It's a theme this president sounded in his first inaugural address, warning that "those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" are "on the wrong side of history." He returned to it in his remarks (bracketed by golf outings) about the horrific murder of James Foley. After describing just how barbaric the ISIL terrorists are, Obama offered the following complacent analysis: "And people like this ultimately fail. They fail, because the future is won by those who build and not destroy and the world is shaped ... by the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed [Foley] ... One thing we can all agree on is that a group like ISIL has no place in the 21st century."
That would be nice, but it's fatuous. "History" is not an actor with a point of view and a direction. You cannot be on its "wrong" side. Progressives tend to believe that the world is evolving, through some unseen but inexorable force, toward greater peace, equality, prosperity and justice. The great task for a leader of the United States, Obama appears to believe, is to get out of history's way. That's why it's a good idea to reduce our army to its smallest size since 1940, and to reduce the Marines by 8 percent. According to the American Thinker, the Army chief of staff recently testified that due to cutbacks in training funds, 75 percent of our forces are not combat ready. Apparently that's OK, because according to the words of Martin Luther King Jr., which Obama had embroidered into the Oval Office rug, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
James Foley's family might not agree. Nor would the Yazidis, or the hundreds of thousands of Syrians murdered by gas and artillery and barrel bombs, or the 100,000 Bosnians and others killed in the heart of Europe in the late 20th century, or the 1 million Rwandans killed in 1994, or the roughly 2 million Cambodians massacred between 1975 and 1979. History, in all cases, looked on impassively.
In Obama's telling, history is making American might unnecessary because the "tide of war is receding." Others believe that wars are won or lost. They don't ebb and flow like oceans.
Sadly for the president and the country he leads, his own over-eagerness to disengage from global responsibilities and to back away from military commitments has stimulated just the sort of forces he describes as retrograde.
In his Martha's Vineyard remarks, the president said, "Let's be clear about ISIL" and itemized some of its depredations including torture, rape and slavery. He might have added crucifixions and beheadings. He might also have admitted that despite his boasts that "core al-Qaida" has been decimated, ISIL is al-Qaida reborn.
Yet, aside from an air campaign (which is good as far it goes), the president again seems ready to permit a benevolent history to manage events. "Governments and peoples across the Middle East" will unite to "extract this cancer," he predicted.
That has never been true. When have the nations of the Middle East ever joined forces against an evil government or movement? Even the Europeans proved utterly feckless at intervening in the Bosnian genocide. Only with American leadership did the killing come to an end.
The peace of the post-World War II world was kept, to the degree it was, by American arms and American world leadership. Obama's abandonment of an American role in Iraq left the space into which ISIL has moved. Only American leadership and engagement can defeat ISIL. But that will require vigorous presidential leadership, not wan invocations of history's trajectory.