President Barack Obama's performance in France at the 70th anniversary of D-Day was something of a disappointment. Perhaps more to the point, it mirrored some of his recent problems, including those in geopolitics.
Before getting to deeper substance, I have to say this. Obama looked a little too bored. True, these public appearances can go on. And some of what is said is not all that interesting. But Friday was the 70th anniversary of one of the most important events in world history. As such, and this should go without saying but evidently does not, it really wasn't the occasion for chewing gum. Yet there he was, chewing gum like it was the seventh inning of a not especially engaging baseball game.
After a few minutes of Obama's speech, I was ready for my own seventh inning stretch.
Obama is a terrific writer in his own right. And as someone who I think may be the best orator of the age, he's delivered some flat-out great speeches. This was decidedly not one of them.
It was all too rote, too catechism, too tunnel-visioned.
The first wave of American soldiers on Omaha Beach found it very brutal going, as accurately depicted in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.
The 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, one of the most important military operations in world history and one of the critical moments of World War II, would seem to give a president who aspires to transformation the opportunity to run the gamut from the past through tomorrow in showcasing his vision of the dynamics of history.
However, what we got from Obama was a tunnel visioned view of history, even with regard to the historical event itself. And he completely missed the reality that events do not occur in isolation from one another.
Perhaps paying too much attention to those who claim he is not a believer in "American Exceptionalism," Obama engaged in a rather stilted recitation of a national catechism implying that America, through its domination of D-Day, won World War II. Which really is not at all what happened, even with regard to D-Day itself. An American, future President Dwight Eisenhower, was the overall commander but Brits were in charge of ground forces, air forces, and naval forces, with U.S. forces responsible for two of the five landing beaches (Omaha and Utah), British forces taking Sword and Gold Beaches, and the Canadians landing on Juno Beach.
Frankly, Ronald Reagan did the national catechism sort of thing much better, in large part because he felt it very strongly. It was if he hadn't spent World War II stateside (though he was an officer in the Army), due to nearsightedness. If anything, in his great speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, Reagan was more internationalist than Obama in executing his trademark performance as leader of the national catechism.
For one thing, he prominently referenced Russia, and not just because the United States and the Soviet Union were then locked in the height of the Cold War. Reagan freely acknowledged that the war against Nazi Germany would not have been won without the valor and sacrifice of the Russians, who as the principal portion of the Soviet Union, stunningly, lost more than 20 million people in World War II. (The U.S. lost 420,000 people in World War II.) The difference, of course, is that Russia was invaded and America, which is essentially free from the threat of invasion in any major conflict scenario due to our geography and powerful Navy, was not.
But to mention Russia Obama would have had to acknowledge its president, Vladimir Putin (once, disastrously, imagined by Obama to be subservient to his former chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev), who is once again getting the best of our president, this time in the predictable Ukraine crisis.
Reagan was also much more celebratory than Obama about the contributions of the other members of the Allied coalition.
Obama is too detached in history and background and experience to play the national catechism card.
President Barack Obama at the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
He should have tried for something else, something, frankly, more suited to this new era.
But what about American Exceptionalism? Isn't America exceptional?
Of course it is. And, of course, more than a few nations are exceptional in their own ways.
It's best to be not exceptional, though that is a good thing to be, but indispensable. Indispensable, that is, to good outcomes. And one can argue that America is, at its best, precisely that.
But others may prove indispensable as well. And events don't happen in isolation from one another.
While D-Day, in real history, was anything but an all-American show, it would not have succeeded absent the valor of our forces and the productivity of our industry.
But Nazi Germany would not have been defeated had the British, with all of Western Europe fallen to Hitler, not prevailed in the Battle of Britain. With America stuck in the isolationism of 1940, the UK stood alone against the German air assault.
Nazi Germany would also have not been defeated had the Russians not prevailed first in the Battle of Moscow, in which Nazi forces advanced to the gates of the capital city, and then in the Battle of Stalingrad. Ukraine's position on the map a few hundred miles from Moscow makes it obvious to anyone who bothers to look why Russia doesn't want another NATO member on its border
And America would not have been in the position to be the indispensable nation on D-Day had it lost the Battle of Midway two years earlier.
In my opinion, this Pacific battle was merely the most important American battle since Gettysburg. No, I don't think the most important battle since the hinge of the Civil War, without which the Union would have been rent asunder, was D-Day, as epic as that was. By June 6th, 1944, the fascist forces in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East had been driven back, and Hitler was hunkering down in his "Festung Europa." The Allies were winning with greater numbers and materiel. D-Day was a culmination of a process years in the making. It might have failed, but that was unlikely, for it had massive, even inexorable, might behind it.
Midway, in contrast, was a far more perilous encounter, one in an endless string of rugged decision points for President Franklin Roosevelt. It found the U.S. Navy at a decided disadvantage against the Imperial Japanese Navy. In the six months between Pearl Harbor and Midway, the US and its allies in the Pacific had suffered an endless string of losses. If the Navy lost its precious handful of aircraft carriers off Midway, to the superior Japanese force, Hawaii's defense would have been untenable and an already romping Japanese military would have had free reign across the Pacific, where it had already made incredible progress in setting up an empire under the rubric of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
There was far more uncertainty surrounding Midway than there was D-Day. The US was able to read Japanese code, but only parts of messages, here and there. In fact, it took a faked American message about a non-existent drinking water crisis on Midway, which the Navy knew that Japanese would pick up and report on, to determine that it was Midway under discussion in the Japanese plans. But even that left vast elements to chance. There were no satellites in those days. Radar was unreliable. All the aircraft were propeller-driven. Slow-flying scout planes, were used extensively to try to find enemy ships. Aircraft navigation and communications were spotty.
Committing our precious remaining aircraft carriers to very uncertain battle in the deep waters of the Pacific, the enemy carriers much harder to find than Nazi positions on the other side of the English Channel, was very risky and very daring. And American forces, outnumbered, stood all alone in the Battle of Midway against what was then the greatest navy in the world.
President Ronald Reagan at the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
None of which is to take away from the heroics of D-Day. Even after years of war and many defeats, Nazi forces fought very hard to defend their European gains. Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan presented an accurate picture of the fearsome fighting on Omaha Beach. Academy Award-winning director John Ford, then a naval officer and head of the photographic unit of the Office of Strategic Services, who also personally filmed the Japanese attack on Midway Island from a rooftop on the island, directed documentary filming of the beachhead fighting on D-Day. That film was never released.
Obama, for whom I had high hopes as a national educator, didn't have much to say around the 70th anniversary of Midway two years ago, despite having grown up in the Pacific Basin and emerging as the advocate of the Asia-Pacific Pivot,
from fateful over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to heightened engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific.
After the wet firecracker that was his West Point commencement address, in which he tried to define an Obama Doctrine only to meet with criticism from all sides, he might have used the occasion of D-Day and the reality of America's role in it to talk about international teamwork in the face of clear-cut aggression and America as the indispensable nation in such a scenario. But he didn't do that.
Obama really does have a serious problem presenting his geopolitical strategy and foreign policy in a coherent and compelling way. Beyond "Don't do stupid shit," which is how it is described behind the scenes and even increasingly in the conventional media. Which is certainly needed, as there has definitely been some "stupid shit" on his watch.
The big escalation in Afghanistan, the too indiscriminate expansion of the drone strike program, the breathtaking global surveillance program, the sudden near-slide into a war in Syria, the predictable Ukraine crisis following the overthrow of a Moscow-friendly president at the climax of the Sochi Winter Olympics, widespread worries among current and potential Asia-Pacific allies after a series of Obama-proclaimed "red lines" elsewhere that proved evanescent, all these things are avoidable problems.
A Chinese ship chased down and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed South China Sea waters on May 26th.
Given all that, it's little surprise that Normandy on Friday proved to be a missed opportunity for Obama.
And with the basics of the commemoration muffed, we don't even get to even larger questions raised by D-Day.
The larger civilizational question hanging over D-Day, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel having taken part, is this: How could Germany, a progenitor of what we call Western civlization, have embraced such a ferocious form of fascism that it required most of the world powers to defeat it? And what might that say about our own society?
If the land of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Ernst, Friedrich, Kant, Goethe, and so many more can succumb to Nazi fanaticism, could a less obvious form of fascism happen anywhere?