The Spine

Rio, 1 -- Chicago, 0. The Politics of Narcissism and General McChrystal

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Frankly, I don't care that Chicago lost its bid for the Olympics.  Really, I don't.

But maybe the president's trip to Copenhagen was useful since his top battle commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, traveling from England to Denmark, had the opportunity to meet Barack Obama on Air Force One.  Their talking with each other is, after all, a rarity.  In fact, Obama and McChrystal had spoken but once since the general took on AfPak as his turf in early June 2009. With whom, then, is Obama conversing? And how independent of mind on military matters are they? Or are they of the touchy-feely persuasion?

Speaking in diplomatese, the White House press office graded the Obama-McChrystal conversation as "productive," which means neither a disaster nor especially gratifying. My guess is that, in this context, it actually means not impolite. Their differences have been a big topic in the news, and the standoff is clear: McChrystal wants more troops and has a strategy to mobilize them; the president wants less, many many less, and to get Kabul off the nightly news. During the campaign, he spoke of the American involvement in Afghanistan as a war of necessity rather than a war of choice, like Iraq, which was made to seem like a war of sinful desire. No longer.

If the president is true to his essential beliefs about foreign affairs, Obama actually wants out but can't design a clean exodus. His party swallowed deeply when it played along with his election strategy of pitting Iraq against Afghanistan. At rallies, the candidate's mention of a free Afghanistan was never an applause line. But now, nine months into the administration's life, there is much Democratic rumbling in the Capitol cloakrooms against more troops on the AfPak war front, the demand for which everyone knew was on its way, and even against maintaining the present troop level. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, a man full of himself, will be nearly as puffy and cantankerous with Obama as he was with George Bush.

So, while the president did make time for a rather brief conversation with McChrystal in Copenhagen, the real purpose of his rushed trans-Atlantic flight was to grease the International Olympic Committee into naming Chicago as epicenter of the 2016 games. If you read closely in the newspapers, it wasn't as if Chicagoans were so ecstatic for the prize. Having the Olympics in town often turns out to be a big bust, burdening its residents, businesses and taxes for years thereafter. And, since the president is so much against national chauvinism, he might have contemplated that the games turn out to be among the most ritualized examples of hate on the planet, with the added cost of moving the poor around to make way for the rich visitors. When I was in Capetown, South Africa this summer, I saw from afar the still-being-built stadium for the 2010 World Cup soccer games. Now, South Africans are mad for soccer. But the talk in the street was against the expenditure, which comes to billions of rand and hundreds of millions of dollars even before anybody faces up to the inevitable cost over-runs. How many shanty-towns could have been replaced with this money? Or how about putting a water supply into these jungles of human refuse?

Anyway, whatever thought Obama may have given to these matters about Chicago, Valerie Jarrett had his ear. (The last time we know she had his ear was when she convinced him to bestow the National Medal of Freedom on that nice frigid anti-Semite, Mary Robinson. Beware!)

The front-page lead headline in the weekend edition of the Financial Times said it much too clearly for Obama's vanity: "Rio in carnival mood after Brazil beats Obama to the 2016 Olympics." By contrast, it was a huge triumph for Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has long created his persona as an antagonist to the U.S. Not a Hugo Chavez, mind you, but an antagonist nonetheless. And not a danger to foreign investors. Lula actually held the line against the new Latin cult of socialism.

As the FT went on to say, the IOC "delivered an astonishing snub" to the president "by eliminating Chicago in the first round of voting." Chicago was dumped before Madrid was dumped and before Tokyo was dumped. Had the Obama folk not done any canvassing which would have alerted them to the fact that they were jet-setting to a humiliation?  Maybe Michelle's presence added to the over-confident sense of invincibility. Moreover, how could they lose with Oprah Winfrey in tow?

So this question arises: If Obama could not get Chicago over the finish line in Copenhagen, which was a test only of his charms, how will he persuade Tehran to give up its nuclear weapons capacity or the Arabs, to whom he has tilted (we are told) only tactically, to sit down without their 60 year-old map as guide to what they demand from Israel.

What I suspect is that the president is probably a clinical narcissist. This is not necessarily a bad condition if one maintains for oneself what the psychiatrists call an "optimal margin of illusion," that is, the margin of hope that allows you to work. But what if his narcissism blinds him to the issues and problems in the world and the inveterate foes of the nation that are not susceptible to his charms?

Chicago will survive its disappointments and Obama will, as well. It is the other stage sets on which the president struts--like he strutted in Cairo and at the United Nations--that concern me.

I know that the president believes himself a good man. My nervy query to him is: "Does he believe America to be a good country?"

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