Going Boldly Where No NASA Chief Has Gone Before

President Obama wants Charles Bolden to boldly go where no NASA chief has gone before—in this case, by putting the whole space-exploration thing on the back burner and getting with the self-esteem program for Muslims.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Bolden said that Obama had charged him with three things: re-inspiring children to study science and math, expanding international relationships, "and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, and math and engineering."

The reaction to Bolden’s account of the President’s charge has ranged from incredulity to outrage to "Are you sure it wasn’t Biden who said that?"

Lost in the smirking, however, is the unmistakable signal that Obama is prepared to drag this nation—kicking and screaming, if necessary—into an era in which the tired old boundaries governing international relations no longer apply.

Leaving diplomacy to the diplomats is so George Frost Kennan. There is no law that says only the State Department can deal with foreign governments, cultures and peoples, especially when the result is that Hillary gets all the press. This administration prides itself on thinking outside the box, and that means throwing out the usual assumptions about "federal agencies" doing the "jobs" for which they’re "qualified."

Take the Fish and Wildlife Service. Sure, it’s supposed to be in charge of, you know, fish and wildlife, but there’s no reason our nation’s marine biologists can’t help improve U.S. relations with—and this is just one example—North Korea. We may think of the North Koreans as a downtrodden, increasingly shorter people run by a nuke-happy totalitarian, but what we fail to consider is that the Koreans have a centuries-old history as expert fishermen. Okay, make that fisher-people.

Remember: At the same time the barbarians were flailing about in the rivers of Europe, attempting to knock fish senseless with rocks, the Koreans were expertly threading bait onto hooks and using nets to haul in enough shellfish to feed a village. It’s true. Look it up in any textbook, except maybe those new ones in Texas.

What we need from the Fish and Wildlife Service is a little less emphasis on endangered species and a little more emphasis on the important contributions of North Korean culture in the area of marine biology. Would it be possible for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to stop obsessing over this whole B.P. oil spill long enough to tell the North Koreans, "Your country may be a basket-case today, but we want you to know that we appreciate your 12th-Century contributions to the world’s collective knowledge of fishing and fisheries. There’s no way that we, the richest and best-fed nation in the world, would enjoy such an incredible abundance and variety of seafood without your important work"?

Think of the impact of such a statement on our relationship with North Korea, which is frankly a little testy after eight years of the Bush Administration. Instead of parroting the usual hostile messages—"Stop trying to acquire uranium," "Quit building nuclear weapons," etc., etc.—what if we just paused for a moment to say, "Hey, North Koreans. You were once better than we were at something, albeit many centuries ago, and we think that’s cool"?

Imagine the reaction of the average North Korean dirt farmer, digging through the mud as he tries to augment his daily 500-calorie allotment, when he’s reminded that his pre-communism ancestors were able to feed themselves. Let’s just say somebody might be puffing out his chest a little bit that day!

Or, and this is just one of many ideas, what about the Federal Bureau of Investigation? It’s all about making arrests with that group—boring!—but wouldn’t it be neat if the FBI could remind the Cubans that they once made the best mojitos in the world? And, for all we know, still do!

How about Venezuela? Clearly the President wants to friend President Hugo Chavez. Perhaps the Federal Aviation Administration should reorder its priorities and make it its mission—maybe even its foremost mission!—to help Venezuelans feel good about themselves by emphasizing that the country’s early inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, were a peace-loving, matri-lineal society. The FAA would be the perfect agency to take on this outreach because (1) it has never, as far as we know, started a war, and (2) there are women working in the FAA.

Republican Rep. Pete Olson, a member of the House Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, said he was "disappointed" that the White House’s priorities didn’t include "launching a spacecraft with humans aboard. Nothing inspires people across regions, age ranges, and backgrounds like human space flight."

Sorry, Pete. It’s that kind of tired old thinking that got us where we are today.