The Greeks had a word for it: hubris. Just as president Obama claimed in his state of the union that “the shadow of crisis has passed” and proclaimed that American firepower had stopped the advance of “militants” in the Middle East, the Washington Post is reporting a possible coup in Yemen. “Shiite insurgents from the rebel Houthi faction stormed Yemen’s presidential palace and attacked the residence of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Sanaa on Tuesday.”
The Wall Street Journal says the development is “sparking fresh concerns about a country that has become a cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.” CNN reported that it threw “a wrench into Obama’s terror message.”
The unraveling security situation in Yemen — the same country President Barack Obama cited as a model for his fight against ISIS — could throw the President’s counterterror message into question ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union address.
In Sanaa on Tuesday, the presidential palace was overrun by Shiite Houthi rebels, a situation the country’s minister of information described as the “completion of a coup.”
That’s a problem for the United States, which has relied on the government in Yemen as an ally in battling the al Qaeda affiliate that’s based there. A power vacuum could benefit al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist offshoot that U.S. officials consider the most dangerous branch of the global jihadi network.
Obama himself cited the U.S.-Yemen partnership when he announced in September he was going after ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
These events, coming on the occasion of the president’s keynote speech recalls the last time president Obama took to the podium to extol his foreign policy achievements and disaster followed. Michael Gerson described it in the Washington Post only a few days ago:
President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address is remembered today mainly for this bit of rhetorical irony: “America must move off a permanent war footing.”
It was the triumph of speechwriting over experience. Obama’s pledge came about three weeks after the fall of Fallujah to the Islamic State. By June, Mosul would be overrun. Global jihadism now has a cause — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s sham caliphate — around which to rally. It controls unprecedented territory and resources. It has a stream of thousands of Western recruits cycling in and out of the Middle East. And it encompasses a dangerous competition between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, in which acts of terrorism are a source of street credibility.
There is something faintly ridiculous, not to mention tragic, about a leader who vaunts his success over the fates even as the platform gives way underfoot. He must be thinking, as the Iranian proxies cavort in the presidential palace of his ally, the words of David Beatty at Jutland as he watched his battlecruisers blow up one after the other, “Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”
The Greeks believed there was something about Hubris that inevitably attracted the arrival of Nemesis, “the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris (arrogance before the gods)”. It is like those scenes in Hollywood movies where the protagonist turns his back on the jungle and assures everyone that the dinosaur is finally dead, only for the beast to charge out that very moment from the foliage.
Don’t turn your back to the monster in the movies. And never proclaim it is dead in the SOTU — not unless you want it to spring back to life. Of course there are those who would dismiss such embarassments as “bad luck”. But as Glenn Reynolds recently observed “bad luck” is often just the name we give to the consequences of our stupidity and arrogance. Referring to recent events in Paris also ascribed to misfortune Professor Reynolds wrote:
Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein once wrote:
Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.
This is known as “bad luck.”
Don’t worry. There’s still time before the 2016 State of the Union Address for Robin Hood to overcome the bad luck.
On a more serious note, however, one must never forget that what may simply be an embarrassment for the president is life or death on the ground for American allies; it’s victory or defeat for national interests. Events are still ridiculous — that can’t be helped — but they are also tragic. Obama’s defeats are in the long run, also American setbacks. If the losing streak is ever to be broken, the president has to be convinced there is more behind the fiascos than just a string of bad luck.
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