On the afternoon of June 28 Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a normally pithy news fount, posted this: "According to my Twitter feed the world is on fire. Somebody please tweet a photo of a puppy or baby ducks or something."
That day Syrian tanks and security forces tried to enter the town of Hama, firing on protesters who blocked the city center, killing 28 civilians, including at least one child. Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, made a dramatic return to the capital Sanaa-visibly scarred, his hands bandaged-after nearly a month in Saudi Arabia recovering from a bomb attack. Yemenis, many enduring the summer heat on an hour of electricity a day, weren't sympathetic: They turned out by tens of thousands to demand his resignation.
In Athens angry youths hurled rocks and fire bombs at riot police. Where government by the people began, Greeks by the hundreds of thousands said no to the very austerity measures necessary to win more EU bailouts. Hardly noticed amid the street hubbub, Iran's Revolutionary Guards test-fired 14 missiles on June 28-one of them a medium-range weapon able to strike Israel or U.S. installations in the Gulf. Closer to home, New Mexico firefighters announced it was a "make or break day" for protecting the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory from wildfires that had consumed over 800 square miles of the Southwest.
Tending the flames of a fallen world goes with the news editor's territory. But late in the day when we learned that terrorists had stormed the Inter-Continental Hotel in downtown Kabul-and awaited word on which dignitaries might be inside-I, too, was longing for a puppy-something to take the chaos away.
The street-level anger of 2011 and its attendant violence make 1968 demonstrations look tame. While society appeared to come unglued then, the global picture was by comparison black-and-white. Wars from Angola to Vietnam might have local variants but one macro cause: They were hot war sideshows that kept the Cold War cold.
Today confusion reigns. We know enough to know the Arab crisis is not only about Egypt (or Syria or Yemen) and to know that the global financial crisis is not only about Greece. But it should be no surprise that terror and chaos grow as our leaders fail to address them with clarity and vigor.
In March Obama called for the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, yet pledged it should happen with a "limited" military exercise designed only to protect civilians. With the French admitting they have funneled "light weapons" to Libyan rebels, the president cannot keep his distance from an entangling, opaque commitment. And what of the other dictators whom loose-knit rebels and other opponents want to oust? Why, as Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has trained big guns on civilians, is he not worthy of NATO-led intervention? (Short answer: It's barely 50 miles from Damascus to the Israeli border.)
The region is being reshaped before our very eyes, and we see little beyond a continuation of weakly defined military missions and wasteful, government-backed development efforts that-sadly-Americans watched take root in the Bush years. Make no mistake, the world takes note as we dither (more on the Russians another time).
And where are the Republicans? Many in the GOP also would like to wish away upheaval. The House budget roadmap put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., says nothing about foreign affairs, only slashes those budgets by 44 percent by 2016. Among 2012 presidential candidates, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty alone has acknowledged urgency, giving a speech last month before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where he chided Obama for "a murky policy he called 'engagement.'" Pawlenty said, "History teaches there is no such thing as stable oppression."
Pawlenty did more than any other current leader-helpfully categorizing Middle East countries and calling for a redirection of foreign aid "away from efforts to merely build good will, and toward efforts to build good allies-genuine democracies governed by free people according to the rule of law."
This is a start. It is better than a wish for puppies and baby ducks.