If you really want to understand what it going on today in the theater known as American politics, you won’t find the answer among the usual pundits—not even among the smartest ones like David Brooks, Bill Kristol, George Will, or Charles Krauthammer. Look instead to that venerable Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, author of the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Andersen’s little story, for those who may have missed it while growing up watching Sesame Street, features a vain ruler who is told by a couple of swindlers that there is a most beautiful suit of clothes to be had. It is resplendent to all, except the stupid, to whom it is invisible. The emperor immediately sends his advisors to the tailor to check out the cloth; they see nothing, but of course report back that the suit is magnificent beyond imagination. The emperor buys the suit and puts it on, satisfied with his wonderful acquisition. He struts and preens before the court and public, as everyone tries to outdo the other in praising the splendor of the emperor’s wardrobe..
Today we still have a President whom nearly all have reason to proclaim is clad with the powers of his office. Begin with the Speaker of the House, who praises the President’s “great victory,” in which he has been said to have deftly shifted to diplomacy at the last moment to avert a crisis and yet achieve all of the nation’s objectives. This is good for the Democratic party to maintain the illusion that there is a real president running our foreign policy. Then there were those who opposed the President’s war plan. For the opponents on the Left, most preferred not to vote at all, so thereiss every reason to pretend that the shift to a diplomatic tract is a wise course of action. Now there is no need to vote—ever, though it is best not to say so. Gotta keep the pressure on. The opponents on the right can claim a measure of vindication as well if diplomacy all along was seen to be the better path. The Russians? Perhaps they feel the greatest temptation to shout that that the emperor has no clothes, but their own desire to run the diplomatic show is better served by having someone who is supposedly the leader of the west. Besides, slow humiliation is in the end going to be more satisfying. Let’s not forget the emperor’s sycophants in the press. They have every reason to hang on to the last shred of the idea that the emperor is still in charge. Some are busy concocting some kind of Cuban missile crisis narrative, in which the President’s shrewd use of accident in diplomacy saves the day.
The emperor of course has the greatest interest in maintaining the illusion. Who knows, he may even believe it himself? It was his brilliant plan, finding the sweet spot between threatening an attack that would be unbelievably small yet larger than a pinprick, that kept just enough pressure on to insure that Assad would fold. To maintain a patina of verisimilitude to the charade, it is necessary to insist that the diplomatic solution has only the possibility of succeeding. Similarly, for the suit to be seen, the President professes to be keeping the military option open, as if he would still use it, with or without a vote by Congress.
As for the political scientist, I join with the others: Yes the President is still clad. It’s better for us all to pretend than to see the real thing.