Sometimes history changes with a bang, sometimes with a whimper. A change in the course of American history may have occurred yesterday to the sound of silence.
Yesterday the American president declined to act as leader of the free world – choosing to remain at home focused on a minor, non-starter legislative proposal while 40 national heads of government marched arm-in-arm through Paris as part of a a transformative global statement against the obscenity of Islamofacist jihadism.
This morning the question in many quarters, even including the American media, is, by his absence at that moment did Mr. Obama simply take himself out of the unique place in global leadership that American presidents have for so long occupied or did he remove future American president’s as well?
The American presidency’s status as leader of the free world began on a precise date.
Nearly a year before Pearl Harbor, in March 1941, Franklin Roosevelt secured Congressional passage of the Lend-Lease Act, providing material support to Britain as it stood alone against Hitler. In August that year, FDR and Winston Churchill rendezvoused in Plancentia Bay, Newfoundland, and concluded the Atlantic Charter, committing the US and UK to common principles for the postwar world. These principals included not seeking territorial conquest for themselves and a return of self-government to all Nazi-occupied countries. Four months later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s subsequent declaration of war on the U.S., transformed our economic and moral alliance with Britain into a military one as well. For the next 32 months (Pearly Harbor to D-Day), the U.S. and the UK, together with the countries of the British Empire, particularly Canada and Australia, were, effectively, the free world. Yet it was not until D-Day that United States emerged the senior partner in the alliance and FDR the clear leader.
FDR was a superb wartime leader. But the presidency’s enduring rank of leader of the free world was purchased not only with his own clarity and strength of purpose. It was bought with the sweat and blood of our soldiers, sailors and airmen, with the toil of workers in our factories and farms, and with the moral conviction of a nation dedicated to proposition that all men are created equal and endowed with the natural rights of life and liberty.
So from D-Day on, the American presidency has carried that unofficial but undeniably true designation as leader of the free world – until yesterday.
Look at who marched in that line of linked arms. In addition to French president Francois Hollande, the list includes Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mali’s President (for Pete’s sake, Mali!) Ibrahim Boubacar, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud President Abbas.
But not U.S. President Barack Obama.
Not even U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Or U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
The crowd’s size – estimates vary from 1.6 to 3 million — is said to have exceeded that of Paris’ Liberation Day celebration in World War II. And the demonstration was ecumenical. The Islamofacist attacks on a satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo and on a Jewish supermarket prompted Paris Muslims to join the crowd in rallying around not just the ubiquitous signs “Je suis Charlie” but also signs of “I am a Jew”.
Meanwhile, the French prime minister said that the Paris attacks mean that France is now at “war” with Islamofacism. The Egyptian president – holder of an office that contends for leadership of the Islamic world – called for a “religious revolution” in Islam, a rejection of hatred and violence. And rallies against neo-Nazism in religious garb have come together spontaneously all over the world.
And yet the United States and its president had nearly nothing to say.
Symbols matter. Part of leadership is rallying people to a cause. Yesterday the world as well as Paris rallied. But the American president – whose nation has carried the heaviest burden of the battle that so many around the globe are now uniting behind — could not even vote present.
So now we wonder, can any president of the United States ever again be said to rank as leader of the free world?