hat line from John Ford’s classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance contains wisdom everyone from peasant to king knew before our modern age and its smug illusions. Go back 2,400 years, and you can hear it from the Athenian orator Demosthenes as he chastises his fellow citizens for responding to Macedonian aggression by “forever debating the question and never making any progress” and issuing “empty decrees.” “All words, apart from action,” Demosthenes warned, “seem vain and idle, especially from Athenian lips: for the greater our reputation for a ready tongue, the greater the distrust it inspires in all men.” We’ve had several years now of watching Obama and his foreign policy team prove this eternal truth as they have feebly and fecklessly responded to crisis after crisis in Ukraine, Syria, and a dozen other venues.
Just in the last few weeks we have heard a lot of bluster about Islamic State, the rampaging jihadists in northern Iraq who have left in their wake a trail of traditional Muslim mayhem–- sectarian cleansing, forced conversion, slaving, rape, torture, slaughter, and Koran-inspired beheadings, including two American journalists. In response to these decisive deeds, Obama has thundered that he will “degrade and destroy” the “cancer.”
In an op-ed co-written with British Prime Minister David Cameron, he has vowed that the allies “will not be cowed by barbaric killers.” His vice president Joe Biden, with his usual trite hyperbole, has threatened, “We will follow them to the gate of hell until they are brought to justice.” And Secretary of State John Kerry, after the beheading of journalist James Foley, has warned, “The world must know that the United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil. ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.” “By whom” is the question the passive voice artfully leaves unanswered.
To paraphrase Demosthenes, the greater this administration’s ready tongue, the greater distrust it inspires in our allies, and the greater boldness it creates in our enemies. Or to put it in my old man’s more earthy terms when I smarted off, “Don’t let your mouth write checks your ass can’t cash.” Obama has been bouncing foreign policy checks from Ukraine to the South China Sea, and most points in between.
Indeed, the deeds necessary to back these loud boasts have been few. That should not surprise us, since Obama has said and done much to tell the world that we will not act decisively, relying instead on verbal processes and gestures of force like bombing some trucks to create a telegenic illusion of action. He started his presidency with the “apology tour,” on which he called the U.S. “arrogant, dismissive, derisive,” confessed that we are “still working through some of our own darker periods in our history,” proclaimed that we “will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made,” confessed that “too often we set [our] principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford” and so “we went off course,” and promised that we “are working to improve our democracy.” How could such a tainted and flawed state have the moral authority to act with the confidence and decisiveness that his recent rhetoric implies?
Likewise his domestic deeds have undercut the capacity to enforce his tough foreign policy words. Because of cuts to the military budget––inspired in part by his desire to reduce the U.S. to merely one unexceptional member of an international coalition that supposedly can maintain global order and create collective security––our military capacity is destined “to be an increasingly hollow force,” as Bret Stephens writes, “with the Army as small as it was in 1940, before conscription; a Navy the size it was in 1917, before our entry into World War I; an Air Force flying the oldest—and smallest—fleet of planes in its history; and a nuclear arsenal no larger than it was during the Truman administration.”
Commensurate with this undercutting of America’s armed forces have been Obama’s empty bluster and careless language, something dangerous coming from the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military power in history. “Leading from behind” in Libya, the vanishing “red line” in Syria, the juvenile scolding of Putin “that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters,” the “no strategy” gaffe about the “jayvee” jihadists of the Islamic State–– all were instantly refuted and discredited by facts on the ground created by hard men of brutal action. Libya is not a democracy, but the jihadist version of Road Warrior. Syria’s Bashar al Assad is winning in Syria by slaughtering close to 200,000 men, women, and children. The Islamic State still controls northern Iraq and Syria, and still sits at the gates of Baghdad. And Putin has snatched Crimea and is closing in on eastern Ukraine. Throw in Obama’s penchant for berating allies like Israel, ignoring the interests of others like Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, undercutting vulnerable states like Poland and the Czech Republic, and appeasing genocidal mullahs in Iran, and is it any surprise that his words “inspire greater distrust” in everyone except our enemies?
Of course, Obama’s habit of using words to substitute for politically risky deeds is universal in the West. We just saw a NATO confab in which a lot of big talk for the reporters end up so much smoke when the details are parsed. NATO leaders have agreed “to establish a so-called spearhead force of several thousand troops designed to move into trouble spots at short notice,” as The Wall Street Journal reported. Talk about closing the barn door after the Russian bear has got loose. I’m sure Putin is trembling over the thought of “several thousand” NATO troops that someday might materialize to stop his adventurism. If NATO isn’t acting now, what makes anyone think this special “spearhead force” will act in the future, even if NATO members do create it? As Charles Krauthammer writes, the force “is a feeble half-measure. Not only will troops have to be assembled, dispatched, transported and armed as the fire bell is ringing, but the very sending will require some affirmative and immediate decision by NATO. Try getting that done. The alliance is famous for its reluctant, slow and fractured decision-making.”
And haven’t we heard this sort of braggadocio before from Europe? Remember the 60,000-man “rapid reaction force” the EU was going to create so that they could avoid any further embarrassment of having “cowboy” Americans pull their foreign policy irons out of the fire, as happened in Bosnia and Kosovo? Given that only three European NATO members honor the 2% of GDP minimum for military spending, it’s unlikely that the money for creating this alleged “deterrent” will ever be budgeted, not with EU economies in the doldrums, and widespread grumbling over “austerity” budgets. No wonder that, as the Journal reports, “most details of the force . . . remained to be settled.” But don’t worry, NATO leaders have “committed” to spending the 2% on defense they “committed” to in 2002 and subsequently ignored. Better read the fine print: the commitment is non-binding and will be implemented over a 10-year period. Who knows how much more of the old Soviet Empire Vladimir will have taken back by then.
“Word, words, words,” as Hamlet says. But words useful for politicians who want to avoid the risk and uncertainty of action, and don’t want to face disgruntled voters at the polls. And when this perennial calculus is joined to the progressive belief that an exploitative, racist, neo-imperialist America is disqualified by its sins from being the guarantor of global order and stability, you get the world we are rapidly becoming––a Darwinian jungle of feral violence, illiberal hegemons, thug-nations, and nuclear-armed terrorist states.
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