Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. ~ Elie Wiesel
Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the Buchenwald concentration camp. It was, in part, a personal visit: His great-uncle helped liberate a nearby satellite camp, Ohrdruf, in early April 1945, just days before other U.S. Army units overran Buchenwald.
He also said he was dispatching special envoy George J. Mitchell back to the region next week to follow up on Obama’s Thursday speech in Cairo in which he called for Israelis and Palestinians to make concessions in their standoff.
It was all of a piece – Wiesel recounted watching his father die there and said all wars are absurd, Obama had just given that Cairo speech, shaking things up no end – it was time for everyone to rethink their positions. If we were going to achieve anything like even a glimmer of peace in that area, well, it was time to cut the posturing and face all sorts of facts that were unavoidable, on both side, or on all sides. To have the most popular political leader in the world say that changes things. So those were words with the qualities of deeds.
Of course Wiesel liked that speech, and with Wiesel at his side at Buchenwald, the president had some choice words for the strange little man who speaks for Iran:
Obama called the camp where an estimated 56,000 people died the “ultimate rebuke” to Holocaust deniers and skeptics. And he bluntly challenged one of them, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to visit Buchenwald.
Then Obama flew to Landstuhl, our giant military hospital, for visits with troops recovering from wounds suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by the trip to Normandy:
U.S. President Barack Obama paid homage to the heroes of D-Day on Saturday, saying their assault on Normandy’s beaches exactly 65 years ago had helped save the world from evil and tyranny.
Addressing stooped, white-haired veterans, Obama said the Second World War represented a special moment in history when nations fought together to battle a murderous ideology.
“We live in a world of competing beliefs and claims about what is true,” Obama said. “In such a world, it is rare for a struggle to emerge that speaks to something universal about humanity. The Second World War did that.”
So, not all wars are absurd. Sometimes there’s the good war, or at least one that had to be fought, for the greater good. And that idea from Obama was nothing new, no sop thrown to the right wing here in America. On Wednesday, October 2, 2002, Obama, just an Illinois State Senator at the time, gave his then controversial but now quite mainstream Iraq War Speech:
Now let me be clear. I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.
He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.
But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.
I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.
I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.
It seems he hasn’t changed – and there were no WMD in Iraq (that imminent and direct threat to the United States) and we weren’t greeted as liberators, and things didn’t work out well, and the consequences have been catastrophic. Hillary Clinton, who, as a United States Senator, had voted for the war, had mocked Obama endlessly for that 2002 speech – she had decades of international experience, McCain had decades of international experience, and Obama had one speech from six years ago. He simply wasn’t qualified to be president – only she and McCain were. Obama was naïve. He knew nothing of the real world. His candidacy was a joke.
And now she works for Obama, reporting to him as his secretary of state. Oops – the irony is delicious. And after Cairo, and then Buchenwald and Normandy, it’s clear that it wasn’t just Hilary. No one got it – the world has changed and the new guy is at the center of this new world.
Actually, the voters got it – or else they were appalled at the thought of McCain being in charge, and even more appalled at the thought of Sarah Palin having a good chance, actuarially speaking, of running things. But give the voters the benefit of the doubt. It was time for a break from the past – a sever break. Why not a black man whose father was a Muslim this time around? But of course that was incidental – this time around it would be a whip-smart, charismatic but compassionate thoughtful and polite guy, who seems down-to-earth and pragmatic, and who gets things right the first time, because he thinks about things, and explains his thinking. That was the change. He’s black? Who cares?
It’s hard to get a handle on how big a change all this is. At the ceremonies in Normandy, there was the expected cast of characters, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but there was this curious slip from Brown:
“How can we say we have achieved all that we set out to do? The promise of peace and justice?” said Brown, who is fighting for his political life at home. “There are dreams of liberation still to be realized, commitments still to be redeemed.”
In a slip of the tongue that raised smiles, Brown referred to “Obama beach” not “Omaha beach.” He then corrected himself.
This is getting downright Freudian. And for what was going on in France, there was an email from Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis – who isn’t there anymore. But he’s still in France specifically in Port-Vendres (département of Pyrénées-Orientales, Languedoc-Roussillon région), a fishing village on the Mediterranean, just north of the Spanish border, where the Pyrenees drop into the sea. And here’s his report:
PV, 66 PO, Saturday, 6 June: President Obama arrives at the Prefecture of Caen a few minutes ago, according to radio France Info. But what’s that screaming, shrieking? Is it Obama rock star? Then the Sarkozies arrive. The radio gives us the weather – sunny in Caen. A few minutes later the radio pundits: the welcome crowd was 300 fans of Sarkozy, bused in from Neuilly, all white. Can Obama sustain his popularity – 65 percent! – when he gives a speech-a-day?
Can Sarkozy sustain his popularity by hanging out with Obama? The European parliament election is tomorrow, and Sarkozy’s UMP is in the lead, with 27 percent in the polls. Socialists next, followed by the Greens; 25 lists of rabble bring up the rear. It’s another exciting day in France.
Meanwhile in PV in the PO it is the annual beach day. For the occasion, a violent thunderstorm last night and grey skies today. Temperatures in the low 20s after ten days of flirting with 30. It reminds me that carnival was rained out too. I think I’ll skip the beach.
Well, if you want get of a sense of what that last paragraph is about, Ric’s photo essays regarding Port-Vendres (and all the ones from Paris) are at the sister site, Just Above Sunset Photography, available on The International Desk. But be that as it may, there’s that odd rock star thing going on. But really, it’s more as if the Hillary mistake is playing about all over again, as Sarkozy, the old school politician, is beginning to realize he doesn’t matter in the now Obama world. Obama is two steps ahead of him. As Ric had noted earlier:
Everything is related. It’s becoming ever more clear that Obama is smarter than you or me. Singles, doubles, bunts – the game moves forward.
Well, that is becoming clear to Sarkozy, even if the guy doesn’t know baseball (yes, Ric is one of the very few intense NY Mets fans in France). And this has led to a bit of sucking up:
Nicolas Sarkozy certainly tried hard to please the American president when the two leaders met to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
The French leader pulled out the stops for President Barack Obama’s visit to Normandy on Saturday, spilling with unusually generous praise for “the America that we love” and the U.S. veterans who fought for France’s freedom from the Nazis.
Obama was grateful, but reserved.
But this got downright embarrassing:
“You think that people just want for us to be here together, holding hands?” Sarkozy quipped when the presidents were asked at a news conference whether the brevity of Obama’s weekend visit to France reflected low U.S. esteem for Europe, coming after his trip to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Obama papered over any suspected rifts, saying his time is always limited when he travels. Noting that the U.S. economy “requires a lot of work,” he said he’d love to come and picnic in Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens one day when he had more time. French commentators read that to mean when he’s finished being president.
The meeting at the Prefecture of the Normandy city of Caen on Saturday was one not just of two men with starkly different characters, Sarkozy kinetic and sharp-tongued, Obama cool and measured.
One was worried, the other not. It was the old politics facing off against the new. Sarkozy wants some that good new stuff to rub off on him, and that led to some odd sparing:
“President Sarkozy talks fast, so we can still do lots of things” even if the visit is brief, Obama said.
Sarkozy responded, “I talk fast, but he, he understands fast.”
It was reminiscent of the primary debates with Hillary Clinton, where she’d claim she was cool too, and just as smart, and just as compassionate and charismatic, and just as right about things. From Sarkozy, this seemed almost pathetic. Had Hillary been there she’d have tapped Nicolas on the shoulder and told him what she’d learned – give it up, things have changed and our day is over, so salvage what you can with some dignity. Of course the Gordon Brown slip of the tongue just made that all the more clear.
But there is the old guard, and this interesting exchange on Fox News. Of course Bill O’Reilly and Karl Rove provide viewers with a thoughtful assessment of President Obama’s speech in Cairo. It was brief, but helpful. O’Reilly, playing the devil’s advocate (not his usual role, except inadvertently every moment on air) says nice things about President Bush’s counter-terrorism successes – we won every war and every battle with the bad guys, and killed a whole lot of them, but argues that, for all that glorious success, Bush, sadly, just wasn’t credible in “the Muslim world.”
And of course Rove said he “totally” disagreed. O’Reilly pressed the point, and that set off Rove:
You know what? Who cares about whether or not they approve or like the president of the United States? The question is do they respect the policies of the United States government? And you bet they did. Because we showed strength and power and influence.
Steve Benen comments:
Remember, Rove was the deputy White House chief of staff, and one of the former president’s top advisors.
And as far as this guy is concerned, looking back over the last eight years, Muslims throughout the Middle East “respected the policies” of the Bush administration and whether people in the region admire the U.S. president is entirely irrelevant.
He was serious.
Rove, like Sarkozy and so many before him, just doesn’t get it:
In our reality, al Qaeda is scrambling to tarnish President Obama’s reputation in the region because, as Richard Clarke explained last year, the last thing terrorists want is a popular U.S. president who enjoys respect and support on the world stage.
That Clarke item is here – Osama bin Laden and his whole operation saw McCain losing, and Obama becoming president, as their worst nightmare. They’re not dumb. They got it. The American voters got it. And now it’s here – respect and support on the world stage, and Gordon Brown’s slip of the tongue and Sarkozy bouncing around being a suck-up, and Hillary willingly working from the guy, as she’d figured out he was right, and the world had changed. And Elie Wiesel, with his history, will stand with Obama. It’s doubtful he would stand with the others – the moral midgets, the politicians, the old guard. Who has time for such nonsense? It’s time to get serious.
So, Cairo, Buchenwald, Normandy – it was all just words. But as the man said, words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. And as Ric said, the game moves forward. And as for those who don’t get it, who still think they’re in the game – well, they’ll figure it out eventually, and like Hillary, find a way back in, or just sputter on the sidelines, pretending they matter. They don’t.