Anyone with a sense of history who has watched the fascinating new Ken Burns documentary on PBS, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” may have experienced a sense of déjà vu during episode six, which chronicles the tumultuous events of 1939-44.
That feeling of “we’ve been here before and we’re doing it again” comes from the pre-World War II years, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt focused virtually all his attention on domestic issues and little on foreign policy. It is eerily reminiscent of what is going on in the world today with President Barack Obama and his administration.
Even as the Nazi Party came to power in the early 1930s and Adolf Hitler began his march across Europe, and even as Japan started chewing off pieces of China and the countries of Southeast Asia, Roosevelt bowed to the isolationists in the U.S. and refused to get the country involved in those events in any substantive way despite pleas to do so from nations being threatened.
It is similar to the way Obama has been dealing with many world events: procrastinating over the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State or doing nothing of any consequence to counter Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and incursions into Ukraine.
As Burns makes clear in episode six, “The Common Cause,” the U.S. after World War I was isolated and ill-prepared for war. America’s military forces had been reduced to a pre-World War I level and the country was unwilling to be drawn into the affairs of either Europe or Asia. Domestic issues such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and civil rights were the main focus for Roosevelt and his administration.
For Obama, ensuring the survival of the Affordable Care Act, dealing with immigration reform and reviving a sluggish economy, with an occasional foray into the issue of climate change/global warming, seem to have taken precedence over foreign affairs.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, prompting France and England to declare war. Roosevelt maintained that the U.S. was neutral and that it was not our fight. While he did supply war materiel to England, Roosevelt did not think it prudent or necessary to intervene in what was widely perceived as a purely European problem.
When civil war broke out in Syria in the spring of 2011 and the regime of Bashar al-Assad starting using chemical weapons against his own people, Obama drew a red line that quickly disappeared when he decided it was not our fight. He did much the same in Ukraine, watching with what appeared to be a rather detached indifference as Russians took first the Crimean peninsula and then eastern portions of the country proper.
It calls to mind what much of Europe did in 1938 as Hitler first took Austria and then the Sudetenland before invading Poland.
According to a recent “60 Minutes” segment, Obama rejected the advice of many of his top advisers two years ago to arm and train the moderate Syrian rebels, whoever they might be, in the hopes of short-circuiting the rise of Islamic extremists among them. Those advisers included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
Roosevelt’s procrastination in the late 1930s, as well as that of many European leaders, emboldened the Japanese and the Nazis. Obama’s procrastination emboldened Russia’s Vladimir Putin and what has become known as the Islamic State.
Although IS is not a recognized state in the traditional sense of the word, it nevertheless bears a striking resemblance to the Nazis under Hitler. The commonalities include trans-national delusions of grandeur, barbaric practices to achieve their goals, and an end-state of a world that is completely subjugated to their beliefs.
IS is an interesting concept. No one is quite sure what to call it. But calling it either ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant) gives it some geographic substantiation when in fact it may be setting a new standard for what constitutes a state. It is, in essence, a noncontiguous, transnational state, a state without borders drawn on a map. Its influence is already being seen outside the territory it has conquered in Syria and Iraq in places as remote as North Africa apparently with little, if any, direct communication from what constitutes IS headquarters.
IS also is believed to have financial assets of more than $2 billion and enough military hardware captured from the Iraqis to arm far more than the 31,000-plus fighters now in its ranks.
Not bad for an organization that only recently was described by Obama as a “jayvee team.”
Roosevelt’s procrastination in dealing with world threats lasted until Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The following day, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Four days later, Hitler, in an uneasy alliance with Japan, declared war on the U.S., forcing Roosevelt to do what the isolationists had previously convinced him not to do – go to war on two fronts.
Although Roosevelt may have delayed getting the U.S. involved in the war, once committed, he did not hold back. There was no talk of “degrading” the Nazis. Roosevelt, his administration, and the country were geared to destroy and eliminate the Nazi threat through whatever means necessary. That meant putting American service members in harm’s way. In today’s parlance, that means “boots on the ground.”
As early as mid-1942, less than six months after the declaration of what would become World War II and long before anyone knew what the outcome would be, Pentagon planners were working on building a new Germany. According to historian Constantine FitzGibbon in his book “Denazification,” Germany “was to cease to exist” as a country until the Allies considered the German people totally de-Nazified and re-educated to the point they could rejoin the world community.
While IS has declared war on the U.S., the Obama administration is reluctant to declare war on it because that would give it some legitimacy as a state, rather than marginalizing it by continuing to refer to it as a terrorist group. But an argument can be made that because of the manner in which IS operates, and its global reach through the Internet and air travel, it is more of a threat to the U.S. internally than was either Japan or Germany in World War II.
The efforts mounted by Roosevelt in World War II were substantial and involved the entire country. What Obama is doing now is difficult to define. It’s not war because of the increasing reluctance to once again get involved militarily in the Middle East. And it’s certainly not substantial because it does not involve the ground troops that are needed to root out and destroy IS where it lives and thrives.
Unlike Roosevelt, who understood what it would take to win a war, Obama has not made it clear to the American public the realities of the threat IS presents. Using half-measures —airstrikes and Tomahawk missiles — will not end this threat.
Eliminating IS will require resolve and commitment not only from the Obama administration, but from the American people. Just as it did to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese during World War II.
Ron Martz spent 40 years in the newspaper business as a reporter and editor. He now teaches journalism and history at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.