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And in conclusion ... there wasn't one

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Sept. 15, 2014

 And in conclusion ... there wasn't one

How say anything clear about a presidential address to the nation that wasn't?

The only thing clear about the president's speech Wednesday night was its lack of clarity. The only sure conclusion to be drawn about his not so new policy in the Middle East is that he doesn't have one, not really. Not long ago he confessed he didn't have a strategy to deal with the latest, fastest-spreading and most brutal terrorist threat in that always dangerous part of the world. Now he and therefore the country have a vague one -- if only vagueness counted as a strategy.

So the president and the rest of the free world that the United States once led will just have to march on, or rather stumble on. In circles. For despite outward appearances and incalculable losses, gains, both and neither since Washington was hoping air raids would be enough to contain the late and unlamented Saddam Hussein years ago, we seem right back to where we started.

It all looks and feels familiar. If only vaguely. This latest presidential address fits right in with the web of ad-hoc decisions our leader substituted for leadership some time ago.

It came as a surprise to look down at the end of the president's speech and find that the whole thing had lasted only 15 minutes; it only seemed to go on for hours. Abandon hope, all ye who enter this fog bank -- which remains as blank as when the president entered it. There's no doubt the president's speech was nuanced. One might even say it was all nuance, no meaning. It's one thing to have a subtle policy, but does a mass of vague generalizations rise to subtlety?

The morning after, my notes on the speech still seemed as inchoate as the speech itself, my conclusions about it as inconclusive. For when discussing a vague policy, even the discussion turns vague. For example:

We are definitely going to war in the Middle East indefinitely.

This will not be an open-ended commitment, though the president sees no end to it.

There will be No Boots on the Ground even if the president has already dispatched a thousand or two of them to Iraq. Again. For starters.

We aren't being dragged into another war there, the president insists, but if not, why the insistence? It's not just in Shakespearean tragedies that the actor protests too much, but in real ones.

No, there will not be another American war in the Middle East and, if there is, it won't be called one. Any more than our combat troops will be called combat troops. Americans with memories may recall that the Korean War wasn't a war, either, but a Korean Conflict, even if those who died in it were just as dead. What's in a name? Not much sometimes. It may all depend on who's doing the naming -- a trusted leader or one who has fully earned a certain (meaning uncertain) distrust.

We're finally going to openly arm and train the opposition in Bashar al-Assad's chaotic Syria -- if and when we can decide which opposition is to be trusted, if any. Ah, well, better four years late than never. Four years and 190,000 dead later. If action has its risks, inaction can have even greater ones. But still we slept on, from time to time just moving to the next room of the dream, or rather the nightmare for the poor devils caught up in it in real life, and real death.

Our president assures us he has a point-by-point plan to fight terrorism in the Middle East that should work as well as it did in Yemen and Somalia except that it hasn't worked that well in either place.

And in conclusion ... there didn't seem to be one to the president's speech, any more than there was to the war in Iraq that the president used to tell us he had ended.

Ah, well, the British acquired a great empire mainly in an absence of mind; why can't we? Even if we don't want one. The Brits call it Muddling Through, and this president has got the muddling part down pat. It's the getting through that eludes him.

A great leader of a democracy, someone once said, is one who can explain complicated problems to the people simply. This president has a talent for explaining simple problems in the most complicated way. It goes with his natural inclination toward the indecisive.

The British Empire did prove a highly effective institution for the longest time, despite an occasional mishap like the independence of the United States of America. Slips will happen. For great empires and little minds go ill together, as a British statesman named Edmund Burke once noted. But when he did, those making policy back then didn't pay him much attention. Any more than this president does to John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and a host of other critics who just might know what they're talking about.

Here's hoping the president's speech Wednesday night confused our enemies as much as it did our friends and his fellow Americans. Ah, if only hope were a policy. ... The president did appear quite confident throughout his presentation -- calm, composed, sure of himself and his plan. Just why isn't clear, either.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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