If Dec. 7, 1941, is the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt said “will live in infamy,” then Dec. 20, 2016, has got to be a close second. No Americans died that day as they did at Pearl Harbor, but the American Century, as Time magazine founder Henry Luce called it, came to a crashing end. Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Moscow to settle matters in the Middle East. The United States wasn’t even asked to the meeting.
Winston Churchill said in 1942 that he had not become Great Britain’s “First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Nonetheless, by the end of the 1940s, much of the empire was gone. Churchill was an unapologetic colonialist, but he was up against liberation movements of all kinds, not to mention the antipathy of the United States to imperialist ambitions — in short, history itself. Churchill had a marvelous way with words, and greatness accompanied him like a shadow, but in certain ways he was a 19th-century man wandering, confounded, in the 20th.
Barack Obama is quite the reverse. He is a 21st-century man who never quite appreciated the lessons of the 20th. He has been all too happy to preside over the loss of American influence. Aleppo, Syria, now a pile of rubble, is where countless died — as did American influence. The Russians polished it off from the air, doing for the Syrian regime what the United States could not figure out how to do for the rebels. The city hemorrhaged civilian dead, and America, once the preeminent power in the region, did virtually nothing.
It could be that Obama was right. It could be that all along he knew that the rebels were beyond saving — although he predicted that Bashar al-Assad would be toppled — and, anyway, the United States was not going to again get into some Middle Eastern quagmire. America had twice made war in Iraq; it had lost Marines in Lebanon. Though perhaps these were just excuses to do nothing. After all, no one ever recommended putting boots on the ground in Syria. That was Obama’s straw man.
“Time will tell” is the appropriate cliche. But I, along with others, thought the United States could have limited the bloodletting, that it could have established no-fly zones where Syrian government helicopters could not have dropped barrel bombs. It could also have established safe zones for refugees. The Russians managed to do what they wanted to do. Why not the United States?
The answer has always been clear to me — Obama did not care enough. Not from him ever came a thundering demand that Russia and Iran get out and stay out. Behind the arguably persuasive reasons to do little in Syria was an emotional coldness: This was not Obama’s fight.
Say what you will about Donald Trump, he cares. He cares about things I don’t, and he has some awful ideas, and he is an amoral man in so many ways. But, in contrast to Obama, his emotions are no mystery. When the Chinese fished a U.S. Navy drone from the Pacific Ocean, the White House reacted so coolly you would think freedom of the seas didn’t matter. Trump, however, tweeted his indignation, finally telling Beijing it could keep the drone — a way of telling them to stuff it.
Hillary Clinton lost the election for a host of reasons, not the least of them her shortcomings as a candidate. And Trump won for many reasons, not the least of them his political talents. But Clinton had to defend an administration that was cold to the touch. Kellyanne Conway keeps pointing out that Clinton had no message. True. Neither, for that matter, did Obama. He waved a droopy flag. He did not want to make America great again. It was great enough for him already.
That coolness, that no-drama Obama, cost lives in Syria. Instead of rallying the United States to a worthy cause — intervening to save lives and avoid a refugee crisis that is still destabilizing Europe — he threw in the towel. The banner he flew was one of American diminishment. One could agree. One could not be proud.
Since the end of World War II, American leadership has been essential to maintain world peace. Whether we liked it or not, we were the world’s policeman. There was no other cop on the beat. Now that leadership is gone. So, increasingly, will be peace.