Philip Larkin has a Lesson for Barack Obama

Over at The Weekly Standard blog, Bill Kristol has a short but deadly post on Obama’s dithering non-policy about the war in Afghanistan. Bill reports that at a recent meeting with Congressional leaders, Obama gravely pointed out that every thousand troops sent to Afghanistan would cost about a billion dollars a year. A billion dollars a year! Call Senator Dirksen. Would they, Obama is said to have queried the Congressmen, would they really be prepared to support $40 or $50 billion in additional spending?


Rich, what? Or rather, poor. I mean, here’s the $12 trillion President fretting — that is, pretending to fret — over $40 or $50 billion. That’s school lunch money for the Democrats.

Of course, the issue isn’t money. It’s morality. That’s to say, it’s about what really matters to Obama. He’s willing to demand $800 billion now, today, to shore up his support among the auto unions and other Democratic interest groups. But the war of terror? He can’t even bring himself to pronounce the phrase. Indeed, one of the first things he did upon assuming office was to rebaptize the war on terror “overseas contingency operations.” (No, I am not making that up.)

Barack Obama traipses around the world, apologizing for America, telling the IOC all about himself and why the 2016 Olympics should come to his dysfunctional home town, coddling dictators. Even the French are appalled: Nicolas Sarkozy has made no secret of his exasperation at Obama’s naive and immature multicultural posturing.

Meanwhile the bad guys — and the world contains many really, really bad guys — are swelling with anticipation and feeling their oats. Ronald Reagan made no bones about calling the Soviet Union “the evil empire.” George W. Bush described North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as an axis of evil and promised to “smoke out” terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere.


Barack Obama doesn’t know what to do. When it comes to the world stage, he is like a babe in the woods. It reminds me of a comment made by a well-meaning liberal who attended a dinner for the distinguished writer David Pryce-Jones in New York a week or so ago. Aghast that those around the table should be criticizing the Europeanization of the United States, he delivered himself of a few potted words lambasting Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and the war on terror. What we should have done after 9/11, he said, was to have spent some of those billions of dollars we spent prosecuting a war in Iraq on bringing our enemies to the United States and educating them about our way of life. Then they would come to understand and love us. I thought of Dostoevsky’s observation in Notes from the Underground:

Oh, tell me, who first declared, who first proclaimed that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own real interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else. . . . Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child!


I am not sure how innocent Barack Obama is, but he surely is naive. Naivete in world leaders is never without consequence and seldom without moral taint. Obama’s dithering about Afghanistan, his preposterous objection about the cost, put Bill in mind of “Homage to A Government” (1969) a great, and greatly sobering, poem by Philip Larkin:

Next year we are to bring all the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

Once upon a time, a society could hope to bequeath future generations a civilization in which self-confidence animated institutions and a sense of honor underwrote our commitment to others. Absent that self-confidence, the sacrifices of yesteryear first seem and then actually become unintelligible. Why bother to fight? Hence the sad difference in the decadent country Larkin described: we still have city squares and houses and schools and governments. But something is missing: the soul that held it all together and imparted life to the bones of our world.


The double irony for us, alas, is that, if Barack Obama has his way, we won’t be leaving anyone any money either.


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