Search the phrase "the most powerful man in the world" and what comes up are photos of grotesquely over-developed weightlifters; also Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Awfully ironic under present circumstances.
Have two politicians ever looked less like demigods than presidents Obama and Putin?
The American cult of the presidency has always had overtones of magical thinking. We imagine our presidents responsible for events over which they have little or no control. Technically, President Obama commands the world's most powerful military establishment, for all the good it's done anybody in Amsterdam or Malaysia.
The paradoxical situation in which President Obama finds himself has been correctly diagnosed by Kevin Drum. According to a recent Politico poll, fully two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans want U.S. military power used only to address immediate threats to national security. Just 22 percent think the U.S. has a moral duty to protect democracies around the world.
Three quarters of American voters want out of Afghanistan, ASAP. People who want less involvement in Syria's civil war outnumber those who want more by 42 to 15 percent.
More pointedly, just 17 percent think the U.S. should do more to deter Russian aggression in the Ukraine. Any wonder why Putin felt emboldened to arm drunken separatist militiamen with sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles -- the rough equivalent of giving strategic bombers to the KKK?
As for the Ukraine, the latest thinking in advanced GOP circles is Putin's ill-fated adventurism was prompted not by Western indifference to border disputes in Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine. Nor by domestic politics, although Putin's nationalist posturing has driven his approval rating among Russians to 83 percent.
It definitely helps Putin to have a state-run news media whose staggering dishonesty makes Fox News look like the BBC.
Writing in the Washington Post, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen lays down the GOP party line: It's purely Obama's fault. "Putin saw that Obama did not have the stomach" to bomb Syria "and knew that he would face no real consequences for destabilizing Ukraine."
Fox News pundits have been virtually unanimous in describing Putin as a he-man action hero. Sarah Palin sounded as if she'd like to get to know the Russian president a lot better.
"People look at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil," she said, "and our president wears mom jeans and equivocates."
Meanwhile, the most powerful men in the world appear defeated. Confronted with an act of mass murder whose brutality is exceeded only by its slack-jawed idiocy, Obama looks careworn, exhausted; Putin, dead-eyed and unsure.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.