Dithering Won’t Keep the Peace

February 15th, 2011

By Dan Miller

Not even ObamaCare can cover the harm the president has done to national health.

President Obama is driving a badly maintained car with defective brakes, no steering wheel and a stuck accelerator; he can’t see the cliff up ahead because it’s night and the headlights are broken too. He is in trouble. So are the rest of us, even the back seat passengers along for the ride.

Such a situation is not new. Well before the First World War began, the royal families of England, Belgium, Russia and Germany had strong familial relationships and had long exchanged intimate correspondence. Each was privy to the thoughts of each and the various ministers of state had similar information. (A highly readable account of the familial and other relationships is presented in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.) King Edward VII of England died in 1910 and his state funeral was attended by kings, heirs apparent, queens and lower dignitaries representing seventy nations. First among them was Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, wearing the uniform of a British field marshal and riding to the right of Britain’s new king, George V. He was also the honorary colonel of the 1st Royal Dragoons, grandson of Queen Victoria (“the grandmother of Europe”) and sixth in succession to the British throne. With such unity, what could possibly go wrong in those simple and easily understood times?

Kaiser Wilhelm had long despised King Edward — “his mother’s brother whom he could neither bully nor impress, whose fat figure cast a shadow between Germany and the sun…. ‘You cannot imagine what a Satan he is!’” Above all else, Kaiser Wilhelm craved great international respect and power for himself and for Germany — and their rightful place in the sun. That did not augur well for the rest of Europe or for Britain.

The Schlieffen Plan for German conquest, beginning with the invasion of fastidiously neutral Belgium, had been completed in 1906. It was continuously and meticulously updated by his successors. Germany’s intentions for the invasion of Belgium as the first move in its quest for domination had hardly been kept secret. The plans were ignored or glossed over, as would be Germany’s intentions, in the years leading up to the world war.

Germany apparently did not much credit the prevailing notion that due to the rise of international business and general prosperity, likely to be destroyed by war, there would be no war at all. The First World War began in 1914, with the long-planned German invasion of Belgium, and ended in 1918 with Germany’s defeat. Despite the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Germany began to violate the treaty left and right by rearming. Civilian flying clubs were formed to evade the prohibitions on air force development; ships of tonnage expressly prohibited by the treaty were built by Germany while Britain reduced her tonnage in compliance with it.

In 1933, sixteen years after the end of World War I and six years before the start of World War II, the Oxford Union resolved “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.” According to Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm, “it was easy to laugh off such an episode in England, but in Germany, in Russia, in Italy, in Japan, the idea of a decadent, degenerate Britain took deep root and swayed many calculations.”

Churchill notes that by 1934, German air power exceeded that of Britain and was growing more rapidly. In 1935, Germany announced the advent of compulsory military service. In April of 1935, the members of the League of Nations came out foursquare against treaty violations but made no threat of force should further such violations occur. They occurred frequently. The Treaty of Versailles was in tatters. That mattered little to a still largely pacifist nation, unwilling and unprepared to take the minimal risks then necessary to avoid far greater risks later.

The German plans were ignored or glossed over because they were too horrible to contemplate and did not fit with the prevailing pacifist mood. Then as now, confidence that all would somehow work out for the best was misplaced. In September of 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to great acclaim that he had achieved “peace in our time” through concessions to Germany. He had not achieved peace; he had given Germany yet another year to continue preparing for her adventures, which were to be far more devastating and deadly than had been the First World War. Was Germany a “democracy” in 1938? If Clintonian language may be permitted, a lot depends on what is meant by “democracy.”

Churchill had been a leading proponent of stopping Hitler before massive devastation would be required. As he noted in The Gathering storm:

We must regard as deeply blameworthy before history … [all British parties] during this fatal period. Delight in smooth-sounding platitudes, refusal to face unpleasant facts, desire for popularity and electoral success irrespective of the vital interests of the State, genuine love of peace and pathetic belief that love can be its sole foundation . . . the strong and violent pacifism which at this time dominated the Labour-Socialist Party, the utter devotion of the Liberals to sentiment apart from reality . . . constituted a picture of British fatuity and fecklessness which, though devoid of guile, was not devoid of guilt, and, though free from wickedness or evil design, played a definite part in unleashing upon the world of horrors and miseries which even so far as they have unfolded, are already beyond comparison in human experience (emphasis added).

If he ever bothered to read about them, President Obama must think no more highly of Churchill’s warnings than he did of the Churchill bust he returned to the English soon after he ascended to the Oval Office.

As the world explodes today in such places as the Arab lands — problems in Algeria began recently — and as the fuses are being set for explosions in Venezuela, North Korea, China and elsewhere, the United States is preparing to cut military spending while simultaneously introducing “social justice” reforms in the military and preparing to spend funds to get our troops ready to accept those reforms without excessively impairing combat effectiveness. Having already been given an anticipatory Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama evidently sees no need even to consider preserving the peace in the best way thus far found — being alert while keeping the country strong and ready to defend peace and itself.

There was probably very little that President Obama could do in the days of violence immediately leading up to the Egyptian coup/presidential resignation and there is even less now. He can and will continue only to dither; the crisis has been wasted. However, the situation in Egypt did not hatch unheralded overnight; they do so infrequently. Action or even strong words supportive of the protesters in Iran, rather than neglect, conflicting mumblings and indecision might well have made the situation in Egypt easier to deal with. Ditto had the situation in Honduras been handled in an adult manner not very long ago. North Korea? Hu is dealing with that now? With a nearly flawless record of undirected dithering, future crises will be even less possible to manage. Conflicting and later countermanded statements were noticed early on by the mainstream media — and by folks overseas as well; they pay attention. A clear path, rather than a muddy and muddled maze, for U.S. foreign policy should have emerged; it did not because under President Obama it could not.

More interested in salvaging the declining prospects of his domestic initiatives than in foreign affairs, President Obama’s minions

fret that new instability in the Middle East could distract from the jobs and innovation message that the president started pushing in his State of the Union address; dim hopes for a breakthrough in the peace process; and, most worrisome of all, stall the economy if the revolutionary tsunami spreads to other Arabian states, driving up the price of oil.

“It’s just a very tough line to straddle,” a senior administration official said. “If [Mubarak] guts this out and stays, we’re going to continue to need him and work with him, and he might not appreciate that we pushed. Bottom line, Egypt’s destiny is Egypt’s to decide, and we’ll work with whoever emerges or is left standing.”

Moreover, administration officials confess that they are uncertain who should replace him.

“There’s no horse to bet on,” said a Democrat with intimate knowledge of the conversations. “There’s no opposition leader to get behind.”

And that’s from a generally pro-Obama blog.

President Obama himself appears — and probably not only to the politically aware in the United States — to have little interest in foreign affairs beyond the opportunities they provide for trite phrases poorly concealing hypocrisy — Iran, Honduras, Israel and now Egypt. Does President Obama really want President Mubarak to go, stay, do both, do neither, or something else? Probably something like that. Does he have any conception of what would be good for Egypt or the United States? It was observed in The Daily Beast as to Egypt that

the Obama White House hasn’t helped matters by shifting policy ground almost daily, causing confusion, and thereby squandering America’s credibility and limited but precious influence. President Obama has got to learn the fundamental rule of dealing with careening crises: State your basic principles and then shut up publicly! (Meaning, just boringly repeat your mantra daily.)

That’s all well and good; however, a useful statement of “basic principles” requires that they exist and have valid bases in fact; dithering and vacillating as the winds blow are inadequate as basic principles. It did not help when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a widely televised House Intelligence Committee hearing on February 10 that the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is “a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.” What was the Brotherhood’s reaction to this? Iran’s? They were likely disabled briefly by fits of laughter. Perhaps they recovered quickly enough to learn of the later “clarification” of Mr. Clapper’s remarks. Throughout the crisis, the entire Obama administration was flummoxed as the situation was spinning out of control — not that they at any time had it in control.

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8 Responses to “Dithering Won’t Keep the Peace”

  1. Tom Carter |

    Nicely done, Dan. The dithering that went on in the periods prior to WWI and WWII puts the current international situation in perspective. Whether it’s Iran or North Korea or a wave of change in the Middle East the ignites the next conflagration, historians will look back on it and bemoan the dithering that’s going on right now.

    The Guns of August is a great book; anyone with an interest in the WWI era should read it. Another great one is The Fall of the Dynasties.

  2. Clarissa |

    Dithering is a lot better than just invading a place and then not even being able to remember why you invaded in the first place.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Clarissa, 15,000,000 or so people died in WWI and 50,000,000 or so in WWII. If less dithering and more direct action against clear threats could have saved tens of millions of lives, how could that be bad? Granted, it was hard to know in 1935 that assassinating Hitler would have been a gift to humanity, but if it had been done, there would still be severe criticism in some quarters directed at the government that did it.

    History has proven that Churchill’s early warnings about Nazi Germany were right, and there are warning flags flying right now about conditions in the Middle East. Trying to appease Arab governments and Muslims in general, complete with absurd moral equivalence and apologies, will not prevent another 9/11, and the next one may be far worse.

    I’m not sure what you mean about “invading a place and then not even being able to remember why you invaded in the first place.” If you’re referring to Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t think any serious person who understands the recent past has any trouble remembering the “why” of it all. Disagreement, perhaps, but we remember why it was done.

  4. Dan Miller |

    Clarissa, I don’t see dithering and going off half cocked as the only available alternatives; neither is viable as national policy and the results of either or both can be very bad.

    Rather than dither and/or go off half cocked, the Obama Administration should have been more up to speed on the situation in Egypt and should have responded in ways suggesting cognizance of the long term best interests of the United States. A democratic and free Egypt, as distinguished from one suffering under a tyrannical theocratic regime, would be in the best interests of the United States. Ditto before and during the Iranian protests against an “election” held by a very oppressive theocratic regime. Had the situation in Iran been dealt with on those bases, it would have been far easier to respond to the situation in Egypt — with regard to the long term best interests of the United States as well as the long term best interests of the Egyptians. Unfortunately, that’s not the way things have been going.

    Looking not all that far back in history, had Britain and the reasonably free and democratic nations of Europe responded to Hitler’s prohibited increases in armaments and his invasions of other countries well before they did, World War II could have been avoided. The losses of life would have been far less than resulted from dithering based on unrealistic and ideologically based hopes that all would somehow work out for the best. The situation in which we now find ourselves is of course different in various respects. However, the analogies are worth considering.

  5. larry ennis |

    The really appalling part of this entire middle eastern situation has been our weak state department. Hillary Clinton is strictly a “poser” as she has illustrated time and again. She ran away and hid in Haiti until things in Egypt cooled down.

  6. Dan Miller |

    Larry, I don’t like Secretary Clinton at all. However, I wonder whether she went because she wanted to or because she was sent.

  7. larry ennis |

    Could be your right about Hillary Clinton.
    It’s sort of a did she jump or was she pushed question.
    At any rate her actions seem pretty in line with what we’ve come to expect from this administration.

    I hope our countries best interest come out on the right side of this crisis in Egypt.

  8. Dan Miller |


    I don’t know what’s going on in Egypt beyond the news reports. However, it is normally reasonable to hope that our intelligence folks do and that their information and analyses are communicated on a timely basis to the administration officials who call the shots.

    I think the main lesson to be learned from the administration’s conflicting and inconsistent responses is that that hope is unrealistic. It seems that to the extent that the information was available it was put through a filter of ideological/political acceptability during whatever analysis may have been attempted and that inconvenient facts were brushed aside.

    That we may learn this lesson is good; that our enemies almost certainly will is not.

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