January 22 2013
I’ve been searching all over this morning for a famous letter to the editor of an English newspaper from an English politician, who was praising the joys of strolling in the park on a beautiful spring day.
What made the letter a classic wasn’t its hymn to the beauties of a spring day; it that it was published on the day that Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. The politician—and I think he might have been the prime minister—was blissfully unprepared for the perils of a dangerous world.
I thought of the letter yesterday, during President Obama’s second inaugural address. In the wake of seven recent American deaths in terrorist attacks—four in Benghazi and three more recently in Algeria—one might have expected some sober comments on the foreign policy dilemmas confronting the nation.
The Wall Street Journal notes this morning:
Perhaps you've heard that "the tide of war is receding," except apparently where it isn't, which seems to be much of the world. The latest flash points are in North Africa and the Western Pacific, both of which implicate America regardless of President Obama's second-term wishes.
If a Republican were in the White House, the recent American deaths would have hovered over our inaugural festivities—and rightly so. I am not asking the president to rattle sabers, but we did need stronger responses to these two incidents of slaughter. We can't simply wish away bad things. As the Wall Street Journal further observes:
President Obama said the perpetrators will be brought to justice, but that's what he also said about those who killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi in September. An estimated seven million Americans work overseas (not counting the military), and there will be attacks on many of them if terrorists believe that they can kill Americans with impunity.
One wag said of the president’s contention that a decade of war is ending: somebody better tell the jihadists.
New Criterion editor Roger Kimball writes about “inaugurating President Chamberlain” over at National Review. (I have it in my mind that it was Chamberlain who wrote the joys of springtime letter.) The president even used a memorable Chamberlain locution:
“Peace in our time,” the president said, “requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.”
Now, I am as keen on tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice as the next gun-toting bitter-ender. But “peace in our time”? Where have we heard that before? Who was the last politician to strut across the world stage proclaiming “peace in our time”? Why, Neville Chamberlain, of course. He stepped off the plane that brought him back from his meeting with Adolf Hitler on September 30, 1938, and the crowd cheered as Chamberlain told them about his meeting with the German führer: “My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace in our time.”
Turns out, Chamberlain was wrong. But others knew that even then. Winston Churchill, for example. Maybe that’s part of the reason that one of Obama’s first acts when he became president was to send the bust of Churchill that had occupied an honored place in the White House back to the Brits. Churchill didn’t fit Obama’s narrative. But then, the world didn’t fit Chamberlain’s.
So far President Obama has been lucky, despite his feckless foreign policy.
Yes, the Middle East is far more dangerous than when he took office. But nothing on a large enough scale has happened to to harm President Obama's reputation.
But his inaugural address yesterday, both in its calls for more spending by a broke nation and his sunny picture of foreign affairs, was a lot like the springtime letter.