Days ago, I’d have bet that even the most bitterly partisan Congress in generations would jib at humiliating their commander-in-chief. More than two thirds of the population, according to the polls, demanded he go to Congress before firing Cruise missiles against the Syrian regime. Well, he did, didn’t he, but appeasing the people hasn’t cut much ice with Senators of both parties to judge from the hearings this week which have provoked Secretary Kerry to wag a schoolmasterly finger. In the hour their country calls on them to make a stand against the ‘moral obscenity’ of gassing 1,429 Syrians, 426 children among them, the querulous tribunes of the people seem to have learned their lines from Rick in Casablanca: ‘I stick my neck out for nobody.’ To which, you will recall, Captain Louis Renault responds: ‘What a wise foreign policy.’ Maybe David Cameron’s stunning defeat has unnerved them. A hawkish friend hissed: ‘You Brits have betrayed us.’ As an expat who saw the first GIs come to our rescue in 1941, and stay on to lead the rebuilding of western civilisation, it’s a bit galling to be supplanted by the ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’. Or maybe the congressmen suspect the president will go wobbly again. Little noticed was Kerry’s glancing remark that his president ‘made the decision to go to Congress contrary to what many people thought he would do’. He refrained from adding ‘including his Secretary of State’. Obama has a nasty habit of pulling rugs. He did it to Ambassador Wisner, sent to Cairo in 2011 to persuade Mubarak to arrange an orderly resignation. He succeeded, only for the mortification hours later of seeing his president on TV telling Mubarak to get out forthwith. And now, having called Congress to utter, Obama says he might attack without their approval. Not a way to win friends and influence people .
In the Syrian brouhaha, John Kerry had been acting presidential, if that is still a viable adverb. The 2008 candidate, who said he’d been for funding the invasion of Iraq before he was against it, delivered a masterly indictment of the Assad regime with reasoning and intelligence that seems to have slipped from the grasp of the debaters in Parliament. But he slipped into doublespeak when he denied that a missile strike would be an act of war, apparently because no American lives would be at risk. Won’t it rather feel like war to those at the receiving end? It’s an utterance akin to the CIA lexicon during the Vietnam war, when an order for an assassination was ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. I’ve been filing weasel words for some time, for a book I’m writing called ‘Do I Make Myself Clear?’ Try translating: ‘The non-compensable evaluation heretofore assigned certain veterans for the service-connected disability is confirmed and continued.’ Which adds up to telling a veteran that if his physical condition is unchanged he won’t get any money. If there is mission creep in Syria, like there was in other two wars, then perhaps it’s worth our military being able to pass out such a sentence.
We’re all agog over here about Diana Nyad, the woman who completed an epic swim from Cuba to Florida. Forget all that technology stuff about a team of divers zapping scores of nosey sharks and flotillas of poisonous jellyfish. Diana is in a direct line from Roman mythology’s goddess of hunting and clearly drew on her mythical gifts to stare down wild animals. All she will say is that she ‘found a way’, but her achievement at the age of 64 year was as a shot of adrenalin for those of us who will not see 60 again and her triumph on a fifth attempt is a boost to everyone who has to endure the scoffers always ready to feast on failure. Since I gave up daily running, I swim three or four miles a week. She can keep her other secrets, but what I’d like to understand how she coped with what stops me from swimming more: the sheer boredom.
What I had not appreciated until this week, reading Michael Daly’s rollicking melodrama of the golden age of the circus in 19th-century America, was its boisterous cruelty. In 1903, at the Coney Island fairground, a benign and much loved performing elephant called Topsy was chained to posts. On the command, she lifted a foot at a time — and the executioner sent 6,600 volts so 800 gawkers could brag they were present at the first filmed execution of an animal. Topsy died for a cheap stunt, fuelled by the rivalries of the hucksters and charlatans who competed for the circus dollars. The golden age marked America’s rise to supremacy but it was a barbaric time. Is an increased propensity to moral outrage a redeeming quality of decline?
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