As I read Vlad’s op-ed in The New York Times, a Judy Collins tune kept replaying in my head: “Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer?”

The song, actually written by Stephen Sondheim, although it is Collins’ signature hit, is “Send in the Clowns” and seems an apt soundtrack for current events.

As we stalled in making a decision about how to handle Syria (two years and counting), Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were allowed to emerge as reasonable heads of state, talking down to the U.S., lecturing us about our misplaced belief in exceptionalism and making demands that mocked our president.

Nice work.

Putin hadn’t had this much fun since he rode shotgun in George W. Bush’s truck. Thanks to President Obama, the good times have kept on rolling. We now have a catalog of blunders we can attach to Putin-related “diplomacy,” a term that becomes more farcical by the day.

Recall that Bush, whose international outreach often included a ride around his Crawford, Texas, ranch, once said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. I have a photograph from the day in Texas that captures the two men grinning. Putin, it must be said, looks like he’s having the time of his life and Bush looks, as he always did, confident and oblivious to the menace seated beside him.

Next we have Obama, who, in an intimate moment with then-outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, conveyed a message to incoming President Putin. Thinking the microphones were off, Obama asked for a little space until after his re-election when he would have more wiggle room on missile defense.

“Wiggle room,” now there’s a foreign policy. As the red line moved, then blurred, then moved again until it was nearly invisible, Putin approached the American people directly via the Times, while Assad issued orders to Washington: He’d sign the chemical weapons agreement if the U.S. promised to bug off.


We can’t quite seem to get it quite right at the helm. Either we’re saddled with a cocksure “decidinator” who is feared for his lack of pause — or we’re stuck with an over-thinker so afraid of making the wrong decision that he paralyzes himself into a pose of ineptitude.

Both profiles can be equally dangerous, depending on circumstances, though inarguably it is better to be feared than pitied. It was painful to watch as Obama was increasingly diminished by his inability to commit to a position that he himself staked out.

Certitude isn’t always an admirable trait. In fact, in political discourse, it is most often annoying if not downright wrong. Life is not, as it turns out, black and white. Diplomacy is all about exploring the shades of gray. But it is also true that the president of the United States doesn’t get to suffer the usual flaws of human comport. He doesn’t get to promise grave consequences for unacceptable behavior and then, failing to follow through, act as though everyone else’s perception is somehow at fault.

“I didn’t set a red line,” Obama has said. “The world set a red line.”

This not only is false but sounds petulant. The president’s speech to the nation last Tuesday night struck a better tone, but it was consistently inconsistent in content. Obama conveyed the sense that he really didn’t know what he intended to do — or why.

Recognizing this, Putin took the high road, scolding the U.S. for its “commonplace” interventions in countries not its own.

“Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it,” Putin wrote — and we know that Putin cares deeply about America’s long-term interest. “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together.” And, it is “extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Actually, Vlad, millions around the world do see the U.S. not only as a model of democracy but also as exceptional because, among other things, we let everybody talk. Even clowns. Sing it, Judy.

These fire-hydrant gymnastics accidentally achieved a positive result: no U.S. military engagement and an enforceable chemical weapons agreement with Syria. So be it and pass the champagne. But the larger lesson should not get lost in events: Never draw a line unless you are prepared to fight. Erasers make lousy weapons.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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