Search the phrase "the most powerful man in the world" and what comes up are photos of grotesquely over-developed weight-lifters; also Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Awfully ironic under present circumstances. It's a cant term TV news anchors use to describe U.S. presidents, enhancing their own self-importance as chroniclers of the great.
But have two politicians ever looked less like demigods than Presidents Obama and Putin? "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind," Emerson wrote. The unspeakable tragedy in the Ukraine underscores that brute fact. However, it's not an existential point I'd like to make, but a political one.
The American cult of the presidency has always had overtones of magical thinking. We imagine our presidents responsible for events over which they have little or no control. Technically, President Obama commands the world's most powerful military establishment, for all the good it's done anybody in Amsterdam or Malaysia.
Often, it seems as if being the "world's lone superpower," to use another cant phrase, actually means that superpowers no longer exist. Not democratic ones, anyway. America's military superiority appears to have relieved many citizens of the need to think coherently about foreign policy at all. Not that they ever did. The paradoxical situation in which Obama finds himself has been correctly diagnosed by Kevin Drum. According to a recent Politico poll, fully two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans want U.S. military power used only to address immediate threats to national security. Just 22 percent think the U.S. has a moral duty to protect democracies around the world.
Three quarters of American voters want out of Afghanistan, ASAP. People who want less involvement in Syria's civil war outnumber those who want more by 42 to 15 percent. A strong plurality wants a smaller American role in Iraq's struggle against ISIS militants — a group too extreme for al Qaeda.
More pointedly, just 17 percent think the U.S. should do more to deter Russian aggression in the Ukraine. Any wonder why Putin felt emboldened to arm drunken separatist militiamen with sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles — the rough equivalent of giving strategic bombers to the KKK?
In short, Americans broadly agree with President Obama's policies. But they also trust Republicans more than Democrats on foreign policy by 39 to 32 percent. "Bottom line," Drum writes "... Americans prefer the actual foreign policy of Democrats, but they prefer the rhetorical foreign policy of Republicans. They want lots of bluster and chest thumping, but without much in the way of serious action."
Bluster and chest thumping they've been getting aplenty. You almost can't turn on the TV without seeing Sen. John McCain and his sidekick, Sen. Lindsey Graham. Last year Mother Jones listed 15 countries The Very Angry Senator has wanted to "bomb, invade, or destabilize" since about 2000.
McCain's become as predictable as a cartoon character. Had he gotten his way, the U.S. would currently have the proverbial "boots on the ground" in five Middle Eastern countries — Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan — along with Nigeria and North Korea. Oh, and the Ukraine, too. The latest thinking in advanced GOP circles, see, is that Putin's ill-fated adventurism was prompted not by Western indifference to border disputes in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. Nor by domestic politics, although Putin's nationalist posturing has driven his approval rating among Russians to 83 percent — even higher than George W. Bush's numbers at the time of his "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier stunt.
It definitely helps Putin to have a state-run news media whose staggering dishonesty makes Fox News look like the BBC.
Writing in the Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen lays down the GOP party line: It's purely Obama's fault. "Putin saw that Obama did not have the stomach" to bomb Syria "and knew that he would face no real consequences for destabilizing Ukraine."
Thiessen performs the remarkable trick of scolding the president for weakness while praising his U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power for her "searing indictment" of Russian brutality, dishonesty and incompetence.
Quite forgotten, meanwhile, are all the paeans to the Russian leader's manly decisiveness emitted by name-brand Republicans.
"I think Putin has outperformed our president time and again on the world stage," Mitt Romney told NBC News last January. "And I think most observers of the international political scene suggest that Russia has elevated itself in stature and America has been diminished."
Fox News pundits have been virtually unanimous in describing Putin as a he-man action hero. Sarah Palin sounded as if she'd like to get to know the Russian president a lot better.
"People look at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil," she said "and our president wears mom jeans and equivocates."
Meanwhile, the most powerful men in the world appear defeated. Confronted with an act of mass murder whose brutality is exceeded only by its slack-jawed idiocy, Obama looks careworn, exhausted; Putin dead-eyed and unsure.