today’s fractious news and social media. How else to explain, that polls show approximately seventy percent of Americans do not want to be engaged in another war in the Middle East (which reflects Obama’s thinking.) Yet seventy percent of Americans also say they disapprove of Obama’s foreign policies. That total contradiction indicates that most Americans are confused, no doubt by the incessant drumbeat of anti-Obama rhetoric - by no means all of it on Fox News.

For example, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, began his column this past week: “President Obama has described his foreign-policy doctrine as an attempt to hit singles, doubles and the occasional home run. But at this stage of the game, it looks as though he has popped out, grounded into a double play and been hit by a pitch.”

This critique is gentle, compared to most. But the implicit message of nearly all the critics is that Obama’s reluctance to unleash American military power is mostly responsible for the mess the world is in today. Yet facing the current litany of serious international crises, would America really be safer with a president Dick Cheney, John McCain or (gasp) Sarah Palin?  Think about that for a moment.

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