Churchill, Reagan, Obama

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is Milan Kundera’s haunting novel of love and politics set in the Czechoslovakia of 1968—“The Prague Spring”—and of the Soviet crackdown that ended them. It would have been a beautiful book under any name, but for me the title too has been permanently haunting over the decades since I read it.

It refers to the fact that life is not a controlled experiment; we cannot go back to the point at which we have made a momentous choice and try the alternative—the road less or more traveled by, for instance—to see how things might have turned out differently, to know whether we made the “right” choice. In fact, we cannot even know whether it made any difference at all. That is the unbearable lightness of being.

It’s been on my mind lately in relation to Obama’s Cairo speech. Pundits on the left have been giving him credit for a pro-Western election result in Lebanon, a good showing for similar forces in Iran, and a speech by the Israeli prime minister that followed the word “Palestinian” with the word “state” for the first time in that politician’s life. So, they say, President Obama’s open-armed diplomacy in Cairo made the good guys bold and trusting and made the bad guy (Netanyahu) knuckle under.

I’ve also been thinking about Winston Churchill, since a selection from his speeches throughout his career was one of the books on a shelf in the house in Maine where I was a guest last weekend. Churchill always cared passionately about the poor, although his conservatism limited his imagination in helping them. But in the foreign policy arena, his firmness of purpose saved not only Britain but Europe and perhaps the world from unspeakable tyranny. From 1933 onwards, Churchill stood alone in understanding and declaring again and again what Adolf Hitler was up to.

The response in Parliament ranged from disinterest to contempt. Churchill was a dinosaur, a relic from a militaristic, imperial past, a world of “good” and “evil” gone forever, and he couldn’t grasp how the world had changed. But in 1939 then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a meeting with Hitler waving a piece of paper and crying, “Peace in our time!” Then Hitler began doing what Churchill (and Hitler himself) had said he would do, and the British people turned to Churchill to lead. 

We will never know what would have happened if Obama had been more proud and resolute in Cairo, but we know what is happening now. The pro-Western election in Lebanon is most likely a pendulum swing; it has happened before and will probably happen again. Iran, at this writing, is in what may turn out to be a healthy turmoil, but if it ends in a Tienanmen Square-like—or for that matter Prague-like—crackdown, the result could be another decade or two of mullah oligarchy and a huge nuclear-armed rogue state. In fact, under Obama, a nuclear-armed Iran seems likely either way.

As for Netanyahu, the gesture was important but the politics have not changed much. Bibi, as he’s affectionately (or sometimes not so affectionately) known in Israel is a wily politician who will do whatever he has to to keep his coalition squarely at his right shoulder and Obama off his back. His post-Cairo “concession” speech made it clear that he would accept only a completely de-fanged Palestinian state and one that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state before negotiations begin. This is code for no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to the Jewish side of the border. Meanwhile, of course, “normal” growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank continues.

Meanwhile, too, Obama is being buzzed on his left flank by the ridiculous Jimmy Carter, who has been prancing around Gaza bemoaning the destruction there while cozying up to the very Hamas operatives who systematically brought it down on their own long-suffering people. Carter is no stranger to such kowtowing; he did it in Communist Romania, Poland, and Korea, among other sleazy and brutal dictatorships, pursuing a policy of appeasement during his presidency and undermining American foreign policy ever since, regardless of which party held the White House.

And so it was not of course Jimmy Carter who helped bring the Berlin Wall down and revive the Prague Spring; it was Ronald Reagan, whose friendliness was poured over everything like molasses but whose absolutely implacable resoluteness—and insistence on calling evil evil—carried the day. President Obama needs to decide which of these two predecessors’ books he will keep at his bedside, and from which he will take his leaf. Will he be remembered as a laughable failure and appeaser or a respected if flawed man who helped change history? Carter or Reagan? Chamberlain or Churchill?

We will see, and we will never know for sure what worked and what failed—“the unbearable lightness of being” again, applied on the world stage. But if history is any guide, bowing and scraping to dictators and opening your arms to them will not likely protect you or take you very far.