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Paul Greenberg: Uncertain Trumpet

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

On to ... certainly not Victory! That would be too definite, too clear, too convincing a goal for a president who, far from convincing the rest of us to support his foreign policy, seems unconvinced himself, his words as nebulous as the policy he's advocating at the time. That's assuming he has a policy rather than the wordy mist he offered Congress in the guise of asking its authorization to use military force. Or maybe he was asking for only a show of force, which is something quite different, against the latest outbreak of Islamic terrorism, this time styled the Islamic State or some such.


The only thing clear about our president's latest request to Congress was its lack of clarity. It seems the president wants congressional approval to use military force for a limited time (three years) but at the same time prohibit "enduring offensive combat operations," which used to be known as war.

Our president isn't asking for authorization to lead the country into war, not exactly, or anywhere else exactly. Maybe he just wants the troops to mill around aimlessly for a while, much as his "foreign policy" does. In one sentence, he asks Congress to authorize military action, and in the next to forbid it. Trying to interpret his words is like trying to cut through fog.

This much is clear: Barack Obama's appeal to Congress last week certainly wasn't in the spirit of FDR's address to Congress and the country the day after Pearl Harbor when that president vowed: "With confidence in our armed forces -- with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God."

But that was a quite different president; back then the country's armed forces had a commander-in-chief, not this vague waffler who can't seem to decide what he's after, if anything.

One thing about the Hon. Barack Obama has become obvious, at least to our adversaries. Whether they're a bunch of bloodthirsty thugs in the Middle East or the bloodthirsty thug in the Kremlin who's now styled president of all the Russias, which keep multiplying while our president mainly watches, wrings his hands and "leads from behind," that is, doesn't lead at all. It didn't take long for the assorted thugs of the world -- from Moscow to Teheran -- to figure him out. He's a pushover. They've got his number even if he still mystifies some of us at home.


How summarize this president's approach to international diplomacy -- if he has one at all? The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, a columnist who's certainly not right-wing, did as good a job as any at describing this president's modus operandi, or lack of one, in a story about our chief executive's last appearance at that Tower of Babel on the East River known as the United Nations:

"This is the way a Nobel Peace Prize laureate goes to war. He smiles warmly at the members of the UN General Assembly. He mentions his grandmother's village in Kenya and notes that 'Islam teaches peace.' He admits his country's own flaws, praises 'the path of diplomacy and peace,' and asserts that lasting gains cannot be 'won at the barrel of a gun.' Also, he wades a good 19 minutes into his 40-minute speech (the official time limit is 15 minutes) before getting to the nub of the matter: 'The terrorist group known as ISIL must be degraded and ultimately destroyed . . . . There can be no reasoning, no negotiation, with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.' Network of Death! A linguistic heir to George W. Bush's Axis of Evil, perchance?"

If so, it's only by chance. For this president makes it clear he has no stomach for a fight, that his war aims are aimless, and his restrictions on American forces clearer than any commands he might give them. He's the very picture of impotent outrage, "decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent," to borrow a phrase from the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, MP, about the appeasers who seemed bent on making the world safe for aggression in his time.


One of our president's favorite fatuities is that he's on the "right side of history," as if history made leaders instead of leaders making history -- for good or, maybe in his case, ill. What do you suppose will be his place in history's long view? If you seek his monument, just look around. Note the victory he squandered after the Surge in Iraq, the years-long passion of Syria and its fleeing people that he's steadfastly ignored, or the muddle that is Ukraine, or rather what's left of it after his studied neglect of its continuing vivisection.

Here at home, this president installs his, what, fourth secretary of defense in six years? Secretaries of defense this administration has produced aplenty, it's just a credible defense it lacks.

Year after year, our president and titular commander-in-chief continues to dither to no great effect. Last week he even asked Congress to repeal one of the very war resolutions he's been using to justify his own largely ineffectual air strikes against this Islamic State/Caliphate, compounding his strategic confusion with the legal kind. Even when he sounds Retreat, his is an uncertain trumpet.

Why would anyone in Congress give him a blank check to wage, or maybe not wage, war or peace or neither? Stay tuned if you can bear it, for surely there's a lot more confusion to come.

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