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Hither and Yon

Obama, the Great Conciliator, makes solidarity a one-man show

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
WASHINGTON — Incredibly, President Obama was the missing man among world leaders massed in tight formation in the front rank of the peace march mourning the slaughter of a dozen people at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and four more killed in a kosher supermarket in a Jewish neighborhood.
You had to look at the front-page photograph in disbelief to confirm, no, he hadn’t made it over to show solidarity with America’s European allies.
Somewhat belatedly, the White House said Obama should have been there, but that expression of regret was too little, too late.
It’s doubtful the White House would have made such a confession were it not for a tidal wave of media criticism that inundated initial explanations of poor security, time constraints, etc.
The symbolism was clear. Sure, Obama was sorry and saddened about the wanton bloodshed, but how committed is he to the global war on terrorism? Is he, at heart, reluctant to pour still greater resources into the pursuit of Al Qaida, ISIL and the Taliban — or would he prefer a more laid-back approach, perhaps moves toward reconciliation?
Certainly the White House and everyone else in the top levels of the U.S. government would emit gales of hot air saying how dedicated Obama is to pursuing such evil enemies, but the rhetoric wears thin. When you consider Obama’s propensity to waffle on terrorism, you have to wonder what he’s really thinking. He may regard terrorism as awful but not quite worth expending resources in a global war.
This president still dreams of peace — “peace for our time,” would be the quote from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he returned in 1938 from talks with Adolf Hitler, convinced there would never be a war with Germany. And then there was Henry Kissinger’s classic claim, “Peace is at hand,” uttered in the final months before he signed the phony Paris peace agreement with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho in January 1973 — the paper under which the U.S. withdrew its last forces from South Vietnam while the North poured in forces that overran the South in early 1975.
Reconciliation would be great, to be sure, were enemy forces in any mood to reciprocate. Al Qaida, ISIL and the Taliban may not fly the same flags or share the same leaders or even exactly the same goals, but they all pose the same danger — that of acts of terror in the name of the Prophet Mohammed. It’s amazing how people forget the horror of 9/11 that killed nearly 3,000 people. The war goes on — though Obama, in six years so far as president, ran in campaigns that repudiated what was seen as the hard-line policies of George W. Bush.
Obama’s hesitation to combat these forces of terror has implications beyond Paris, beyond Europe and the Arab world. How deep is his commitment to the defense of Korea, of Japan, of the Philippines — all U.S. allies?
It’s hard to say where the concerns are the highest: South Korea, facing the North; or Japan, confronting China’s claims to an island cluster in the East China Sea; or the Philippines, where ill-equipped forces fight Muslim and Communist guerrillas while facing China’s claims to all of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands.
It’s not enough for the White House or State Department to come out with resolute statements from time to time. No one quite knows how the U.S. would respond if Kim Jong-Un, while making noises suggesting a summit with President Park Geun-Hye, staged bloody episodes similar to the sinking of the Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Obama’s response on cyber warfare as conducted against Sony Entertainment for the film “The Interview” was definitely low-key. We’ve almost forgotten those “sanctions” he talked about.
No doubt Obama would like to demonstrate in his final two years as president that he’s really a man of peace — a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize that he received, for no reason, at the outset of his presidency. He doesn’t want to fight global terrorism any more than necessary to hold the terrorists at bay, to keep up decent relations with allies, to save what’s left of U.S.-supported regimes in Baghdad and Kabul. He certainly doesn’t want to risk a wider war, a regional confrontation in the Middle East any more than in Northeast Asia.
It’s possible future generations may regard Obama’s forbearance as wise. Maybe his absence from the march in Paris shows his instinct not to stir up animosities. Then again, as terrorism recurs, again and again, maybe he’s displaying weakness in dealing with implacable foes with whom appeasement is at best a short-term option.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace from Washington to the Middle East to Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com
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