Mideast burns, Japan suffers — Obama golfs

The Obamas are off to Rio de Janeiro this weekend, along with the several hundred members of the presidential travel party. Some of us wonder whether this is a good time for the president to be seen having a good time.

The case could be made, though, that if enough "black swans" gather on your lawn, you might as well get out of town. Black swans are, as you may know, the name given by the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb to highly improbable events that vastly disrupt the status quo and set the world on its ear.

Once upon a time, it was indisputably true that all swans were white — true, that is, until the Europeans discovered Australia, home to swans that were black.

As Mr. Taleb pointed out in his 2007 best-seller, we humans are ill-equipped to deal with such things. They overwhelm us and change the course of history. His imagery caught on and is stuck in our minds as we observe the confluence of improbable events that have shaken the world in just the last few years.

The dot com bubble exploded, the Sept. 11 attacks on America happened, we started two wars in Asia, the housing bubble was inflated to prop up the economy — the result of which was the collapse of the world credit markets — and now the Middle East is on fire. That's a lot of black swans.

And now, as this is written, the horrific images from last week's giant earthquake and towering tsunami in Japan are made even more bothersome by the possibility growing each day that the damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant's reactors may be great enough to signal another Chernobyl-sized disaster.

It also spells the end — at least for the time being — of any further development of nuclear power plants in the United States and Europe. China is another story. One cannot imagine the planned building of some 60 new nuclear facilities by 2020 will be derailed by the Japanese experience.

For our Rio-bound president, this is an awkward thing. In his State of the Union speech, he proposed giving more tens of billions of the dollars we don't have to the nuclear power industry to subsidize what he called "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."

Since the possibility of a "China Syndrome" meltdown in the malfunctioning Japanese system remains a reality, despite assurances to the contrary from the Japanese government (which understandably wants to discourage public panic), the building of new plants here ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

The comforting myth that the risk factors associated with nuclear power plants are under control has been shattered by the rude actions of an uncaring Mother Nature. The engineers prepared for severe earthquakes, a regular occurrence in Japan — but the one that struck this time was so huge, it mocked puny man's efforts to thwart its catastrophic effects.

Governments around the world moved hastily in reaction to the events in Japan. Germany shut down seven of its older nuclear power plants. France, which produces most of its electricity from nuclear sources, accused the Japanese government of downplaying the severity of the "partial" meltdowns at Units 1, 3, and 4 at Fukushima.

Our military and disaster relief personnel from several American cities were dispatched to aid the devastated area. And our president, well, he gave interviews to three local broadcasting stations in key 2012 primary states and was supposed to get an award from liberal groups on Wednesday for his supposed commitment to transparency in government. That was scrapped, due to "a change in the president's schedule."

This comes in the wake of news that his administration responded favorably to fewer Freedom of Information Act requests last year than the year before. He also has been giving the White House press corps the runaround, favoring social media as he prepares to run for a second term.

He found time to play golf for the 62nd time in his first term and also made his NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament picks, aired in a nine-minute feature on ESPN.

I know this may sound churlish, but don't you think at least an appearance of involvement in this crisis might be expected from the man in charge?

Meantime, the Middle East is still burning and Moammar Gadhafi is regaining control on the ground in Libya as we and our NATO lackeys dither over what to do about it.

We haven't seen leadership like this since Jimmy Carter.

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is