George F. Will: Frayed Nerves, Short Tempers

Whirl is king in today's Washington.

Posted on December 5, 2009

An adolescent asked Mozart how to compose symphonies. Mozart said that because the lad was so young, perhaps he should begin composing ballads. "But," the young man objected, "you wrote symphonies when you were only 10 years old." Mozart replied: "But I didn't have to ask how." This week the man who may fancy himself the Mozart of American politics—a prodigy—flies to Oslo to deliver an acceptance speech worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize that he has been awarded in recognition of the magnificence of his speeches. Later Barack Obama will go to Copenhagen, where in October he delivered a speech urging the Olympic Committee to award Chicago the 2016 games. Oh, well. This time in Copenhagen, at the 192-nation summit on climate change, he must explain an inconvenient fact: Since he won the presidency promising to stop the rise of the oceans, there has been a substantial decline in American support for the global-warming catechism, which proclaims that warming is (a) a big deal and (b) substantially America's fault. Americans have noticed that, judging by the words and deeds of the president and of the Congress his party controls, global warming is (a) an imminent threat to the planet but (b) not as urgent a concern as health-care reform. Something that Obama said in October was a really big deal was Iran's dusty semi-acceptance of ambiguous future restraints on its processing of enriched uranium. Obama's policy of "engagement" was paying off. Well, not exactly. To the surprise of no one who did not doze through the last decade, Iran immediately backed away from its faux commitment. Then in November, Mohamed ElBaradei, the pathologically optimistic head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, at last admitted that his attempts to pierce the veil of Iran's nuclear program had "reached a dead end." One day later, the IAEA "censured" Iran for failing to play nicely with others. Two days after that, Iran announced plans for 10 more uranium enrichment plants. The Obama administration admonishes Iran that the clock is ticking. Clocks do indeed do that, but Iran seems unimpressed. In NATO's infancy, a military man said the purpose of the alliance was to protect Western Europe—"to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Today NATO is fighting its first war in Afghanistan. (The only territory of a NATO nation invaded since 1949? Britain's Falkland Islands, in 1982.) The publics of the NATO nations are (a) unstinting in their adoration of Obama and (b) parsimonious with their support for the war in Afghanistan. Will other NATO nations send more troops than the Canadians, Dutch, and perhaps Germans are going to withdraw? For that matter, will even half of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's House Democratic Caucus support Obama's Afghanistan surge? America's nerves are frayed and tempers are short. The country is uneasy, even queasy, because Obama and Congress seem to be dashing through an ambitious agenda in a slapdash manner. Their haste reflects a hubris that prevents them from acknowledging that they do not know how to do all that they are attempting. Consider the exasperation of Lamar Alexander. A Tennessee Republican of mild mien, Alexander is a former governor and former president of the University of Tennessee. For seven years in the Senate he has been a model of the moderate Republicanism that is, we are mournfully told by the Republican Party's non-Republican moral auditors, as valuable as it is scarce. So it was noteworthy that he recently had this to say about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's proposed health-care legislation: "This bill is historic in its arrogance—arrogance that we in Congress are wise enough to take this complex health system, that is 17 percent of our economy and serves 300 million Americans, and think we can write a 2,000-page bill and change it all…c It's arrogant to dump 15 million low-income Americans into a medical ghetto called Medicaid that none of us or any of our families would ever want to join." Alexander is not the only temperate person who is being driven to distraction by the sense that whirl is now king in Washington. And by the worry that the people driving the pell-mell agenda will not pause to ask how to do all of it, because they fear that the answer is: You can't. George Will is also the author of One Man's America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation and With a Happy Eye But . . .: America and the World, 1997—2002 .