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Obama and a lesson from Thucydides

Speaking in Prague last month about North Korea's recent test launch of a ballistic missile, President Obama sternly said that "Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."

It would be pretty to think so. Certainly, North Korea had violated UN Security Council resolutions 1695 and 1718, which explicitly prohibited its launching of ballistic missiles, among much else. Thoughtful observers, I believe, understand exactly what UN Security Council resolutions mean--i.e., nothing, unless it be fodder for a grim sort of comedy.

But here we had the President of the United States, not only fantasizing about a nuclear-free world but also assuring us that "Words must mean something."

What do they mean for President Obama? During his campaign, Obama made more than 500 promises. By one account, he has to date kept 28 of those promises, taken no action on more than 400, and broken 6 promises, including the key promise not to sign any "non-emergency" bill "without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days." Obama called this "sunlight before signing." What we've had, though, is signing before moonshine.

The website Politifact.com keeps useful eye on the veracity of American politicians of all political stripes, and its "Truth-o-Meter" ratings are well worth looking at. If are as jaded as I am, your response to its findings will be one of disappointment but not surprise.

But let's return to President Obama's declaration that "Words must mean something." I think, I fear, that his own words mean something and that even if he breaks many of the promises he made during his campaign he will make good on his larger effort to make the United States poorer, less secure, and less free than it was when he took the reins of power. He is certainly off to a good start on accomplishing all that.

Last October, Obama declared to his followers that they were only a few days away "from fundamentally transforming the United States of America."

I think he meant it then and everything he has done since January 20 corroborates the melancholy realization that the complexities of office have done nothing to temper his zeal to bring radical change to the richest, freest, most powerful nation in history.

As I contemplate which of those achievements Obama will attack first. It is too early to say for sure, but his 100-day blitz, just completed, suggests a close competition between focusing the liberal wrecking ball on the country's wealth, as the foundation for all the other things he dislikes, and on the country's freedom, which makes dissent, and therefore alternatives, possible. A diminution in the country's power and security will follow suit.

"Words must mean something." Indeed. But when powerful politicians set about bringing fundamental transformation to a hitherto stable democracy, the meanings of words begin to shift and change. This is something the great general and historian Thucydides noticed happening to Athens when it went through its own moment of "hope and change" during its long and bitter war with Sparta. "To fit in with the change of events," he wrote, "words, too, had to change their meaning. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action."

Political ferment naturally begets semantic mutation. Words must mean something. But exactly what often depends upon those defining the context in which they appear. That is why a people's credulousness regularly gives way to cynicism. I'd say we're right on the cusp of that metamorphosis. It will be instructive to see how the narcissist-in-chief responds to that alteration.