May 23rd, 2019


The Hollow Men

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Sept. 10, 2014

The Hollow Men

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

--T. S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men"

Once again our secretary of state is busy observing American foreign policy rather than shaping it. John Kerry was speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new museum of American diplomacy, where examples of America's leadership in world affairs will doubtless be on display along with other relics of the past.

Secretary Kerry took advantage of the occasion to warn against creeping isolationism. Creeping? It's galloping by now. For it's been hurtling on ever since January 20, 2009, when a new president sounded a new call for American foreign policy: Retreat!

This administration had barely begun before the Hon. Barack Obama shelved plans for an anti-missile shield planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. Then he was off to Cairo to unveil a whole different policy ("A New Beginning") for the Middle East and the Muslim world in general: Apologize profusely and withdraw from everywhere as soon as possible.

We can all see how well that approach has worked out -- from Syria and the Levant and across North Africa as Islamist terror has spread like a fast-growing bloodstain. Or as Sarah Palin, once derided as some kind of nut, might put it, and did: "How's that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?"

Even as all the chickens (or rather vultures) he has unleashed were coming home to roost, Barack Obama was sounding as blase as ever, careless and callous as his emblematic "military" salute. What, him worry?

Or as the president told a fundraising dinner for Democratic candidates just the other day, "The world has always been messy." Ho hum. Ukraine, Iran, Syria, what's left of Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. ... Forget it, or maybe give it a lick and a promise if we really have to, and maybe it'll all go away.

Talk about isolationism, Barack Obama in 2014 might as well be Charles Lindbergh in 1939 warning against getting involved in the "age-old struggle between the nations of Europe." What concern should all that be to us an ocean away?

Or as Neville Chamberlain would put it on his way to sell the Czechs out at Munich in 1938, why get involved in a "quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing"? Hey, the world has always been messy. Ignore it and maybe it'll go away.

All this exaggerated uproar is just the media's fault, anyway. "If you watch the nightly news," the president complained the other day, "it feels like the world is falling apart." Maybe because it is? Nope, he's got everything under control despite all appearances -- even if he was caught for a while without a strategy to deal with his latest Crisis of the Day.

This one was set off by an outfit that calls itself the Islamic State, and has been metastasizing all over Syria and what used to be Iraq. Now the president is telling us the country needs to go to war again, but not really. With predictable results. For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?--Corinthians 1-4.

Oh, if only the nervous nellies in the press would quiet down. To adapt a line from that foreign-policy sage, Ring Lardner: Shut up, he explained. Meanwhile, the Russian bear is chewing away at the edges of Europe, and not just the edges. The latest additions to a revived Soviet empire accumulate so fast they begin to resemble the spread of Hitler's Reich in the sleepy Thirties, which inevitably led to the anything but sleepy Forties and the bloodiest of wars in the world's history.

Much the same prelude to disaster mounts in Europe today: First the bear bites off a small sliver of Moldova, then hunks of Georgia, followed by all of Crimea, and now a healthy helping of eastern Ukraine. ... Ronald Reagan once compared the old Soviet Union to a hotel burglar who proceeds down the corridor trying one room after another till he finds one with the door unlocked and proceeds to ransack it. It helps if the house dick is snoozing downstairs, or, in Detective Obama's case, too busy raising campaign funds to take foreign policy seriously.

There really oughta be a law, or at least an unspoken rule, against criticizing this president's foreign policy, if you could call it a policy. Much like the sportsman's rule against shooting sitting ducks. It's no challenge. It's so much easier to sit back and criticize its glaring defects than to offer an alternative. If only our leaders had some historical consciousness, they could just leaf through any history of American diplomacy (instead of relegating it to a museum) and find any number of examples to follow -- and beware.

There was old John Adams' keeping the peace with France instead of yielding to provocation and leading the country into an inconclusive war like that of 1812. (He left that misadventure to the Jeffersonians who followed him in the White House.) Or look to how Abraham Lincoln saved the Union by letting its erring states in the South go one after another, giving up Fort Pickens in Florida and even the Little Rock armory here in Arkansas. Instead, he would let the South bear the onus of starting the War Between the States at Fort Sumter. The moral of that story: Diplomacy doesn't require just force but judgment.

There are any number of historical examples of how to lead -- and how not to. Franklin D. Roosevelt had to know that the spreading wars in Europe and Asia in his time would inevitably affect this nation, too, but that president also knew he would have to prepare a deeply isolationist America for it slowly, step by step, from Lend Lease to reviving the draft. Right up to the fateful morning Japan made the decision for us on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. But this president doesn't have to bring American public opinion along; it already seems far ahead of him, more aware of the growing dangers abroad than he is. He needn't lead at this point, just wake up.

An example of both what to do and not to do is offered by a single president: Woodrow Wilson. It may be forgotten now, but his campaign slogan in 1916 ("He kept us out of war!") was actually justified at the time -- the year before he got us into the First World War. Till then he had kept us out of it by a series of well-balanced measures like Armed Neutrality to stave off the German U-boats that threatened, and occasionally attacked, American ships. And yet they kept on supplying our informal British allies.

But then that president gave way to provocation -- and grandiose visions -- by announcing a war to make the world safe for democracy. It didn't. Neither did it prove the war to end war as advertised, but only the preface to an even more devastating one.

There are no easy answers in diplomacy, no matter how simple it once looked to our current president, who seemed to believe all he had to do was declare our good intentions, extend the hand of friendship to the old mullahs and new tsars all around the world, and all would be well in his fairy-tale version of international affairs.

Has he learned any better since? Maybe not. Illusions, like ideology, are hard to shake. But that rumble you hear is the world trembling under his feet after he's neglected it for so long. Is it too much to hope he'll wake up at last? The country already has. If only it could get the word to the White House.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.