Monday, June 29, 2009

The President's Parade of Horribles

Former French President Charles de Gaulle observed, “To govern is always to choose among disadvantages.” This wisdom was amplified by Canadian rock super-group Rush, who advised, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Both axioms are applicable to the set of foreign policy challenges facing U.S. President Barack Obama.

The president of the United States has a unique job description. On any major global issue, he must take a position and, regardless of what stance he adopts, there will be consequences. At times, a leader may want to reserve judgment on a tricky situation of international importance, and that’s okay – if that leader is the prime minister of Burkina Faso. The American president, however, has no such luxury.

Most prominent among the parade of horribles presented to President Obama are the imbroglios in Iran and North Korea.

In the former case, a corrupt theocracy rigged the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then cracked down viciously on the civilian protests that followed. Obama’s response options included detached equivocation, which was his original tack, and stern condemnation of the Iranian regime, to which he correctly switched.

Even if one disagrees with the wisdom of the president’s initial reluctance to antagonize Persian rulers, one can see the logic that visible American support might have undermined the protesters’ credibility in the Middle East. And anyway, for all the grief Obama got for referring to Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini as “the Supreme Leader,” perhaps the president was merely speaking of himself in the third person.

North Korea, meanwhile, presents a more immediate problem. Its dictator, Kim Jong Il, has contemplated launching a nuclear missile toward Hawaii on or around the Fourth of July. In this case, President Obama must choose among strong diplomacy, deploying missile defence, and intercepting or boarding North Korean ships.

Obama has no ideal options in dealing with Iran and North Korea and, whatever choices the president makes, the consequences may not become clear for some time. But choose he must for, as the Romans would say, “Qui tacet consentit” (He who is silent consents).

Commentator Dick Morris has written that prior to World War II, Germany and Italy were emboldened by the West’s acquiescence to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during the 1930s. When you are president, the world is watching – and that doesn’t just mean Newsweek, Mr. Obama. Harsher observers with unpleasant intentions are sizing you up and figuring what they can get away with.

America’s true strength is not born of its military or its missiles – although this power is nothing to sneeze at – but of its concept and practice of freedom. As another Frenchman, Victor Hugo, put forth, “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” When Ronald Reagan stood at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and urged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” those words were more effective than tanks or bombs could have been.

No sensible person suggests the United States should go to war over who is president of Iran, or to depose the maniacal gremlin who rules North Korea. Obama’s great strength is his oratory, or so we are told. Let him deploy it, then, in defence of liberty.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Killer and the Hall of Fame

Last summer, shortly after the Hockey Hall of Fame announced its inductees for 2008, I wrote a column decrying the omission of former Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain Doug Gilmour. Like most opinions published in a newspaper, mine engendered both positive and negative reactions; and, since the topic was hockey, Canadian passions ran high on both sides.

As always, I am thankful to those who took my side and I admire their perspicacity. Among those who disagreed with me, however, objections fit into two major categories: Some supposed that my complaint was born of a Toronto-centric view of Canada’s national winter sport, as though any captain of the Leafs should, ipso facto, be granted entry to the Hall in his dotage (I don’t believe this, actually, although the annual snubbing of Wendel Clark, as well as Gilmour, remains a travesty). Others, meanwhile, wondered about my credentials to opine on hockey matters (I am, after all, an investment advisor), and this latter point is my detractors’ strongest.

In short, I am no more qualified than any of the millions of other Canadian ankle-burners who, as the advertisement says, “have driven an hour for 19 minutes of ice time.” That said, having braved decades of early winter mornings for the sake of a few shifts, I am no less qualified than they are, either.

But as to Gilmour and his claims to fame, I note that no critic took issue with the substance of my case. To wit, this man scored a point a game over 20 NHL seasons with seven different teams. As I wrote last summer: “For a year or so during the 1993-94 season, he was touted in many quarters as the best hockey player in the world. Was there one day, or even a single game, when the same was said of Anderson or Larionov [two players admitted to the Hall in 2008]? Moreover, Gilmour's career included captaincies of two Original Six teams (Toronto and Chicago), a Stanley Cup, a Canada Cup and the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.”

Speaking of that Stanley Cup, Gilmour was the only player to score a Cup-winning goal against the Canadiens in the Montreal Forum, leading the Calgary Flames to victory in 1989 (anything Toronto-centric about that?).

As the Hockey Hall of Fame prepares to vote on its inductees for 2009, it looks to be a bottleneck, with only four spots available and such superstars as Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Alexander Mogilny and Brian Leetch eligible for the first time. The funny thing is, with the exception of Yzerman, Gilmour outscored every one of them.

Yes, that is correct: Doug Gilmour scored more career points than Brett Hull, one of the deadliest snipers in hockey history, or Alexander Mogilny, one of only eight players to score over 70 goals in a season (quick – name the others), and he did so while setting the gold standard for a back-checking forward. Granted, Leetch was a defenceman who managed to rack up over 1,000 points on the blue line while winning a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP with the 1994 New York Rangers, but the point is not to run down these astounding players, it is to highlight Gilmour’s overlooked greatness.

With that in mind, as the Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee convenes on June 23, they should allocate this year’s four available spots to Yzerman, Gilmour, Leetch and Hull. If it seems unreasonable that superstars like Robitaille and Mogilny should be passed over in their first year of eligibility, along with perennial outsiders like Clark, Kirk Muller and Claude Lemieux, that’s because it is. But fame, like hockey, is a tough game.

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.