Team Obama sees themselves not just in terms of the crisis of the day but also in terms of a much broader, and more positive, arc of human history. They didn’t create these trends that make this, in their eyes, the best time in human history to be alive, but they see it as their job to safeguard them.
This results in a foreign policy focused — to a degree most people don’t appreciate — on protecting this system from threats. The long view causes them to focus on addressing long-term threats to the system’s stability, like climate change or a nuclear Iran. But the flip side is that they’re more wary about trying to solve immediate crises, like the Syrian civil war.
These crises, while bad, don’t threaten the fundamental system. And ambitious schemes to solve them risk dragging the US into costly and counterproductive quagmires that could draw focus and resources away from graver dangers.
"ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States," Obama once told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. "Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it."
"Compare the era we’re living in today to the losses we suffered in World War II or even in the Vietnam War, or compare the economic challenges we face now to the Great Depression."
In life, perceptions are shaped by more than facts and they actually, and quite unfortunately, matter more than facts in determining people’s feelings and behavior. Good politician cannot afford to ignore this, and cannot afford to let their actions and policies be dictated solely by facts as they see them; they have to pay much heed to prevailing perceptions about them. The dichotomy between perception and reality is indeed one of those facts that leaders need to take into consideration, and it just happens to be the most important fact of all.
The facts about our human condition are always subject to interpretation, no matter how objective they may be. People have different interests, filters and criteria, and they are bound to reach different conclusions, and that matters, especially when those conclusions are diametrically opposite.
At the end of day, if the point being made here is that the price for maintain the system, is to let watch on as certain parts of the world burn, and certain acts of genocide unfold, and to simply try to restrict your actions, not to prevention but to protecting the system from fallouts, there will always be people who are bound to see the system as evil, and to reject it. Whole, stock and barrel. After all, the system doesn’t seem to need or want them, not to mention care for them.
This problem might seem inevitable and manageable, but is it?
Yes, the Islamic State and other extremist groups that seem to subscribe to this ethos and whose dramatic rise was facilitated by its prevalence, do not pose an existential threat to America, not to mention the system, not in pure military terms anyway. But the growing right wing populist backlash cannot be so easily dismissed. Can we really afford to dismiss the Trump phenomenon? And would it have been as threatening as it is today without IS, and the policies that encouraged its rise?
America may not be going through another Great Depression, but the levels of animus in the current political discourse seem to hearken back to that bygone era. So many happenings around the world today seem to do so as well. Identity politics, class politics, and a variety of ideologies long thought to have been thoroughly discredited, are making a comeback affecting even modernized West. Yet intellectual bemusement seems to be the only response that the Obama administration has, as it goes about safeguarding the system that has already caught fire – the sparks having flown over the established red lines of containment. You cannot drone-strike ideas and sentiments into oblivion, just as your military readiness cannot prevent them from having an impact on your internal discourse and social dynamics.
All these processes are fueled by perceptions as much as by reality, if not more so. Perception is part of human reality, and cannot be dismissed as irrelevant. But that’s exactly what the realists of the Obama administration are doing. And that’s a dumb thing to do.
By some objective criteria, and within a certain sociopolitical context, we are better off today than we have ever been in history. Period. Period? But mass slaughters still unfold. There are still wars and war crimes. Famine. Slavery. Racism. Misogyny. Extremism. And millions are still affected by that. Hundreds of millions in fact. So when our political leaders, having acknowledged all this, can still tell us that the times are good, and that this is the best that they could do, there’s no escaping the conclusion that these are indeed the worst of times. If this is the best that we could do, watch mass slaughter take place and wring our hands in despair, then, humanity, decency and virtue are indeed irrelevant, and we are still nothing more than beasts. Our inner thymos cries out for justice.