Improv Doesn't Work That Often in Comedy; Don't Expect it to Work in Foreign Policy


Barack Obama's supporters are already sketching out a new narrative on Syria: Rather than "bumblefucking" (Jon Stewart's apt phrase) the U.S. into—and possibly out of war—you need to understand that the president has simply been playing a brilliant "cat and mouse game" with the hapless Bashar al-Assad. There's something supremely comforting to this line of thinking, because it takes Obama's persistent failings and contradictions on foreign policy and turns them instead into evidence of brilliance. As Andrew B. Pexton writes,

This was not an Obama stumble. All indicators are that [chemical weapons in Syria are] something he cares about and is ready to act on that belief. Just as he did in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the intense drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. Don't count this president out yet. He's far from done.

Don't you see, this line of thinking goes, we need to trust in what we al know to be true in our heart of hearts: That Obama really is the sum of all aspirational superlatives the American people projected on him.

Except for the fact that even the latest developments don't explain very much at all. So, does Obama still believe that he has unilateral authority to commit the U.S. military to war even when there is clearly no imminent or actual threat to the American people? If he doesn't, can he plainly admit that? And if he doesn't, why did he wait so long before either attacking Syria without authorization or going to Congress for authorization? By all indications (meaning press accounts citing sources close both to Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry), both the red line comments from August 2012 and Kerry's recent off-the-cuff remarks were in fact ad-libbed (in the latter case, that helps explain why the State Department started walking it back immediately).

And more to the point: What is the U.S.'s position now on Syria? Or, more precisely, the president's? Assad must be punished, says the president, for transgressing international norms to which the very bodies designed to enforce them seem blase. Is the U.S. going to start taking sides more forcefully in the Syrian civil war and if so, isn't that going to stoke all the sorts of problems that critics worry about (boots on the ground, blowback, cooling relations with Russia and stoking issues with Iran)?

By all accounts, improv is one of the toughest forms of acting and comedy. It rarely works for either the performers or the audience. That's even more true when it comes to foreign policy. It may be a good thing that Obama's once-pressing urge to go ahead with a super-targeted, unbelievably small—yet hyper-effective and non-pin-prick action!—has been stayed for at least a couple of weeks. But only the most diehard Obama fan can pretend it's a feature and not a bug of his foreign policy.

NEXT: A.M. Links: President Obama Makes Weak Case For Action in Syria, FBI Lawyer Who Oversaw NSA Surveillance Abuses Confirmed to Judgeship, Indiana County Judge Rules Right to Work Law Unconstitutional

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  1. Robin Williams on Whose Line.×09/

    Improv comedy at its best.

    1. Thank you for posting that.

  2. My Obot acquaintances have already trotted out the “3D Vulcan chess” meme (drone to king’s bishop 6?). This goes beyond diehard fandom into true-believer syndrome.

    1. My beekeeper takes your pope and releases the swarm.

      1. I knew I should have given him the jet pack.

      2. So, is Obama “Prince Joey”?

    2. You can’t say “three dimensional chess” without saying “dementia”.

      1. You can’t say “Tulpa” without saying “derp.”

        1. So you’re siding with BO now too?

          1. And racist against asians.

          2. No. I’m siding with deodorant.

          3. No, I think he’s siding against YOU.

          4. Roll-on or stick?

    3. Right, stupid is actually secretly brilliant. And our continuing loss of prestige? Also secretly brilliant. Every stupid move was secretly brilliant.

      Hitler? Secretly brilliant, because he knew all those seemingly evil things he was doing would save the world from nuclear holocaust. Or maybe he was an evil fuck after all?

      1. No, Hitler’s still evil because somehow the National Socialist party is a right wing party.

  3. That Obama really is the sum of all aspirational superlatives the American people projected on him.

    When Obama goes limp while you’re sucking his cock, it’s not a sign of impotence or lack of stamina but instead the president conserving his strength for the most epic of pearl necklaces.

    1. +1 money shot. A good pair of sperm blockers is highly recommended.

  4. “All that is made seems planless to the darkened mind, because there are more plans than it looked for. In these seas there are islands where the hairs of the turf are so fine and so closely woven together that unless a man looked long at them he would see neither hairs nor weaving at all, but only the same and the flat. So with the Great Dance. Set your eyes on one movement and it will lead you through all patterns and it will seem to you the master movement. But the seeming will be true. Let no mouth open to gainsay it. There seems no plan because it is all plan: there seems no centre because it is all centre.”

  5. “It takes Obama’s persistent failings and contradictions on foreign policy and turns them instead into evidence of brilliance.”

    We’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, but it usually happens to some dictator, who has painted himself into a corner. Rather than let him do something to destabilize the region, the international community will often come together and try to give him a way out to save face.

    That’s what they did with Obama this time! I don’t think it’s ever happened to a U.S. president before, but the international community came together to give a Obama a way out–that would let him save face! I’m not sure there’s any other reasonable way to look at it.

    It’s a terrific embarrassment to the American people that our president has to be treated that way–and it should be.

    1. I like the analogy, mostly because it’s accurate. Looking back, there have been numerous instances of some thoroughly bad guy being given a more graceful than he deserves way out.

      1. This whole thing was certainly about Obama’s ego.

    2. “God looks out for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” – Otton von Bismarck.

    3. But he hasn’t taken the way out. I would agree with you Ken except that Obama hasn’t stood down. He is still, I think, demanding to bomb Syria.

      1. Yeah, well, he doesn’t want people to think he wasn’t right all along…

        Because he was, of course! It’s just a president’s prerogative to change her mind.

    4. Does that mean he’s going into exile in Saudi Arabia soon?

      1. More likely Chicago.

    5. Yet he’s too incompetent to take advantage. According to the CBS evening news last night, Russia gave him the way out to save face and the US demanded harsh language implying retaliation be inserted into the UNSC Resolution, potentially scuttling the whole thing.

      He’s approaching Robb Stark territory here: too stubborn to accept either good advice or a favor.

  6. But only the most diehard Obama fan can pretend it’s a feature and not a bug of his foreign policy.

    The first gay president can do no wrong:

    That was one of the clearest, simplest and most moving presidential speeches to the nation I can imagine. It explained and it argued, point after point. Everything the president said extemporaneously at the post-G20 presser was touched on, made terser, more elegant and more persuasive.

    1. It explained and it argued, point after point

      particularly interesting where the points that argued against previous points. The man debates himself and calls it a speech.

      1. That actually is a feature and not a bug. It is one of his standard rhetorical techniques that allow him to function as a Rorschach test. Normally he speaks of vague aspirations, so claiming to embrace the need for belt-tightening in the same paragraph that he calls for greater “investment” doesn’t strike most people as ridiculous. It allows them to hear what they want to hear and project their own views onto Obama’s blank canvas.

        In this case there is a very limited and specific item on the agenda – bomb Syria or don’t bomb Syria – so succeeding in this form of doublespeak is nigh impossible. Still, if you really, really want to believe, it gives you enough of a fig leaf to carry on with your delusions.

    2. I envy his multi-orgasm ability.

    3. Are we sure Andrew Sullivan is actually gay? Or is he merely captivated by the effulgent beauty of the Persuader-in-Chief?

  7. based on what we’ve seen the past five years, the true believers will fully support what Obama says today, no matter how badly it contradicts what he said yesterday.

    1. “We were always at war with Syria.”

    2. Obama is so godlike that even the laws of logic bow before him.

    3. Clinton was able to pull this off even as a candidate. During the slow reveal of his history in the Vietnam war draft he was proven a liar every week for a couple of months. Each time the story was the same – this is old news, we’ve all known this for years: here’s the new story. Then a week later the new story would be proven untrue and everyone would just “know” that that had always been the story.

      It was very frustrating to hear the same news anchor who told me that Clinton never received a draft notice one week turn around and tell me that we’ve always known that he received a draft notice but got a deferment when new facts came out a week later.

      At the time I assumed that they were cynically taking their orders from George Stephanopolis’ talking points. As I’ve gotten a little older I’m starting to suspect that people are able to truly convince themselves of anything they really want to believe – however implausible or even downright impossible it might be.

      1. The Clinton strategy was simple if infuriating. Some horrible fact would come out and his media enablers would deny it and call the person who revealed it a liar. This would go on for a few weeks or months until it became so obviously true that they could no longer deny it. Then the media would just say “well that is old news that has been around for a while” and proceed to ignore it and dismiss anyone who mentioned it as an obsessive who can’t stop repeating old news.

      2. It is amazing to think that a women got on national TV and accused Clinton of rape and the media managed to act like it was no big deal. And it wasn’t like Anita Broderick was some kind of nut. She seemed to be a totally credible person and not have any reason to lie. Maybe she was lying. But last I looked the media’s attitude is that women don’t lie about rape. Akin’s career ended because he said something about women lying about being raped to get an abortion. Bill Clinton was a two term President despite there being a credible allegation of rape against him. Wow.

        1. He got a standing ovation at the US Open last Sunday. People’s perception of charisma will obscure any crime.

        2. Broderick had zero evidence of rape, and made the accusations 20 years after the alleged incident (and immediately following the Lewinsky scandal). Credible, no way. Kind of disgusting to see you turn into a Jezzie when it suits your political purposes.

  8. Either there is a pea under each of the shells, or there is no pea at all.

  9. “and the intense drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen”

    This guy calls that a success?

  10. This was not an Obama stumble. All indicators are that [chemical weapons in Syria are] something he cares about and is ready to act on that belief. Just as he did in the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and the intense drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. Don’t count this president out yet. He’s far from done.

    Right. And when Clouseau trips over the edge of the carpet, falls down the stairs, knocks over the suit of armor which tips over the bookcase and sends the grand piano out through the French doors pinning the burglar against the radiator grille of the Rolls Royce, it is unquestionably a carefully calculated assault.

    1. “Don’t count this president out yet. He’s far from done.” I’m guessing that some of the potential R candidates are hoping he’s right.

  11. I will give Obama credit, he has managed to manipulate his media enablers into a position where their entire self worth and credibility is dependent on him being a genius. As dumb and incompetent as Obama is at everything else, he is a genius manipulator. At this point what is someone like Sullivan supposed to say? If Sullivan admits that Obama is a fraud, Sullivan has to admit that he is a fraud or a rube of unimaginable magnitude. He is not going to do that. So no matter how self evidently idiotic Obama looks, Sullivan and his ilk are going to be there to tell us all how it is really brilliant.

    1. This is like the democratic version of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the President walks naked into the street and his sycophants are telling him how great he looks, while (instead of one small child) everyone in the crowd is covering their children’s eyes and wondering if the President is insane or just a perv.

      1. That would be a great, if involved, political cartoon. Assad and Putin as tailors with invisible cloth, Obama as the Emperor, the rictus grins of the courtiers, and the horrified crowd.

        1. That would be. You should write the Friday Funnies guy. It would be the best thing he has ever done.

          1. there would be too many labels.

  12. Can someone please tell me what this “brilliant” strategy is? Seriously, I still can’t figure out what the hell Obama is even trying to accomplish here. I can’t figure out what his end state is much less how he plans to accomplish it. After reading last night’s speech, I can’t even tell if he wants to bomb Syria anymore. That speech was the most incoherent speech I have ever heard an world leader much less and American President give. Carter was naive and incompetent. But he at least had a plan and a proposed means to accomplish it. Obama doesn’t even seem to have that.

    1. You don’t understand. The strategy, whatever it is, is “brilliant” because it is Obama’s. Doesn’t matter what the strategy actually is. You see, you’re supposed to judge these things not on their actual merit, but on the source.

    2. His end state is whatever state things end up in. And his plan to get there is whatever happened to get things there. And it will have been brilliant.

      1. I guess I am just not playing 3 dimensional chess. Me with my logic and real politic and such.

    3. The United States does not “do” strategy. We simply react like a wounded animal.

      1. We do and have. IN fact thinking big has what generally has gotten us in trouble in the past. Obama in contrast is what you describe. I honestly think he was doing what he always does when he made the red line comment; talking out of his ass.

        1. I will qualify… we have not done strategy since the Berlin Wall came down.

    4. Many years ago there was an President so exceedingly fond of his ego that he spent all his political capital on self-gratification. He cared nothing about reviewing his soldiers, faithfully executing the laws of the land, or reining in the corruption of his government, except where it made him the center of attention. He had a video of his speeches on loop at all times, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, “The President is in council,” here they always said. “The President is on TV.”

      In the rotten city where he lived, life was always gay, albeit at the expense of the nation. Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were leaders, and they said they could weave the most magnificent geopoltitical strategies imaginable. Not only were their gambits and counters uncommonly sublime, but strategies of this nature had a wonderful way of becoming inscrutable to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.

      “That would be just the strategy for me,” thought the President. “If I employ it, I would be able to discover which men in my government are unfit for their posts. And I could tell the wise men from the fools. Yes, I certainly must adopt this strategy right away.” He order his ministers to assist the two swindlers at once.

    5. I can’t figure out what his end state is much less how he plans to accomplish it.

      His end state is to be celebrated by the media and his plan to accomplish that is to baffle them with bullshit.

  13. I have a coworker who thinks that O’s rhetoric about strikes on Syria was just a ploy that he worked out with Putin to get Assad to give up his chemical weapons – I couldn’t fathom how he gave team O that much credit

    1. Or that Putin would care that Assad has chemical weapons much less want to work in secret to both remove them and let Obama take all of the credit.

    2. I have a coworker who thinks that O’s rhetoric about strikes on Syria was just a ploy that he worked out with Putin to get Assad to give up his chemical weapons

      Let’s see…we will leave Assad alone, able to get as many conventional weapons as he needs from Putin, if he’ll just let the UN come in and take control of a stockpile of practically useless chemical weapons. Yes, that is a brilliant plan, for…something.

  14. Nick’s lack of alt-text is a cunning game of cat and mouse with Assad.

    1. That photo must make Jay Leno seethe with envy.

  15. Obama is the world champion Vulcan 3D Calvinball master.

  16. Obama’s “cat-and-mouse” game looks more like full-speed backpedaling.

    2011: “Assad must go.”
    2012: “Okay, Assad doesn’t have to go, but use of chemical weapons is a red line.”
    August 2013: “We think Assad has used chemical weapons and he must, must, must be punished!”
    September 2013: “We’ll leave Syria alone if they give Russia their chemical weapons.”

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