Barack Obama’s theme song may as well be the Sam Cooke classic “Wonderful World,” or at least the part of it in which the singer confesses he “Don’t know much about history.” During the 2008 campaign Obama regularly issued sophisticated historical pronouncements that demonstrated he simply didn’t know what he was talking about, even though he sure loved talking about it. And he hasn’t let up much since.
Criticizing the Bush administration’s treatment of the Guantanamo detainees, for example, Obama asserted that the “principle of habeas corpus, that a state can’t just hold you for any reason without charging you and without giving you any kind of due process – that’s the essence of who we are.”
Obama explained: “I mean, you remember during the Nuremberg trials, part of what made us different was even after these Nazis had performed atrocities that no one had ever seen before, we still gave them a day in court and that taught the entire world about who we are, but also the basic principles of rule of law.” Referring to the Boumediene decision, Obama said: “Now the Supreme Court upheld that principle.”
At Nuremberg, however, an international military commission composed of representatives of the victorious Allies put the top surviving Nazi leaders on trial starting in late 1945 — sort of like the military commissions that Obama was criticizing, but for the fact that the Nuremberg defendants had no access to federal courts, no right of habeas corpus, no right of appeal, and far fewer procedural protections than the Guantanamo detainees. Other than that, I guess, right on!
That wasn’t Obama’s only high-minded howler. Seeking to demonstrate the wisdom of unconditional meetings with our adversaries, Obama cited John F. Kennedy’s 1961 summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna among the series of negotiations that led to America’s triumph over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and FDR’s meetings with, well, nobody.
The Kennedy-Khrushcev summit in Vienna, moreover, disproved Obama’s assertion regarding the unvarying value of meetings between enemy heads of state about as decisively as any historical episode can refute a thesis. Obama may as well have cited the Munich Conference of 1938 to prove the value of negotiations in conflict resolution.
Once in office Obama was at it again. At his 100-day press conference, Obama invoked Churchill rejecting the use of torture for interrogation in the days of the Blitz during World War II. Obama instructed the assembled multitude: “I was struck by an article that I was reading the other day talking about the fact that the British during World War II, when London was being bombed to smithereens, had 200 or so detainees. And Churchill said, ‘We don’t torture,’ when the entire British–all of the British people–were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat….the reason was that Churchill understood — you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.”
Now if you’ve ever read much Churchill or any competent history of World War II, you would have a pretty good idea that one thing Churchill never said in the course of a long life is: “We don’t torture.” Churchill was not a liberal sentimentalist on the subject of means and ends in war. Is there anything he would not have done to advance Britain’s survival and victory in World War II? Not bloody likely. “If Hitler invaded Hell,” Churchill famously remarked with respect to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, “I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”
Churchill, in fact, favored summarily executing the Nuremberg defendants without benefit of trial, and he had no qualms about the killing of captured German spies to facilitate the cooperation of others in connection with the Double Cross System. “Some had to perish,” J.C. Masterman explained, “both to satisfy the country that the security of the country was being maintained and to convince the Germans that the others were working properly and not under control.”
Obama was at it again last week. A senior aide told the New York Times: “He keeps reminding us that the best revolutions are completely organic.” Historian Niall Ferguson takes a whack at this one: “I like that notion of organic revolutions–guaranteed no foreign additives, exclusive to Whole Foods. I like it because, like so much about this administration, it is both trendy and ignorant.” As Ferguson amply demonstrates.
During the campaign, I kept an open mind on the question whether Obama was exploiting the ignorance of target voters or simply didn’t know what he was talking about. I agree with Ferguson that the answer is the latter, but let it be noted it is a condition that applies to Obama’s “senior aides” as well.
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