President Obama is snatching banality from the jaws of the historic.
Nearly seventy-one years after the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Obama is the first sitting president ever to visit either of those two cities. The White House has not announced any plans for the president to make a formal apology for the horrific civilian casualties that ushered in the age of nuclear weapons during the final hours of the Pacific War. But Obama’s presence alone, regardless of what he did or didn’t say, could have been a salve on wounds between allies that have not fully healed even after almost three-quarters of a century of peace and cooperation.
Instead, Obama’s Hiroshima visit is a fishing expedition for a legacy. The president who entered office with a Nobel Peace Prize hung around his neck spent the next eight years mismanaging wars, refusing to lead during crises, apologizing to enemies, alienating allies, and dismantling the most powerful peacemaking machine in existence: the US military. As American leadership underwent Obama’s planned obsolescence and global ne’er-do-wells like Syria and Iran made the most of their newfound freedom, the peace Obama sought through American weakness became the chaos and turmoil of a leaderless world. Faced with the reality of his own malfeasance, Obama’s Hiroshima trip is an attempt to bolster his fading brand with an infusion of borrowed solemnity.
The contrast with Japan’s prime minister could hardly be more striking. When Shinzō Abe gave a speech to a joint session of Congress in April of 2015, it was a deft diplomatic masterstroke. Prime Minister Abe showed great sincerity in acknowledging the human suffering of World War II while expressing gratitude for the decades of partnership, even friendship, that grew out of the dark days of the late summer of 1945. Abe’s Japan faces an uncertain future as Chinese aggression, North Korean belligerence, and South Korean intransigence on wartime grievances for which Japan has apologized and provided compensation many times before all call into question the alliance with the US that has been the bedrock of Japanese foreign policy since the San Francisco Peace Treaty was signed in 1952. Despite this uncertainty, Abe came to America in the spirit of true friendship, appealing to the best of the American character and pointing to two former enemies now personal friends to illustrate with great poignancy his own vision for the future of the American-Japanese alliance.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, is now in the midst of a half-hearted Asian recessional, his grand “pivot” strategy in shambles as China asserts hegemony over more and more of the East and South China Sea. More comfortable with leading from behind than with leading, period, Obama announced in Vietnam the authorization of arms sales to that country for the first time since the fall of Saigon in 1975. The goal was ostensibly to help thwart China’s rise, but the appearance was of a tired superpower washing its hands of direct engagement with a nettlesome and increasingly powerful adversary. The Obama cheerleaders will portray the Vietnam deal as the end of the last vestiges of American imperialism in Southeast Asia, and Obama will lap up the praise.
The New York Times, for example, lauded Obama for his commitment to combatting nuclear proliferation, oblivious to the fact that Obama’s most lasting legacy will perhaps be that he virtually guaranteed that Iran—the one country that has promised to carry out genocide as soon as it has the means to do so—will soon have the bomb. As with Hiroshima, Obama merely found the cheap way to associate his own name with the hard victory won by others’ sacrifices. The Vietnam announcement costs him nothing, but will brighten his prospects for the next news cycle or two—the Obama presidency in a nutshell, come to think of it. Turning real history into footnotes for policy in the service of “optics” is the new politics that has spooked those in the world who must deal with the realities of our culture of celebrity worship.
In Hiroshima, too, Obama stood among the ruins and read prepared speeches, drawing on the gravitas of the scene the way a thespian uses backdrops to help create the mood for his soliloquy. But whereas the Vietnam negotiations were a throwaway trick, the Japan performance will have much more dire consequences. Even if, as appears likely, Obama does not apologize for the atomic strikes, his visit will become known as the Hiroshima apology, and many in the region will interpret it as such. Some Japanese, most likely those on the left who, like Obama, want nothing more than to see their own country kept in a state of military impotence, may perhaps construe Obama’s Hiroshima posturing as an apology. Those who lost loved ones in the blasts are unlikely to be hoodwinked by Obama’s political theater. But the South Koreans, the North Koreans, and the Chinese will see a president who regrets involvement in Asia, and is signaling, not remorse for lives lost, but relief at not having to face hard choices again.
Obama’s Hiroshima visit could have been like Abe’s Congressional address—sincere, dignified, and in keeping with the historical weight of the moment. Instead, it will be the whimper that ends the bang, and our allies in the region—Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and, most important, Japan—will be in much greater danger because of it.