The Magazine

‘Hello, I Must Be Going’

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Maybe Barack Obama really is a Marxist. His September 10 speech to the nation on Syria seems to have been inspired by Groucho’s great number in Animal Crackers (1930):

Hello, I must be going
I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going
I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going .  .  . la-la! 

Less than three weeks after Bashar al-Assad gassed his citizens, Obama let us know he was glad to have come before us to share his outrage, explained that of course he couldn’t stay, and went off to the United Nations with his partner in comedy, Vladimir Putin.

Putin had the follow-up routine, an op-ed in the September 12 New York Times. This comic masterpiece surpassed in its dry wit even John Kerry’s performance of a few days before, when Kerry promised a “very limited, very targeted,” indeed “unbelievably small” military strike in reaction to what he had called three days earlier the “indiscriminate, inconceivable horror” of Assad’s “unspeakable crime,” a “crime against conscience,” a “crime against humanity.” Kerry had claimed that “the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act as it should,” but Putin, siding with Obama, made the case for the U.N. Indeed, taking a sly dig at Kerry, Putin noted that “my working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust.” And, putting a nice exclamation point on Obama’s pirouette, Putin graciously allowed, “I appreciate this.” 

The other Marx had something useful to say about Obama’s vaudeville routine on the world-historical stage: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” As he played his part in making the case for military action, John Kerry referred to this as our century’s Munich moment. He spoke more truly than he meant, for his boss followed the precedent of Munich rather than learning his lesson. But Obama’s Munich moment turned out to be a Marxian version, with Obama doing farcical pratfalls as he followed down Neville Chamberlain’s tragic path.

The farcical nature of the last three weeks doesn’t mean there isn’t real tragedy here, for the people of Syria in particular, and that there won’t be tragic consequences. As Kerry said, “If we choose to live in the world where a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity, even after the United States and our allies said no, and then the world does nothing about it, there will be no end to the test of our resolve and the dangers that will flow from those others who believe that they can do as they will.”

Perhaps others will step up to avert the damage. Abroad, it seems that it will be up to Benjamin Netanyahu, who knows something about real historical tragedy, to stop even more dangerous regimes than Assad’s from acquiring even more dangerous weapons. At home, members of Congress and other leaders might be able to mitigate the damage that Obama could do over the next three years. In the spirit of Churchill’s great October 5, 1938, speech in response to the Munich agreement, those here at home who are unwilling to consign Americans to either tragedy or farce could insist that people “should know the truth. They should know that there has been gross neglect and deficiency in our defences; they should know that we have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road.”

And they could explain, soberly and honestly, what Churchill said in concluding his remarks on the floor of the House of Commons:

And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

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