Tone Deaf: Obama, Biden, AOC and the Swiss Purchase of F-35s

The dictionary defines tone deaf as “having or showing an obtuse insensitivity or lack of perception particularly in matters of public sentiment, opinion, or taste.” Four recent examples fit the definition perfectly: Obama’s 60th birthday party; President Biden’s jilting the French with a surprise submarine deal with Britain and Australia; AOC’s attending the posh Met Gala and the Swiss buying American fighter jets at a time of tension with their major trading partner, the European Union.

Barrack Obama has every right to celebrate his 60th birthday. You don’t have to be an ex-president to throw a big affair on reaching six decades. But inviting 600 people during the Covid-19 pandemic surely sounds like a precursor to a super spreader event. To add on to the tone deafness is the fact that the event was to take place at his $12 million home on tony Martha’s Vineyard during a time of economic hardship for many Americans. The fact that several of the invitees were “disinvited” because of criticism does not atone for the original sin. Even recognizing that Obama will never run again for public office, the lavishness of the event buried all positive “public sentiment” of the first African American president who came to the Oval Office shooting hoops and made Jesse Jackson cry for joy. Unfortunately, Obama finished his two terms in office with high society ambitions as an unrepentant golfer at elite clubs, a substantial Netflix contract and a mansion on the Vineyard. The humanitarian, humble example of ex-president Jimmy Carter Obama is not. What happened to our South Side brother?

Joe Biden is all multilateralism and unity. That is except when his Trumpian instincts trump all. Talk about America First. The French had a submarine deal with Australia. At least they thought they had one until they discovered that behind their backs the U.S. had worked out a deal with the Brits and Aussies. Tone deaf? Tony Blinken, he of French schooling and a français parfait, didn’t understand how furious the French would be? The French recalled their ambassador to Washington for first time in history. Listen to the words of the French foreign minister about the post-Trump multilateralists’ behind-the-back move: “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do.” The ultimate insult! “I am angry and bitter,” Jean-Yves Le Drian added. “This isn’t done to allies.” Forget Lafayette and the Statue of Liberty. The adage goes: “The United States has no friends, only interests.” Chalk up another case study. As an expert opined: “Make no mistake. This is a crisis, not a spat.” Add on the surprise U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan without fully consulting its NATO allies, and Biden’s foreign policy team sounds like The Best and the Brightest 2.0.

Oh Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Where has the fiery AOC gone? You are (were?) the heart of the progressive movement. From simple waitress to the halls of Congress, you have epitomized all that the young, super left had hoped for. So, what the hell were you doing at the Met Gala, an event that costs $30,000-per-ticket and whose proceeds go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in NYC. Far from an evening to raise money for girls and women in Afghanistan or stranded children on the southern U.S. border. What were you thinking, to use Jay Leno’s infamous question to Hugh Grant? Now we know you wore a special dress with “Tax the Rich” prominently displayed. But why did you go to the event in the first place? Can one imagine rumpled Bernie showing up in a tux to an event like that? Really.

And here in Switzerland, the country of consensus and neutrality, tone deafness also exists. The Swiss have been debating for years – consensus and neutrality don’t lend themselves to snap judgments – about purchasing new fighter airplanes. Don’t ask why they need them. (The F-35 can fly up to 2,000 kph. The greatest distance from east to west in Switzerland is 350 kilometres and from north to south almost 220 kilometres. Flying at maximum speed, the F-35s will have to do U-turns to avoid crossing into another country.) At the same time as the jet purchase was debated, the Swiss have been unable to conclude a vital institutional agreement with their major trading partner, the European Union. The competition for the $6 billion deal boiled down to the French and Americans. In the interest of better relations with the EU, it was obvious that the French Rafale was the plane to buy. Mais non. The Swiss government chose the F-35, infuriating the French (Is there a pattern here?) and the Europeans as well as expanding tone-deafness to the Land of Heidi through trans-Atlantic military cooperation. Bravo.

Now this article may be another example of tone-deafness. But, I’m not an ex-president, current president or secretary of state, the darling of the Left or a negotiator of a treaty between Switzerland and the EU.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.