On Wednesday, Time magazine came out with a list of the 100 best people alive today and gave four different slots to four high-ranking officials in Saudi Arabia. In one slot they gave President Barack Obama a one-sentence brief: “Where Saudi Arabia is concerned, America’s troubles in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere seem to pale in comparison.”
This kind of snobbery may be disappointing, but it’s not surprising. If you’re a journalist with a reputation to protect, it’s safe to come out swinging in defense of your nation’s longtime ally, and if you’re looking for opportunities to justify your position, it’s hard to ignore what looks like the single best government in the world at the moment.
But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Time doesn’t see America as an important country in its own right, as opposed to a key player on the world stage. If Time were looking for a country where America is at a great disadvantage, why wouldn’t they choose Russia, with its pressing problems in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere? If Time were looking for a place where America has more economic or other problems, wouldn’t they look at emerging powers like China, India, Brazil, or the economically crucial, war-torn region of the Middle East?
In World War II, when the German Luftwaffe was devastating Britain and destroying Europe, many American journalists argued that American war efforts should be expanded to other countries. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was crushing Czechoslovakia and threatening Poland, Americans argued that American assistance to those countries was essential to deter Soviet aggression.
But they rarely argued that American aid was needed in America itself. There are no shortages of struggling Americans who can’t rely on wealthy donors’ generosity or credit card bonuses. Countless families can’t pay for college for their children, and the kids can’t get into the great colleges and universities where they’re destined to go. Millions of parents can’t cover their kids’ basic education and an untold number have to spend a portion of their earnings to feed their kids while they go to school.
And don’t imagine that all of America’s problems stem from an unwillingness to spend money. It’s just that, on the broadest of scales, there is so much money that it would be awfully difficult to find any single issue where the United States has more problems than its closest allies.
That’s not the way the world is working. The world isn’t working for America either. It’s a big place, full of many people with many problems. We can help them all, but that’s not the way it works. It’s a bit like doing nothing, except that it’s really obvious when you do.
Yes, a few years ago, there was a rush to help people from Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Many Americans were horrified at the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and they were angry at the fact that Islamist terrorists had killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador. And the world was shocked by the flood of refugees fleeing Libya’s civil war, driven from their homes by ruthless warlords who left little of their country behind.
The Americans involved in helping those refugees were praised for a remarkable act of generosity, and though I agree with the political critics who say the tragedy wasn’t a rare thing, it nevertheless shouldn’t have been one that the United States did a lot of.
What’s happening in the Middle East today is not a sudden wave of desperation that suddenly makes it so much easier to protect Americans and support American citizens. It’s a slow, steady stream of life. For all the dangers we face, Americans are lucky to live in a country where these things don’t come from war or poverty.