BRIDGTON — How did President Obama get into his current dilemma?

Let us start with the French Revolution. With the benefit of 200 years distance, we see there were two trends in conflict: the soft one of “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality” intent on strengthening the internal fabric of society, and the hard one of militant nationalism aiming abroad.

Both led to tragedy: The first to the Reign of Terror, the second to the dictatorial aggression of Napoleon.

Now, let us think about the presidential election of 2008. Two candidates represented the two distinct trends in American national politics in which their lives were their message: the community organizer versus the military hero. Barack Obama was the liberal, mainly focusing on strengthening the internal fabric; John McCain emphasized the need to confront dangers allegedly threatening the nation.

Under the right leadership, these conflicting trends can be managed in harmony. But it’s never easy. Most of the time it is militant nationalism and the demand for an ever stronger military and intelligence establishment that prospers. It is particularly so when a president lacks military credentials; he must compensate for that failing by advocating a strong defense. Bush the Second was the classic example, a vigorous response to 9/11 obscuring his pallid reaction to the Vietnam War.

His father had combat experience and caution; he had to be pushed into our first Iraq war by the hawkish Margaret Thatcher. Even so, he drew a line and left after accomplishing his mission. Bill Clinton, foremost a liberal, had to be cajoled into using force in the Balkans and in a limited way against Iraq.

But he wasn’t deemed as wimpish as Jimmy Carter, a veteran, who resisted the call for force to free the hostages. Yet he, like the combat-shy Ronald Reagan, yielded to pressure to build up the armed forces.

Enough history; we turn to the dilemma of President Obama. He came to his job with domestic imperatives (rescue of the financial system and economy) and priorities (health care and Wall Street reform). Internationally, he promised to be a peacemaker, to talk to enemies, to work with friends, to make the United States respected again.

He said he would get us out of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war. And there began the first of his troubles. Lacking a military background, Obama feared appearing wimpish and inept in national security affairs. Accordingly, in exchange for backing out of Iraq, he told us he would charge ahead in Afghanistan.

It was a political gesture, void of any knowledge of that primitive land and the complexities of waging war there. (A closer reading of history would have saved him from that fatal error.)

Now the Afghan struggle becomes increasingly unpopular. But Obama is trapped. If he withdraws — as I believe he must — he will be attacked by what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex, their Republican (and some Democrat) backers, and the neo-cons who got us into the Iraq war. He fears his vulnerability to criticism as a softie will undermine his administration, end the successes enjoyed to date in domestic affairs and, ultimately, bring electoral defeat.

There is another important area where Obama, the reforming liberal, is pitted against his militant opponents and their friends: the economy and the enormous deficit he has run up to save it. If expenditures are to be reduced, there is one prime area for cutting.

That is the defense and intelligence budgets and, of course, our two wars and other imperial activities abroad.

To wield a knife in that direction, however, would bring down a tirade of accusations and fright-mongering by uniformed and civilian enemies.

And, sadly, far too many Americans will join in that chorus. Too much of our national economy is now tightly bound to the defense establishment. How many manufacturing jobs in Maine are dependent on the Pentagon budget? Many more than just at the Bath shipyard. And most Americans have bought the ideology of national security, whatever the cost.

So it was in the days of the French Revolution. Very few Frenchmen stepped forward to warn that Napoleon was engaged in a destructive course and that the nation ought to return to its revolutionary ideals.

The march of nationalism ended French liberties for decades. Let’s hope Obama has the courage and skill to slow that march for us.


– Special to the Press Herald