Obama, Syria, and The Prufrock Syndrome

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This essay was named as one of “the most fascinating articles of the week” by The Washington Examiner.

Last Saturday Syria claimed victory against the US after President Barack Obama declared to the world that although he had made a decision to commit to military action, he would be consulting Congress before doing so, and then only after everyone had come back from vacation in September. Everyone has come back a little earlier, but it is too late to erase President Obama’s conception of time: real life can wait until scheduled vacations are over.  Like a perpetual undergraduate, the President behaves as if things can only start after summer vacation. It seems he thinks that there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces he will meet, and a lot of his energy is going into saving face after some ill-conceived statements on the crossing of a “red line” of chemical weapons usage that the Syrian President didn’t take seriously anyway.

Every year of my teaching career I have taught T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem he started in 1910 and published in 1915 in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  Eliot’s poem creates a nightmare portrait of Prufrock, a card-carrying narcissist who cannot make hard decisions in the modern world.  Prufrock is nothing special:  he blames others for his deficiencies, he cannot step up to the plate, he wades in waves of regret.  He can invoke Dante in Italian, but this only serves to situate himself in his own psychological hell, and establishes Prufrock’s connection with those consigned to the Eighth Circle:  the circle of The Fraudulent.  This poem, which was the beginning of a brilliant career, is a depiction of what it might be like to be in the head of an articulate loser, someone who can create a lyric line of lament, but who cannot really be a grown up in any category of life.  Prufrock’s performance is T. S. Eliot’s caveat to the world of what things might be like if the modern mentality of adults is to practice avoidant behavior, constantly retreat, and become more obsessed with what is in our own heads than what is going on around us.  “Prufrock” is Eliot’s code word for personal failure.  His character lacks what the Victorians might have referred to as “character,” and instead he is a mere personality who is frustrated, impotent, and more concerned with thinning hair and What to Wear than anything of real substance. There is a reason why no one names their kid “Prufrock,” no matter how well-known the poem.

While I used to teach this poem for its technique and its importance as a major example of a cultural shift toward modernism, now I wonder if I should not give Eliot a lot more credit for being downright visionary.

Meanwhile, I watch every channel, trying to figure out what will happen in Syria, and this poem will not leave my head.  Regardless of what you think of how we should or should not proceed in regard to Syria, watching the Prufrockian responses of the President has been equally painful for both sides of the aisle.  We may be a divided nation, but we all want a President who at least acts like he knows what he is doing. For Eliot, we may all have moments when we are like a “patient etherized upon a table,” but we have trouble when a Middle Eastern tyrant is paralyzing the actions of the Leader of the Free World.  Yet no one in charge seems to know what to do, no one knows what the President will decide, and his Secretary of State John Kerry is left hung out to dry as he delivers his tepid pleas for intervention in Syria.  It is great that John Kerry can speak in flawless French, but what has it come to that the French are our only significant European supporters in an international crisis?  The President may technically be the Commander-in-Chief, but he hesitates giving commands, he has no military experience to give us confidence in his decision-making, and his dearth of foreign policy experience seems–now–to really matter.  Other nations scoff at him, ignore him, Putin even goes so far as to call his secretary of state a liar.   While in Sweden, a Swedish journalist asks the Nobel Peace Prize winner why he is so committed to military action now.  With no teleprompter in sight, President Obama says something incomprehensible about seeing the gassed children of Syria on television.  He cannot give her a direct answer–cannot reconcile his contradictory positions.  There are so many of them.

No wonder I can’t get this poem out of my head:  Obama’s argument on waiting for Congress is essentially that “There will be time to murder and create,/ And time for all the works and days of hands/ That lift and drop a question on your plate,” but this does not seem reassuring.   Obama, in his “strategy” or stumbling toward more delay, tells the American people that there is “Time for you and time for me,/ and time yet for a hundred indecisions,/and for a hundred visions and revisions,” but honestly, talk like that makes me really nervous.  And will all this back and forth anticlimactically result in Not Much, or, as Eliot would have it, “the taking of a toast and tea”?  What does “limited strike” mean anyway?  I think no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, inquiring minds want to know.  So far, it has been more of Obama wondering, “Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?” and then deferring to Congress, giving himself plenty of “Time to turn back and descend the stair.”  That T. S. Eliot sure had a lot of psychological insight into a certain kind of personality.  But surely even Obama can tell that “In a minute there is time/For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”  In other words, if there is a crisis, you don’t have all the time in the world, and even then, things can go wrong. But if you are President, or a grown-up, at some point you have to know what you presume.

Forget poetry for a minute–that is just one way to articulate things in this world.  Let me quote from the 3 September 2013 “Charlie Daniels Column:  A Citizen’s Take on Syria“:

In my soon to be 77 years as a citizen of the United States of America, having lived through Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the dark days of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11 and all the other serious and profound events our beloved nation has been involved in over the last three-quarters of a century, I have to say with all sincerity that I have never seen a president as confused, befuddled, impotent, insincere, and as out of his depth as Barack Obama has become in dealing with the Syrian issue.

When you’re the leader of the free world, you don’t make statements you can’t back up and you don’t draw lines in the sand, watch your enemies cross them with impunity and go off and play a round of golf. 

Whether you are an Eliot lamenting the hollowness of the modern mentality in general, or a Daniels lamenting the emptiness of a specific presidency in particular, one cannot help but acknowledge that the US, under such disappointing leadership, has emerged diminished, and it is unclear how our credibility in the world can be restored now.

All last week Obama emphasized that he was hoping that Congress would vote for whatever he planned to do, although it wasn’t clear exactly what that was, but definitely something.  Military experts explained to Congress that they didn’t really know what the objective would be if we carried out military action against Syria.  They could not define what “success” would constitute.  The civil war has been going on in Syria for years, but it is unclear why President Obama is thinking about this now.  He drew his “red line” against chemical weapons about a year ago, but now that it is clear that no one is afraid of the United States, in perfect Prufrockian form Obama has said his version of “That is not what I meant at all;/ That is not it at all.”  Well okay, then what was meant?  One cannot tell, other than the clear abdication of responsibility for personal credibility, which Obama has pushed, vaguely, away from himself and onto the “international community.”  I thought he had experience being a community organizer, but he sure is having trouble mustering up much of a cohesive coalition. Could it be that it is actually worse to be killed by chemical weapons than by a bullet or a beating?  One may be “illegal,” but both are equally outrageous.  It is difficult to say why President Obama has zeroed in on this particular atrocity–it is not like it is a big surprise that Assad has been killing his own people.  But with Fast and Furious, the IRS and its double standards, the NSA and its interventions, and now the impending anniversary of 9-11 and Benghazi, is it not merely the perfect time for a distraction from the overwhelming questions that plague Obama’s administration?  One can actually hear echoes of T. S. Eliot’s famous poem as the administration dismisses the very real questions Americans have by reducing them to what Obama himself has called “phony scandals,” or his version of  “a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question…….”  But like Prufrock in Eliot’s well-known poem, Obama and his team insist that we “do not ask,/ What is it?”  They would prefer to ignore the big questions, defer to Congress for a decision, and thus avoid the potential for blame that real decision-making often involves.

But while many Americans were enjoying the Labor Day weekend, watching college football, and hoping that nothing too destructive is lurking around the corner on 9/11 (Remember Benghazi?), Syria’s ruthless dictator was reveling in the fact that the greatest country in the world cannot do one thing to rein him in.  Britain and Germany won’t help, France talks, but the President said he wants to step up now. Never mind that the terrorists in Benghazi who killed four outstanding Americans, including Ambassador Stevens, are still at large and nothing significant seems to be happening to apprehend them. Instead, Obama wants to “punish” President Assad of Syria for killing his own people. This disconnect between concern for American citizens and citizens of foreign nations is hard to ignore, and hard to understand.

Except Assad’s cruelties to Syrians have been going on for two years.  Two years.

The only people who seemed to be laboring over Labor Day weekend are the John Kerrys of the administration, those who are given the thankless task of making Obama’s bizarre foreign policy announcements sound thoughtful and constitutional while Syria burns with continued violence.  On the Sunday talk shows for that weekend, even key congressional leaders such as Representative Peter King of New York, who is also a major player for Homeland Security and anti-terrorism, were clearly not consulted at all, and all he could offer was the repeated truth that he had no idea what the President had in mind regarding Syria.  My point is that we are at the same point this weekend, with the same non-answered questions dominating the Sunday talk shows.  There has been no progress, and the Hamletesque hesitations invoked in Eliot’s poetry seem to have revealed themselves as the primary characteristics of Obama’s Syrian decisions.

The President will speak to the nation on Tuesday night regarding Syria.  I really wish it were just to talk about his new idea for a student council fundraiser, or a new plan to organize a local community to do, well, something.  I really wish that the stakes were that low.  I really wish that I had confidence that the President could be a competent Commander-in-Chief, and that he would do the right thing.  After Benghazi, that would be a hard confidence to instill. Like Prufrock, Obama has had trouble connecting with others:  he has not built coalitions in the US Congress or the international stage.  Like Prufrock, who indulges in a lengthy stream of consciousness monologue, Obama’s presidency has taken on a similar tenor, in which he is “Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;/ At times, indeed, almost ridiculous–/Almost, at times, the Fool.”

He has no consistent foreign policy, he operates on the politics of complaint and blame, and now he wants Congress to rally behind his new-found regard for military might.  But it feels less like the talk of an authentic hawk, and more like he is just hawking something, and even his fellow Democrats are balking.  When he addresses the nation and the Congress, another exercise in Obama optics, I wonder if he can overcome the Prufrockian paralysis that his own indecisiveness has manifested.  I have no crystal ball, but when he asks the Congress to vote for his ill-defined and ill-timed efforts to “punish” the Syrian regime, I do not think that they will sing to him. Like Prufrock, he will be relatively unallied, accompanied by reminders of missed opportunities and lost time.

The human voices of Syria were present over two years ago, but Obama wasn’t listening then.  Eliot wrote of those moments where we defer responsibility for too long, and then we fold because it is too late to do any good: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” The difference is the credibility of US foreign policy may drown with him, become one big muttering retreat, and that is nothing to celebrate, no matter how cleverly delivered on a stage.  I really hope we don’t go to war; Americans are weary of it, and we don’t have clear objectives.  But the biggest danger might be our Prufrockian President, who is constantly in a confused and inconsistent war with his own statements, frustrating even his most ardent supporters, and creating a universal fear in many Americans that even if we do go to war, do engage in military action, that Obama is not up to the subsequent decisions that such an action always requires.

20 responses

    • Jackie, it really is unbelievable. If Congress does approve military action, I am worried that we are not prepared for the long haul…..

    • An interesting analysis, Dr. Wilson, but perhaps incomplete. Would we prefer the more “decisive,” Laertes-style approach of President Obama’s predecessor? “What would you undertake,/To show yourself your father’s son in deed/More than in words?” “To cut his throat i’ the church!” President Obama may not be handling the complexities of the situation well, but that is different from saying (and you do acknowledge this) that it IS a complex situation with no easy solution.

      • Wow, while I do not want to minimize the difficulty of the Syrian situation, I think many voices are pretty disappointed in Obama’s handling of this–and from all parts of the political spectrum. But Bush as LAERTES? Methinks not! Thanks for reading.

      • Dr. Wilson – Somehow my reply is going to end up coming BEFORE your comment on my reply (Wow! This internet stuff is as complicated at foreign policy!) but that’s what I’m responding to. Bush/Laertes – so very far off? Laertes is the anti-Hamlet, boiling over with action without worrying about ethical niceties (i.e., my dad was a meddling old puppet-master who had no business going all NSA on Hamlet’s private conversations). Claudius manages to point this weapon in the direction he wants it go go but the result is a stage full of dead bodies. To draw broad parallels, President Bush blew up Iraq without much dithering over whether those WMD were or were not actually there (not, as it turns out), or whether American policy in the Middle East (say, backing the Shah of Iran as he tortured people with less thought than we’d give to what kind of doughnut to buy) had invited some of the hatred we faced: and we’ve been at war for a decade now with the body count mounting. All right, no foreign Fortinbras has marched in to seize the Oval Office, but Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times may be a cloud the size of a man’s fist. Or we could see President Bush as Henry V: “Forget the complex arguments about international law; let’s roll!” Of course, the difference is that Hal achieved a decisive victory. My point is that decisiveness is not a virtue in and of itself, and can be a vice when it trumps genuine complexity.

      • Well, I disagree with you about Bush, and he did rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But there is no way you can argue that Obama’s dithering and inability to have a coherent foreign policy has been a good thing. We are the laughingstock of the world right now–nothing has changed since I wrote this piece, and things are tenuous at best. I do not think Obama can be accused of “genuine complexity.” If we have avoided anything worse, it has been through sheer dumb luck, and that is a terrible foundation for American foreign policy. I think Laertes is mainly interested in partying in France until bad things happen to his family! But I do appreciate you reading my piece and responding. Thanks.

      • Dr. Wilson – Let’s let Syria go. I agree with you that he has not displayed a clearly-mapped strategy, though I disagree that clarity exists in this situation. What interests me is the Laertes/Bush parallel. Yes, he’s interested in whooping it up in France, just like, perhaps, the spoiled scion of a wealthy and powerful family, who goes away to an elite university where he spends his time drinking and barely pulling C’s? Then, arguably, when he suddenly decides to man up, he hasn’t developed the skills and instead substitutes cock-sureness for sound judgment. I think it is an intriguing parallel.

      • Doug, I find your comments thoughtful and compelling. The Syria situation is highly nuanced, and not the only situation of its type in recent or even current history. The Prufrock analogy may be valid to a certain point, depending on the political assumptions from which one argues; the same may be said for the Laertes analogy.

  1. I agree with everything save your insistence that Assad being the one behind the gas attack. First, there has been no confirmation *if* Assad did it which leads to *why* would he defy common sense and engage in a gas attack in a war that he is winning, and do so knowingly when UN Inspectors are going to be in the neighborhood? Not to mention the reports that have been coming from the streets in Damascus that rebels were the ones once again behind this gas attack. Your article makes the same mistake Obama does: makes definite statements about an event that we don’t have all the facts about yet.

    Am I fan of Assad? No. But speaking as an Orthodox Christian with Syrian friends who have family still in Syria, and I keep hearing that under Assad they know they’ll be fine (Assad visits Christian sites regularly and insists Syria needs her Christians to maintain a cultural balance within the country. Damascus is an ancient city central to our Faith!), whereas any other alternative presenting itself will be a death sentence for both Christians and Muslims of the wrong stripe that have been living peacefully side-by-side with one another for centuries.

    • Well, I have not “insisted” that Assad is behind the gas attacks, but merely pointed out that Obama is going forward as if that is the case, and since Assad has been killing Syrians for over two years now, your belief, which seems to be based upon rumor, makes it unclear to me how you are forming your opinions. John Kerry, John McCain, and Lindsay Graham have all traveled to Syria, and have seen the devastation first hand. What makes you think Assad has NOT used chemical weapons? You seem to give him an inordinate amount of credit for “common sense.” I am sorry for your friends in Syria, but the hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into neighboring countries makes the assertion that “they’ll be fine under Assad” simply unbelievable. Clearly things are NOT fine under Assad, and there have been so many reports of Christian persecution that I would have to ask where you are getting your information for all of Assad’s sympathetic visiting of Christian site–and the idea that he is interested in “cultural balance” simply defies reason. I appreciate you reading and commenting, and I hope the situation stabilizes, but this would not be the international crisis that it is if any of your statements were true. Thanks for writing.

  2. It is easy to look at what is occurring and see where errors have been made. I think it is far more difficult to propose viable solutions for the future. There is a definite difference in having a President who does understand the word “nuance”. If his delay in going to war is too cerebral, which I believe is the unstated premise in your blog, then history will judge him accordingly.
    One’s view of deliberation versus paralysis is likely strongly linked to party affiliation. A Gallup poll this year found the President’s approval rating at 86% among Democrats while his Republican approval was 10% this is the largest gap ever recorded in Presidential poling.
    I think it is fair to say that there is no good nor simple answer to foreign policy in Syria or the entire Middle East.
    However, like it or not the constitution requires congressional approval for making war. Make no mistake about it, attacking Syria with bombs and cruise missiles would be an act of war. I find it interesting to see party leaders and previous administration members who were adamant on attacking and dragging us into a ground war with Iraq before the UN weapons inspectors could finish their report on WMD’s., Now insistent that the US not use even limited strikes against Syria.

    Just a final thought, this President has spent his entire time in office trying to extricate us from two wars. Perhaps he is reticent to involve us in another but, the capturing and killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan, was no easy call. He likely risked his second-term on the success of that gamble. I have yet to hear acknowledgement of that decisive decision by anyone talking about Syria. .

  3. I think that Ms. Holland’s basis for questioning Obama’s suggestion that Assad used chemical weapons is found in various non-mainstream-media sources such as this interview with a Nobel Peace Laureate who visited the country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsbvnpx2Fzo. (There are other sources that give a similar report, some of them coming through European news and also through the Orthodox Christian church whose leaders and families are from and/or currently in Syria.)

    You raise a good question: how do we form our opinions on this issue? Is our default position to trust Obama’s interpretation of events, or to trust reports of various eye-witnesses who we have reason to deem trustworthy? Perhaps there are other sources of evidence available as well.

    • Great point–but the Obama administration just gave a statement that they do indeed believe that Assad used chemical weapons. But you are right–and that uncertainty we have about sources make me even more skeptical of Obama’s desire to strike…..and of course, the uncertainty of the unintended consequences of such a strike. It bothers me that Obama has a history of talking big and then not acting, particularly on foreign policy issues. But considering Assad’s ruthlessness overall, it is hard to understand why people are quick to defend him and argue that maybe he has not used chemical weapons. What in his makeup has indicated any restraint? Thanks for reading.

  4. Thank you for a brilliant op/ed with that wonderful twist of literature at its core. Now I need to read that poem..and I love the line about tonight’s speech being about a new idea for the student council. I am attending a reading/musical evening where two great writers will share their words…so much for listening to the President.

  5. Pingback: The City Podcast: Prufrock-in-Chief — The City Online

  6. The poem fits– right down to the yellow cat-like “smog” that appears in windowpanes, and makes them difficult to peer through.

  7. Doug and Heidi, great comments all! And, see the cover of Newsweek Magazine–an essay on Obama that glosses on all of our comments in different ways….thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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