Did President Obama Really ‘Miss an Opportunity’ by Avoiding Sochi? (February 18, 2014)


During a cab ride home this evening, I spent the first part of the trip sort of balefully and resentfully staring at the continued downpour of yet another Winter 2014 blizzard upon Chicago. However my bitter reverie was interrupted by a different irritant of the rhetorical variety. Several local public radio panelists were tearing into President Obama for relatively undefined “missed opportunities” with regard to his absenteeism from the Olympic Games in Sochi. Notably, these commentators were of a liberal bent, which put me in the interesting position of disdaining the meat of the discussion not for its ignorance, but because these individuals ought to know better.

It’s been a feature of the last five and half years of the Obama Presidency that even those media types who ostensibly sit on the left side of the political spectrum have chosen a “fair and balanced” approach that can easily be interpreted as an irresponsible dereliction of duty. In attempting to placate everyone, they ultimately please nobody, and furthermore contribute a distortion of facts every bit as damaging as the reckless demagoguery of Fox News.

So it is with the POTUS’ abstention from Sochi. In mid-December 2013, the website LGBTQNation displayed a comprehensive understanding of the President’s compelling social motivations for snubbing Putin and his arrogant, expensive and delusional display of Russian exceptionalism. Reprinting an Associated Press piece by writer Eddie Pells:

“President Barack Obama sent Russia a clear message about its treatment of gays and lesbians with who he is – and isn’t – sending to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics.

Billie Jean King will be one of two openly gay athletes in the U.S. delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies, Obama announced Tuesday. For the first time since 2000, however, the U.S. will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the Games.”

We live in a nation where the majority of registered voters support equality, where 17 states and counting have legalized gay marriage. We are a society in which even members of the Republican Party, once dependably able to use the issue as a wedge to avoid serious policy discussion, no longer wants to touch the topic. Homophobia just doesn’t play in Poughkeepsie like it once did.

But let’s move beyond the fact that Putin’s Russia is a human rights trainwreck that leaves the White House’s subtle refusal to legitimize this month’s grandstanding with a personal appearance entirely commendable. Syria anyone? A Reuters report from early this week quotes U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as saying, “The regime stonewalled. They did nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country. And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia.” It seems those among us who feared that Russia might have us chasing our tails with a 2013 offer to broker a diplomatic end to the long-running conflict in the troubled Middle Eastern country, may have been onto something.

If this isn’t enough to make Obama’s removal from Sochi comprehensible, let’s talk about a consideration that has enjoyed bipartisan appeal lo these last 13 years – national security. NBC News’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel appeared on last Sunday’s edition of Meet the Press, where he observed:

“The most threatened Olympics in modern history has so far been safe, and that’s not just because of the ring of steel around Sochi. We traveled 500 miles from Sochi to the North Caucasus, the heart of Russia’s Islamic insurgency, and saw how Vladimir Putin is using a combination of crackdowns and payoffs to secure the games.”

Safety via temporary efforts of corruption and intimidation don’t really set my mind at ease. I don’t know about you, but for me as a viewer, this is a rare instance where I’ve been unable to divorce what I know about the host country from the objective magic of the Olympic Games. To offer a comparison, I had a lot more luck with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and we’re talking about China. Would I really stand behind a leader who decided to put on a happy face and pretend that all is as it should be, in a nation that appears to be nostalgic for the Cold War?

My point is there are a lot of issues about which we as liberals can quibble with President Obama. Many of us feel health care reform can never be truly realized without a single payer revolution. Others feel that the emboldened and reckless Tea Party might not have become the force it is without Obama’s misguided attempts to negotiate with hostage takers. And just why is it that former President Bill Clinton has been so much more successful at articulating the Obama vision then the elected man himself?

But the White House’s decision to let the athletes do their thing while avoiding overt support of a regime that has been a veritable thorn in America’s side on so many fronts? Perfectly advisable.


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