Uncertain trumpet, or: The president sounds retreat

. . .

For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

--First Corinthians, 14:8

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Our president went to West Point this week, looked over all his works in shaping American foreign policy and the world in general ... and pronounced it good. "This is American leadership," he concluded. "This is American strength."

Gentle (and unbiased) Reader can look around at the results of this president's decisions, or rather non-decisions, and judge the truth of that conclusion for himself:

Russia's new-old regime doesn't seem to have got the word about American leadership, strength and how successful both have been. Maybe it's been too busy digesting Crimea, sparking a civil war in what remains of Ukraine, and unsettling its neighbors from Stettin in the Baltic to Tbilisi in the Caucasus as Moscow restarts its own, unilateral Cold War. This is American leadership. This is American strength.

The horrors in Syria now enter their -- what? -- fourth, fifth year? More than 100,000 people have been killed, so many that the United Nations has stopped counting the bodies. The slaughter continues despite promises and investigations and bright red lines our president has laid down that soon fade into pale pink before disappearing altogether. This is American leadership. This is American strength.

Bashar Assad's sporadic chemical attacks on his own people continue despite all the dictator's solemn assurances and Washington's. At least 2 million Syrian refugees, an estimated three-quarters of them women and children, have fled their own country, straining the resources of neighboring states like Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq ... all of which have their own unrest, instability and deep-seated crises to deal with. This is American leadership. This is American strength.

Another 4 million-plus Syrians (who can count all the refugees?) have been displaced within their own country, creating still more breeding grounds for terrorists and terrorism. This is American leadership. This is American strength.

The usual charade of negotiations with Iran continues in palatial settings like Geneva, home of the defunct League of Nations, and Vienna, storied old capital of the Anschluss, while the mullahs' cyclotrons keep spinning and their Bomb comes ever nearer completion, along with the missiles awaiting their nuclear tips. But never fear. This is American leadership. This is American strength.

All across North Africa and the Middle East, from Benghazi to Baghdad, terrorism rises again. Without the presence of American troops, Iraq hurtles toward a level of chaos not seen since 2006, when George W. Bush ditched his increasingly ineffective secretary of defense and embraced a new strategy and a new strategist (Gen. David H. Petraeus) who devised the Surge that reversed the war's tragic course and restored that country to a semblance of order and democracy. But that was before this president withdrew American troops, and now Iraq totters again as terrorists regain the upper hand. And with the announcement that American forces are being reduced to an isolated, skeletal force in Afghanistan, the same fate may now await that country and morass. This is American leadership. This is American strength.

And all this is but to skim the surface of the collapsing world our president -- and commander-in-chief! -- is reshaping. And calling a picture of multilateral success. The whole structure of collective security, of alliances put together by a long succession of American presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, is unraveling, and not slowly. If this be success, if this be evidence of American leadership and strength, what would be abnegation and failure?

Barack Obama might like to retire from the world (who wouldn't at times?) but that doesn't mean the world is going to retire from America -- as we learned, once again, on September 11, 2001. It's no surprise our president's popularity continues to drop overseas. America's enemies don't fear him and our friends have learned they can't rely on him.

. . .

Once upon a similar time, when another celebrated leader was proclaiming Peace in Our Time to applause and acclaim, a lone voice was heard daring to speak truth to power as he leveled with the people of a soon to be embattled island. For appeasement would soon enough produce not peace but the most awful war in man's history:

"I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which nevertheless must be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat. ... And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and make our stand for freedom as in the olden time." --Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, October 5, 1938.

Who now will speak such home truths to the American people? Not this president, as his self-satisfied and self-celebrating address to the cadets at West Point demonstrates. All his policies must be working just fine, for he says so.

. . .

But it is not Barack Obama's purblind view of a world collapsing all around him and the rest of us that was the saddest part of his rhetorical performance this week, with its straw arguments against straw men and its smug dismissals of anyone who can see further than all his happy-talk. No, it is not what he said but what he didn't that represents the greatest danger to both world peace and America's sense of honor, which are inextricably bound together.

What saddens most about Mr. Obama's rhetoric is the absence of the kind of moral vision that other presidents have shown in the face of all too real and all too growing threats. Where is the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and all those other leaders who understood how wrong, and how dangerous, the old siren songs of American isolationism can be? They advocated rearmament not just in the material sense but moral rearmament. America will yet regain her old spirit. And her old vision. For we all live in hope. But hope is no substitute for policy.

. . .

This is no time to go wobbly.

--Margaret Thatcher

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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