Paul Greenberg

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full ...

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar ...

-- Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"

. .

It would be wrong to say that our president's policy toward the continuing crisis, calamity and crack-up in Syria -- a disaster now rippling out far beyond that country -- has been disappointing. Disappointment implies that something better was expected.

But by this time in Barack Obama's ever diminishing presidency, disappointment has become the norm. Yes, there may be a pause in the inaction from time to time, as in a Greek tragedy, for the chorus to deliver a bitter commentary or touching eulogy for the latest victims. But then this undramatic drama continues to wind down.

Soon the curtain rises for the next inconclusive act and bloody scene. And the bodies are piled higher. There may be exceptions in this administration's record -- occasional success stories when and if those responsible for protecting the country are allowed to do their job -- but those remain the exceptions. In Syria and in general, the killing never seems to end. Each act just seems to run on until the next intermission, when the exhausted audience is told only: To Be Continued.

Does anyone believe in this president any more when it comes to issues of life and death, war and peace? If so, their faith, which may not be easy to differentiate from naivete, is more impressive than convincing.

Just where we are now in this tragic history is hard to tell. Are we entering a war but not a real one, or pausing to give peace a chance but not much of one?

To know where we are headed would mean knowing where we are, and that much nobody seems to know. Certainly not this president, who says he's waiting for the Russian president, or Congress, or the United Nations, or maybe all of the above to tell him.

Are we headed for war or peace or neither? Your guess is as good as mine, maybe better, for it may be unclouded by long attention to this president's record or lack of one. What moves him besides the devout wish to put off any and all decisions? For now all is in abeyance, and may always be.

As a back-bencher named Winston Churchill once described a forever agonizing, appeasing government that included another distinguished figure, Neville Chamberlain, our president seems "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent." Churchill's was a masterful diagnosis of the sickness of his time, for which he was dismissed and derided as a dangerous warmonger.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.