Of course it is a challenge for any modern national leader, to stand tomorrow on the beaches of Normandy and recall the greatest days and martial triumphs of World War II.
The comparison is obvious and embarrassing, between the giants and the pygmies: Churchill and Cameron, Hollande and de Gaulle, above all Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama.
In 2014, at least Britain’s prime minister and France’s president must bear responsibility only for their own countries.
But the President of the United States is the standard-bearer for the global cause of freedom, commander-in-chief of the principal might of the forces of democracy.
Barack Obama (right) has disappointed his nation and its allies as have few presidents in modern times. Comparisons with America’s wartime leader Franklin D Roosevelt (left) are embarrassing, Max Hastings writes
This week, however, at the D-Day Commemoration, America’s representative will be a man who has disappointed his nation and its allies as have few presidents in modern times.
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- VIEW FULL ARCHIVE
From the moment of his first inauguration in January 2009, he was expected to be a healer rather than a warrior. But nobody, not even his foremost Republican foes, believed that halfway through his second term of office, Obama would be giving the world a convincing impersonation of a marshmallow.
That is nonetheless where we have got to, with the black comedy of his Administration’s exchange of five top-rank Taliban prisoners for an alleged ‘Afghan war hero’, who now appears to have been a deserter whose comrades despised him.
It is suggested by one officer that in 2009 some American soldiers were killed in vain pursuit of then Private Bowe Bergdahl, after he went walkabout one night from his post in the south-eastern mountains, leaving his belongings neatly piled behind him.
Bergdahl’s story has been compared to the great TV drama series Homeland, starring Damian Lewis, which featured a Marine sergeant hailed as a hero after returning from Al Qaeda captivity, who proves to have been turned into a would-be suicide bomber.
But what matters in this huge American political story is not how mad or bad Bergdahl — since promoted to Sergeant — may have been, but what possessed Obama first to create the deplorable precedent of exchanging him for a row of Taliban heavy-hitters held at Guantanamo Bay; and then to welcome home this young man as an alleged hero, before discovering that many of the men who served with him believed he deserved to be shot.
This lapse of judgment caught the White House in the headlights at a moment when the world was already gazing in bewilderment and dismay at Obama’s blurred response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
Just at the moment when a clear voice was needed, Obama spoke out with a frail and reedy one. Just as Vladimir Putin, the most dangerous thug to occupy the Kremlin since the Cold War, tests the resolve of the West, his U.S. counterpart waffles, and slashes the defence budget.
Obama does have a case in mitigation. After the presidency of George W. Bush, who led Blair’s Britain as well as his own nation into a series of disastrous wars, it is welcome that his successor should tread more cautiously.
And Obama was right when he told an audience in Poland this week that his allies need to do much more towards their own defence.
The European Nato nations, led by Germany, have almost abandoned credible security policies, and the United States is sick of paying their bills as well as its own.
It has been suggested by one army officer that in 2009 some American soldiers were killed in vain pursuit of then Private Bowe Bergdahl (pictured), after he went walkabout one night from his post
Britain is also a guilty party here: the Cameron government’s running down of our armed forces reflects ignorance and irresponsibility.
The U.S. president is also right to make plain that his own country has no interest in direct military intervention in Ukraine. In making foreign policy, sabre-rattling is foolish and often dangerous.
But all that said, it is painful to recall the brave, ringing rhetoric that I heard Obama deliver to middle America on the campaign trail back in 2008.
The world gazed in bewilderment and dismay at Obama’s blurred response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. Just at the moment when a clear voice was needed, Obama spoke out with a frail and reedy one
Today, the man in charge of the world’s most powerful nation seems deeply uncertain about where he, and it, should go.
He appears disengaged, detached, almost an alien from another planet. Whether he was right or wrong to reject intervention in the conflict in Syria last year, it was a crippling display of weakness publicly to assert that any use of chemical weapons by President Assad would represent ‘a line in the sand’ which the dictator would cross at his peril. For then Obama ignored exactly such an atrocity.
All of this means that America’s allies in Asia question what Obama’s goodwill is worth as they confront Chinese expansionism. The Baltic states, meanwhile, fearful of new Russian aggression, ponder what their membership of Nato and the EU may mean, if Putin stretches out a claw to seize them. Will Obama again bend, or fight?
On the beaches of Normandy tomorrow, the world will gaze upon images of America’s president at the anniversary ceremonies, and recall his predecessors.
Greatest of all, of course, was Franklin Roosevelt, who led his nation out of Depression through World War II. He was a man who brilliantly articulated his nation’s hopes and fears. But he went further by leading the U.S. into places that at the outset his people did not think they wished to go.
Harry Truman, his successor, was also a man of notable courage and wisdom, who sent an army to Korea in 1950 to drive back communist invaders.
Dwight Eisenhower was a shrewder and wiser leader than the comics allowed when they cracked — in reference to his love of golf — ‘somebody take that putter off Ike!’.
This image of Obama alongside Bob Bergdahl, father of the newly-liberated Taliban hostage and one of the most obvious fruitcakes ever to sport an Old Testament prophet’s beard, could come back to haunt him
Kennedy, despite all the controversy that stalks his memory, was a man of indisputable high intelligence and star quality. But for the curse of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson would be remembered as a magnificent domestic reformer.
Before Nixon became the Watergate man, he sought rapprochement with China. Ronald Reagan was no brainbox, but he saw the demise of the ‘Evil Empire’, and made the American people feel better about themselves than any of his peers before or since. Even Bill Clinton had his moments, for instance, if belatedly, in the Kosovo conflict.
But Obama today finds himself being compared – and not always by Republican enemies – with that most pitiful of modern presidents, Jimmy Carter, the man who presided over the humiliation of the Tehran Embassy hostage drama; remembered for the symbolic photograph of himself falling on his face while out jogging.
Maybe this week’s image of Obama alongside Bob Bergdahl, father of the newly-liberated Taliban hostage and one of the most obvious fruitcakes ever to sport an Old Testament prophet’s beard, will end up on the same page of history.
Whoever let the president get photographed in such company?
The judgment of the Leader of the Free World looks terrible. He has 30 months left to serve in office, but unless some amazing lightning stroke descends on him, Obama’s presidency seems set to end in failure.
Precisely because he is America’s first black chief executive, the man on whom such huge hopes rested five years ago, this makes his plight today all the more wretched.
He is not a bad man, nor a stupid one, but he has shown himself tragically weak. And in a world occupied by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Putin, Nigeria’s Boko Haram kidnappers, and a terrifyingly ambitious China, that is no way for the occupant of the White House to be.
The best Barack Obama can hope tomorrow, when he evokes the spirit of June 6, 1944, on the Normandy shore, is that no cruel listener laughs.