By Patricia Lee Sharpe
For the most part, the Republicans (including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) listened to the President’s State of the Union speech with stony faces. Many frowned throughout. During his quite eloquent remarks there were a number of points at which a smattering of Republican applause would hardly have violated anyone’s deeply held principles. The vaguer references to cooperation and bipartisanship come to mind. Instead the Republicans treated the President as they have ever since he took office, not as the legitimate choice of the American people, but as a non-person best ignored when not targeted for insult.
This offensive behavior is totally consistent with the primary Republican goal of the past eight years, not to serve the best interests of the U.S., but to ensure a failed Obama presidency. In fact, the more this administration has accomplished in spite of incessant stonewalling—the Affordable Care Act, the nuclear pact with Iran, a respectable economic recovery, etc.—the greater the reactive implacability. Not even when Obama’s envoys put together an exchange to get a number of Americans released from custody in Iran did the Republicans allow the least hint of appreciation. Just carp, carp, carp. If ever there was an example of grace under pressure, it has been Barack Obama during his two terms of office.
Why has the President been a target of egregious disrespect? We all know it isn’t just ideology. The Republicans’ vow of total non-cooperation has been a symbolic lynching, a unified front designed to nullify this presidency. Meanwhile, even if racism is far from dead in this country, Barack Obama’s ascendency has also shown that many Americans have ceased to judge a person by the color of his skin. That’s something to feel good about.
Speaking of respect and the lack of it, as the President entered and left the chamber there seemed to me to be a striking disproportion of Black legislators seeking to shake his hand or have their programs signed. Make of that what you will.
But let’s get back to the State of the Union speech. One passage alone had Republicans and Democrats alike rising in shared hand-clapping adulation. That passage paid homage to the military. Due appreciation is no doubt warranted, but this lock step genuflection (so to speak) has happened too often during Presidential addresses, as if the armed forces are more important to the safety and well-being of the American people than all other branches and agencies of government put together. They are not. Moreover, in that direction lies the loss of democracy. Look around the world and draw the logical conclusion re excessive deference to the military.
So, let’s pause to mention some other public servants to whom we owe deep gratitude for keeping us safe and prosperous. Among the least respected of these, I can’t help thinking, are the diplomats. Renouncing anything like a normal American life for themselves and their families and working often in uncomfortable or dangerous situations, diplomats contrive day in, day out to advance American interests. They also negotiate treaties on everything from the price of rice to eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Such negotiations take infinite skill and mature judgement and those working on the pact with Iran, for example, have accomplished wonders for U.S. security. And for Israel's, although Bibi Netanyahu couldn’t hold his conservative coalition together if he dared to acknowledge this.
Diplomats are dedicated to protecting American interests without going to war, which is probably why they seldom appear as heroic, central characters in popular culture formats. Blockbusters are built around battle scenes not conference tables. As for quiet diplomacy, it saves lives. It also saves billions and billions of dollars, although these economies are systematically undervalued even by deficit-consciousness Republicans. In the foyer at the State Department there is a plaque listing the many American diplomats who have given their lives for their country, but no one seems to care, which suggests that the only reason the Republicans carry on about Ambassador Chris Stevens is that they can use his death in Bengazi to beat up on Hillary Clinton.
The militarists among us also forget that an army is only as good as the economy that backs it, which implies a need to be grateful to the millions of American civilians—teachers, farmers, scientists and factory assemblers as well as bankers and tech barons, most of whom will never wear a uniform. The Soviet Union didn’t fall apart because Moscow lacked a large, competent military. It collapsed because its economy was in shambles.
And may I now suggest a little appreciation for the most despised categories of all—the politicians and the civil servants. Often, as today, our elected representatives disappoint us, but the Arab spring has shown us what happens when a country lacks a sufficient cadre of people with well-honed political and administrative skills. It’s fairly easy to bring down a government, a lot harder to put decent one together and run it. Iraq is a case in point. Furthermore, like the idealistic people in America’s Occupy Movement, those wonderful demonstrators in the streets of Cairo were totally unprepared to contest elections and organize power when Mubarak fell. Result: another general, a Mubarak clone. Bye bye dreams of democracy! Elsewhere, as in post-Gaddafi Libya, militias contest for territory and power. In yet other chaotic countries I.S.I.S. is trying to create a caliphate.
There are indeed self-serving and incompetent politicians in this world, the U.S. not excepted, but societies need political and administrative specialists as much as they need professional engineers and physicians, which is why the current state of presidential politics in the U.S. baffles me. People who wouldn’t let an amateur touch their electronics-heavy new cars imagine that any old outsider can run the government. For that matter, should some outsider win the presidency, who will sustain him and carry out his policies? Those hated civil servants. Those despised diplomats.
Believe it or not, I am not running down the military. What I am saying is that military men (and women) are specialists, highly trained for one important purpose: to wage war when all else has failed, to be prepared to do so should that happen and to do so only when in possession of orders from the civilian leaders whom U.S. citizens have elected. Naturally, they must be accorded warm public appreciation when the job is well done. Those who have died must be buried with full honors. Those who are wounded or otherwise harmed must receive first rate rehabilitation administered in a timely, ungrudging fashion. While in uniform, service men and women should be protected from loan sharks, and when they need help in transitioning back into civilian society they should not be shunted into for-profit diploma mills that prepare them for nothing at tax payers’ expense. Perhaps a truly thankful bipartisan Congress could do something about ending such entrepreneurial exploitation.